Do you cook regularly for someone who bristles at Brussels sprouts or shudders at spinach? If so, you know how frustrating it can be to get well-rounded meals onto the table. Taking advantage of seasonal or local produce offerings is even harder. It can be enough to cause even the most patient meal planner to want to throw in the towel. But, like I wrote last year when I covered how to handle veggie-shunning kids, you don’t need to resign yourself to never-ending sides of potatoes or corn.
Most adults don’t eat enough vegetables.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, although adults in general do a bit better than children in terms of eating more vegetables, most adults over age 18 don’t even come close to meeting total vegetable intake recommendations. The exception is women aged 51-70, who fall just below the recommended level. In terms of the vegetable subgroups, there are a few demographic groups where average consumption is near or at recommended levels.
Both men and women aged 51-70 and women 71+ meet the requirements for “other” vegetables—things like iceberg lettuce, celery, cauliflower, mushrooms, and snow peas. Older men aged 71+ are just about there as well. And women 51-70 also are just about at recommended levels for dark green vegetables. Still, the vast majority of American adults simply don’t eat enough vegetables. As for variety, the clear favorite veggies are potatoes and tomatoes, making up 21% and 18% of total vegetable consumption.
How much do we need?
The Dietary Guidelines provide serving information in terms of “cup equivalents.” A “cup equivalent” identifies the amounts of foods with roughly equivalent nutrient content within each food group. In the veggie group, ½ cup of green beans is ½ cup equivalent. Raw spinach, however, takes 1 full cup of spinach leaves to equal ½ cup equivalent. To further complicate the equation, cup equivalents don’t always align with common portion sizes.
So how many cup-equivalents should adults be aiming for? Well, depending on gender and age, between 2-4 “cup equivalents” per day of total vegetables is recommended. This would include veggies from the red/orange group, dark green group, starchy veggies, beans/peas group and the “other” group. Here’s some more guidance on how much of a particular vegetable “counts” as a serving.
Veggies are good for us.
I think it’s fair to say that most adults recognize that vegetables are an essential part of a healthy diet. Indeed, the Dietary Guidelines make increasing vegetable consumption a key recommendation for all. A higher intakes of veggies (and fruits) is “consistently shown as characteristic of healthy eating patterns.” Nutritionally, vegetables are packed with a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, fiber, and beneficial plant compounds.
For adults, these nutrients help maintain organ function, cellular repair and replacement, and contribute to the efficient funning of our body systems. Beyond that, though, eating plenty of veggies has the potential to confer longer-term benefits. They protect us against chronic diseases and conditions such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancers, for example.
Build in variety.
Eating just one or two vegetables severely limits one’s ability to get the broad range of nutrients that vegetables offer. How can you encourage someone to mix it up in the veggie department? It can take some ingenuity! But one thing’s for certain: cajoling others about food rarely even works on kids and most adults won’t stand for it. Consider these ideas instead:
Don’t fuss about frozen vs. fresh vs. canned.
Vegetables in all forms can be nutritious. Fresh, frozen or canned versions all have their strong points. Comparing products using Guiding Stars makes it easy to see which veggies, in which forms, offer the most nutritional value. Choose those 3-star veggies most often. If fresh green beans are “forbidden,” maybe frozen, “French-style” beans would be ok? The point is, getting any vegetable in is better than no vegetables at all. The battle of form isn’t worth fighting.
Present the veggies in a new way.
Steamed cauliflower is a no-go? Maybe “riced” cauliflower would be acceptable when mixed with regular rice in a casserole. Here are a few ideas along this line:
- Roasted cauliflower or broccoli offers crispy texture and a sweeter flavor than steamed
- Baked sweet potato “fries” vs a plain sweet potato
- Pureed sweet potato layered with regular mashed potatoes in a warm and cozy baked side dish
- Beet “chips” instead of boiled or pickled beets
- “Tots” made from veggies like cauliflower, broccoli, or sweet potatoes—either store-bought or made at home for a welcome change of pace
- Dips made with some pureed vegetables such as different types of beans or root vegetables like carrots or beets
- Make homemade veggie burgers; beans, mushrooms, grains, and seasonings are common and tasty ingredients
Stealthy can be healthy.
I’m not a big advocate for “hiding” vegetables in other foods when cooking for kids. We want kids to know what they are eating and slowly develop a liking for those veggies. When it comes to adults, they aren’t easily fooled anyhow, so I prefer to think of the addition of more vegetables to favorite foods as an “enhancement” (wink). What I mean is, when someone has a favorite dish, I think it’s the cook’s prerogative to sometimes tweak it a bit. Maybe use up some leftover veggies, maybe something was on special sale, or maybe creativity is the spice of culinary life. You choose the reason. In any case, here are a couple of tips to boost the veggie content of common favorites…
Soup it up.
It’s pretty easy to increase or vary the veggies in some soups and stews because of their general acceptance or because the flavors are strong enough to “cover” any additions.
- Try mixing up the veggies in a pureed soup (winter squashes, mushrooms, peas, and carrots are great choices)
- Adding a little cabbage to your standard chicken soup is often not a hard sell because it is mild in flavor. You can even purchase finely shredded coleslaw mix for this application to make your life a little easier. This also works for other soups, of course, and can work with other veggies such as the “spiralized” zucchini in the produce department.
- Slowly start working in small amounts of different vegetables into a favorite chili or beef stew. Don’t overwhelm the beloved recipe with new stuff. Start with just a little bit and work up from there.
Casseroles are your friend.
At least, if your veggie-shy eater likes them. There are lots of ways to use small amounts of vegetables in a casserole. Shredding them, mashing them, and finely chopping them are probably going to be necessary. Some adjustment in cooking time may also be required, as certain vegetables add quite a bit of liquid to the recipes. You can also squeeze out the veggie or decrease the overall liquid in the recipe to compensate.
Bulking up meals with more vegetables is something that most of us could benefit from, and a laudable goal for the cook. With some creativity and patience, you’ll probably find that over time, even the most anti-veggie eater can and will learn to embrace more vegetable options.