"Veggie-haters" and "picky eaters" -- two terms parents use to describe kids who just won't eat their greens. And it's not just kids: The anti-veggie attitude works its way up the age chain. Many of us are just as guilty about missing out on our daily veggies; some of us turn up our noses at them, while others just forget about them entirely.
According to the USDA's MyPlate -- their new take on the old food pyramid -- ladies want to shoot for getting at least two and a half cups of veggies per day, while most men want to aim for three. The reality? "Americans usually only get about one and a half cups," says Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson and author of Nutrition & You. More to the point, many of us primarily get our veggies in the form of fried potatoes. Yes, potatoes are vegetables, but limiting our veggie consumption to starchy fried potatoes means we're missing out on lots of nutrients and not taking advantage of the low-calorie, super-filling powers of non-starchy veggies (mushrooms, peppers, carrots and more). Although three cups of veggies may sound like a lot, "there aren't many calories in them, so they go a long way," says Jenny Champion, MS, RD, CPT and certified diabetes educator in New York City.
Let's be real: While there are some diet and fitness dos that feel like torture (we're talking to you, hot yoga), veggies shouldn't be one of them. Maybe giant heaps of Brussels sprouts aren't your thing. Fair enough. But, if prepared properly, roasted peppers, seasoned green beans, beet salad and countless other veggies can be absolutely delicious -- seriously. So what's the issue? Why are we so delinquent when it comes to getting our daily dose?
Many variables come into play -- including preparation time, cost and access -- but for many, it's simply a matter of not realizing that we're missing out. Recent studies show that over half of us consider eating out a special occasion, which may lead us to neglect the veggies we know we need daily. How many times has that voice in your head said, "I'll eat healthier tomorrow, I promise!" And then… you don't. Even if you're a homebody, lack of time -- or just pure exhaustion -- can mean grabbing whatever's easiest and nearest (like that package of crackers and peanut butter). Sometimes, after a long day, slicing and dicing peppers is just not on the agenda.
If you're looking for simple ways to get more veggies, here's where to begin:
Good: Double Up
Like veggies, but don't get enough? A simple method for adding more of them to your diet is to double them up. Aim for eating two cups of veggies per day, and work your way up to two-and-a-half or three cups. What does this mean? If you're making half a cup of string beans on the stovetop or in the microwave, throw in another half cup; similarly, chop an extra portion of carrot sticks or celery. Hey, you're already taking the time to cook or prepare food, so really, what's 30 seconds more?
Plan to eat this second serving at some point later in the day (or immediately, if you're famished). If you just… can't… eat… another… carrot, throw the leftovers in an airtight plastic container, and you'll have an already-prepared meal for later in the day or week. Now you'll have veggies on hand to add to your omelets, sandwiches and sauces, says New York City nutritionist Keri Gans, RDN, author of The Small Change Diet. Champion recommends tracking your veggie consumption using a food diary or mobile calorie-counting app.
Better: Be Sneaky
Once you're in the habit of doubling the number of veggies you prepare, it's time to get creative -- especially if you're sick of eating broccoli straight up. It's easy to sneak veggies into virtually everything you prepare. (Smoothie, anyone?) So: Next time you're preparing a sauce, consider what veggies might fit in well. For spaghetti sauce, Blake recommends chopping carrots and letting them simmer in the sauce. "The carrots become tender, and they actually take on a bulky, meaty texture, which is delicious," she says. If you make sauces from scratch as often as you sing karaoke (i.e., very rarely -- and only when you're forced to), feel free to increase the veggie content of canned soup and sauces by adding in one-half to one cup of frozen veggies, suggests Blake. "Veggies also reduce the broth and the amount of sodium," she says. Stay seasonal with your soups and sauces by adding heartier veggies during fall and winter, and trying out tomato-based cold soup -- gazpacho -- during the warmer months.
Best: Start With Salad
Even if you feel like diving into that sushi boat or devouring that slice stat, press the pause button and "start every dinner with a salad," suggests Gans. Why? Because it will mean putting veggies front-and-center at mealtimes. This won't be just a win when it comes to getting your daily vegetable servings, but will also help with weight loss and weight maintenance.
Of course, the caveat here is to be mindful of what's in that salad. Opt primarily for non-starchy veggies, eating starchy and/or high-sugar ones (corn, peas, potatoes, carrots, beets) in moderation. Remember, this salad is just a starter to your meal; don't pack it with protein-filled foods unless you're planning to make it your main course. "Make sure it's not drowned in creamy salad dressing or croutons," says Gans. "Since this kind of defeats the purpose of starting with a salad!"