If there’s one thing I think we should all be doing, it’s eating more… more fruits and vegetables, that is. Produce should be the cornerstone of our diets, and the vast majority of our food should be whole fruits and veggies in as close to their natural states as possible. I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t think that veggies and fruits are healthy, or who thinks that we shouldn’t be eating them. But often we load up on processed carbs, sugar, and meat instead of nutritious and satisfying veg.
Why do we do this? Well, it’s my personal belief that we have evolved to prefer higher energy (read: calorie dense and sugary) foods because our ancestors needed to load up on those foods when they were available, to sustain them during famine times. Of course, most of us don’t experience famine anymore. Still, many of us are socially conditioned to crave things like bread, steak, cupcakes and pasta with meat sauce… because that’s what we grew up eating. The good news is, we can retrain our bodies to crave nutrient-dense (not calorie-dense) foods like fresh veg and fruit. And the even better news is that nutrient-dense foods are often lighter, low-calorie options… so we can eat MORE of them in one sitting. More crunchy raw veggies, more fresh greens, more fruits? Awwwww, yeah.
Still, for many, it’s hard to get their full daily allotment of veggies. Maybe people don’t think about veggies, or they don’t believe they like them, or they think produce is too expensive… but for whatever reason, many of us aren’t eating enough fruits and veggies. We’re filling up on meat and processed garbage instead of the foods Mama Earth always intended for us. If this is you, and you know you need to get more veg into your diet, here are some tips and tricks:
- Drink your veg. Fresh vegetable juices made in a juicer or high-speed blender (like a VitaMix) are full of nutrients – and fiber too, if you use a blender instead of a juicer. I’d advocate using both and alternating, because sometimes your body needs a little break from fiber, even though it’s usually great. And don’t overlook the justiably popular smoothie option! I love to make myself a protein smoothie for breakfast and include a couple of handfuls of spinach. I know, it sounds scary – but the spinach doesn’t alter the taste of the smoothie one bit (it’s far too mild in flavor) – so trust me, it tastes good and knocks off a couple of servings of veg right there. A great resource for green smoothie recipes is The Green Monster Movement.
- Salad it up! Pack yourself a gigantic salad for lunch. Throw together a few cups of a nutrient-dense green (like spinach, massaged kale, or baby romaine) with chopped raw veggies from your crisper drawer – mine is overflowing at the moment, so a salad may be on the menu for lunch! – and top with beans, smoked tofu, seeds, or even your leftover dinner (have you ever tried veggie chili over greens?). You’ll get several servings of vegetables in and if you include some protein and healthy fats, it will keep you going all afternoon.
- Load up your sandwiches. If you’re not feeling a salad for lunch and you really want a sandwich, you can still pile the veg on. Load your sandwich up with greens (like romaine hearts, my fav!), sprouts (unless my hubby eats them all), tomato slices, crunchy cukes… the possibilities are endless. And that turkey and cheese sandwich will pack a healthy load of fiber and nutrients that you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten.
- Get fruity. Maybe it’s the kid in me, but one thing I absolutely cannot resist is fruit salad. Seriously, I love that stuff like I love my pillow. Now that I’m a grown-up, I control the grocery list and as a result, I have fruit salad several times a week. Mind you, I’m not talking about the sugary, syrupy stuff from the can. I’m talking about fresh mango, melon, berries, and citrus that you buy whole at the grocery store and chop up yourself. Yes, it’s a little more work, but it’s so worth it. Many mornings, if I’m not having a protein smoothie (see above), I’ll start my day with a simple fruit salad of sliced banana, orange, and whatever other fruit I have in the house (usually strawberries, mango or grapes). I pack it up and eat it at my desk at work – it’s a great way to show myself a little self-love at the start of a long day. And even though I know I’m knocking off a good chunk of my fruit requirements for the day, I feel like I’m getting a treat. Win-win. Win.
- Doctor up your soups. While I think homemade soup is da bomb diggity (’90s flashback, holla!), sometimes you just don’t have time for that. But it doesn’t mean you can’t make canned soup healthier. In a pinch, I love Amy’s lentil soup, which I bulk up by sauteeing onion, carrots and celery, and sometimes corn, in the pan before I add the soup. And if you do have some extra time, a big pot of veggie stock or soup, minestrone, or Tuscan ribollita is a great way to use up veggies that might otherwise go sad and limp in your fridge.
- Vegify your pasta night. Spaghetti with marinara sauce – cheap and easy dinner, right? Well, here’s a way to dial it up: grate up a bunch of veg (like carrots and zucchini) and add them right into your sauce. They’ll cook through and you’ll have a tasty, nutrient rich, fiberrific dinner. Or whip up a batch of Roasted Vegetable Pasta Sauce – you’ll use up your veggie stash and have an intensely flavorful meal.
- Freeze your assets. If cash is your concern, you can still get your veg allotment in the form of frozen veg. Those bags in the freezer aisle are often cheaper than the produce section, and here’s a little secret – most of the time, they’re fresher, too! Instead of making the long trip on trucks and languishing in piles in the produce section, these veg are frozen right at their peak of ripeness and flavor. They can be more convenient, too – why waste your time shelling peas when you can buy those tasty nuggets right out of the freezer case? So if time or cost is your concern, head straight for the freezer section and load up there. You’ll have reserves for sauces, soups, and stir-fries, all on a (yummy) budget.
- Invest. Time, that is. Here’s an example: I love to crunch on things. I know that when I am overwhelmed, I am going to want to chomp down on something crisp. I could eat pretzels and chips… or I could eat cucumber rounds, sliced green peppers (my absolute favorite!) and carrot sticks. But let’s face it – crunchy veg are not convenient. They require time to cut them up and wash the knife and cutting board. Still, I promise, if you put that time in up front (say, after you get home from your weekly grocery run), you will reap the benefits in the form of a big Pyrex container full of crunchy chopped fresh veg. Maybe I’m seven years old, but snacking on veggies is infinitely more appealing when they are cut up for me and kept in a pretty glass container in my fridge. And yes, they lose some nutrients from being cut up and stored in the fridge, but better to eat fresh veggies with slightly fewer nutrients than to eat potato chips (which are not veggies, and I don’t care what your little brother says).
- Get inspired. Grow a garden. Visit the farmers market and ogle the piles of leeks. Pour over cookbooks and foodie blogs. Watch Giada eat a gorgeous salad on Food Network. Keep putting yourself in the position where you enjoy veggies, and I promise you will start to crave them.
Nota Baker: I’m not a nutritionist or dietician. I’m just a regular girl who loves veggies. Please don’t take my words as Gospel truth. Talk to your doctor!
Have you gone from veg-hater to can’t-get-enough-green? Share your tips and tricks for veg loading your diet!