In Defense of Veggies

The quick answer:  The key to good health is to learn to like the food group Americans most hate—veggies.


A Rose By Any Other Name . . .

That famous line by Shakespeare ends “would smell as sweet.”  Maybe so.  But the English word for the edible plants so necessary to good health—vegetables—has a problem.  Americans don’t exactly have a love affair with vegetables.  The nutritionist David Ludwig commented on our conflicted feelings: “In my experience, hating vegetables is essentially an American trait.  I never saw anything close to it during my travels through Asia, Europe, and South America.” 

If we do eat veggies, we prefer them processed into unhealthiness.  Take French fries, our most popular vegetable.  Cooked in trans fat-laden, toxically oxidized vegetable oils, fries account for an astonishing 46% of our vegetable intake.  The onion ring is another perfectly healthy vegetable gone wrong.  To further improve their edibility, fries and onion rings are doused with sugary ketchup and salt.

In Defense of Veggies

One of the most remarkable surprises in nutrition studies in the last few years was the discovery of the remarkable dietary qualities possessed by the edible leaves of plants.  Among vegetable foods, only the leaf is rich in calcium, and is also rich in vitamins A, B and C, as well as fiber.

Recent news?  No, this is from a 1925 book, Food, Nutrition and Health!  So three generations have passed and little has changed—except more discoveries about the merits of vegetables, like their rich supply of the antioxidants that slow down aging.  Vegetables are the opposite of today’s highly processed foods—veggies are rich in nutrients, sparse in calories, and healthy. 

Vegetables come in colors and three colors are of special value.  They also come in botanical families; two are extra healthy—cruciferous and allium:

  • Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, broccoli, etc.) contain vitamins A, C, K, and folate.  Greens also contain minerals like magnesium, potassium, calcium, and iron, as well as lutein and fiber. 
  • Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and kale) are potent cancer fighters, some studies suggest.
  • Orange vegetables (sweet potato, carrots, banana squash, pumpkin, etc.) are rich in carotenoids. 
  • Red vegetables (beets, red cabbage, red pepper, and tomato—borrowed from the fruit family) contain beneficial lycopenes, and anthrocyanins.
  • Allium (garlic, onions, leeks, chives and shallots) family by tradition is prized for healthiness.  Alliums are high in flavonoids, polyphenolic compounds that stimulate the production of potent antioxidants.  Alliums help produce the “natural killer” cells that fight infection and cancer too.

You Do The Math

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans—our official healthy diet guide—recommends we eat five vegetable servings daily.  For food groups without powerful lobbies—vegetables are the best example—I trust the Dietary Guideline of five servings.   (For food groups with well-funded lobbies, like dairy, or edible oils, I take the guidance with a grain of salt.)  A serving is the amount that will fit in the palm of your hand—about 2-4 ounces, depending on hand size and food density.  Doing the math, five veggie servings a day with allowance for waste is:

  • Two adults—about 15 lbs. per week.
  • Mom, dad, and three grammar school kids—20-25 lbs.
  • Family of six, ranging from toddler to high school—30-40 lbs.

Getting five daily servings is the core challenge of healthy eating.  It works best for us if we get a serving or two at lunch, another in our afternoon snack (usually raw), plus two or three at dinner (salad plus a side vegetable). 

Looking Better

There’s an additional benefit to eating yellow, orange and red vegetables.  Scientists in Great Britain found a salutary improvement on skin color among people who ate the orange and red vegetables.  They had better skin color, looked healthier, and were judged even more attractive than those whose skin color came from suntan induced melanin.  Drop those French fries and grab a sweet potato, or some carrots, to get that healthy glow.

Healthy Change

One reminder:  You can’t eat veggies if they’re not in the house so healthy eating starts with the weekly menu and shopping list.

Please comment on your favorite vegetable ideas, or share your veggie recipes.  The key test of mom’s leadership is enticing children to enjoy vegetables.  How do you do it?

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (14)

My go to way of cooking just about any vegetable (especially when I'm not familar with some new addition in my CSA basket) is olive oil + salt + pepper and roast at 425 for a bit. My kids are much more likely to eat them in roasted form. I can get an obscene amount of raw vegs in my kids if I'm willing to make some ranch dressing. I hope to wean them from the dressing dependency at some point, but they're still young (1,3,6) and ate turnips and rutabagas last night for dinner, so I'll call it a victory.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea J

For leafy greens, I do green smoothies. The kids beg for them! We do 50% greens, banana, strawberries, and pineapple with some water to help it blend if I use frozen fruit. I've tried to serve them salad, but they just won't eat it. A great resource for vegetable recipes is Smitten Kitchen. I love her broccoli slaw recipe (http://smittenkitchen.com/2009/05/broccoli-slaw/).

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Well, the first two things I was going to say were green smoothies and roasted veggies, which have already been covered above :) Also, I do what my mom did which was always serve veggies as an expected part of lunch and dinner. When the kids refuse to eat the vegetable served to them I ask them what other vegetable they will eat in its place and I try to always have quick raw veggies on hand that they can choose from: carrots, celery, cucumber, avocado, green beans, sugar snap peas, grape tomatoes. I tell them the vegetables are the most important part of the meal so they can't skip that part. They are continuing to be more and more willing to eat veggies as they get older, but I think giving them some say in what kind helps them be more willing. I personally love veggies and have no problem including them in my diet. My vice is getting rid of the sugar habit....

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSabrina

Consistency in offering, example in eating (mine and my husband's), allowing them choice, and teaching them what the different veggies do for our bodies (ie: calcium from broccoli helps us have strong bones, the vitamins in carrots help us fight sick germs andhave healthy eyes and skin) all help. But we are always a work in progress:)

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNicci

Great post! It's taken me years to learn to love vegetables, and I'm trying to instill that love into my children at an early age! Sometimes, at the end of the day (especially if it's been a good day, eating-wise) I like to add up the number of different fruits and vegetables we've eaten throughout the day. It's a good pat myself on the back moment (although I'm sure we could do better!)

Oh--and I second (or third!) the vote for smoothies. They may not be traditional foods, but they've sure increased our consumption of raw fruits and vegetables!

Thanks for a great post, Skip! I especially love the bit about the 'healthy glow.' ;-)

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

Stephanie said just what I was thinking.
I would just add one thing that has worked in getting my family to eat veggies is to serve them as the first course of the meal. That way we can "fill up" on the good stuff before moving on to the main dish. I like to call it The French way but it is also the custom in Latin America and Spain.
I wouldn't say my kids like all the vegetables, we''ve tried --they plugged their noses to get down the sautéed spinach but whatever, they eat them. They have to. ll keep trying to prepare them as deliciously as possible and eventually I hope they will learn to enjoy them as much as I now do.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLc

Both my children (7 and 11) eat at least 5 a day and ask for extra veggies now. Here are a few of the tricks I found helped.

I remember the '20 times' rule ie. that kids will usually spit something out 20 times before they like a new taste or texture and I keep on trying. I've got there with almost everything now except courgettes and aubergine. Courgettes I grate and put into sponge cake (same as carrot cake but a cooler colour) but I have yet to find a trick with Aubergine (egg plant).

Salad leaves are very appealing if you use them as 'wraps' around tiny meatballs or fried fish - you get to play with your food and eat it too. Cool for kids.

And with my son, who was always pretty scientific, I made veggie eating into an experiment - cutting up carrots, cucumbers, peppers, cauliflower etc. then setting them up on separate plates with different dips and dressings. He got a score card to fill in for taste, texture, etc and which dips tasted best with each vegetable. Without knowing it he'd eaten his 5 a day in one sitting.

I made a secret sauce which added grated carrot, chopped green beans, celery to a simple tomato sauce and blended it before cooking it with ground beef for spaghetti bolognaise - they ate tons of veggies without even knowing they were there.

I'm British so maybe the American's hate veggies thing is culturally different although I see plenty of people in the supermarkets here with trolleys containing no veggies save for french fries so I think it's a problem here too.

And finally - get some good cook books. We love Hugh Fearnley Whittingstalls 'Veg Every Day' which was written by a meat-lover who decided to see if he could go all summer without meat. His recipes are a revelation even to a veg lover like myself. Not just for vegetarians.

Thanks for another great post Skip.

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLucy

My boyfriend loves to cook (how refreshing for me!) but I've noticed his meals tend to be meat-centric while I barely keep any meat in my house. I am not vegetarian-- just meat-light-- and he likes vegetables too... He just doesn't often think to make them himself. I have tried to find a happy compromise by offering to bring a side dish whenever he makes dinner. Just this past week I have made sauteed broccolini, mashed sweet potatoes, haricots verts, a mixed greens/apple/walnut/goat cheese salad, and roasted beets with their greens. We're not quite at the 5-serving level yet, but I am sure my efforts are better than nothing!

My personal New Year's Resolution was to eat something green every day. And green gummy bears don't count!

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKelsi

Kelsi, are you sure green gummy bears don't count? there goes my plan... :)

When I was a new mom with a couple toddlers, they would eat hardly anything. Unbelievably frustrating, and I had NO idea what to do. Finally I decided to just start very, very, very small. They were absolutely terrified of vegetables (hysteria!), but they would take one tiny nibble if I gave them a tiny treat (choc chip, raisin, etc.) in return. The next day I required two nibbles, the next day three, etc. Pretty soon they were confident enough to eat an entire veggie for only one tiny bribe. After about a month, I threw out the bribe and off we went. Now that they're older, they eat everything they're given...and I have two more toddlers to train! But my current toddlers are so much easier, because I'm much smarter about it now. :)

Here's some advice:

Most kids don't need snacks, and if they do, make it a sliced fruit or veggie.

Serve the salad/veggies first while you wait for dinner to bake/cool down...kids eat better if they're very hungry.

Chop veggies VERY small, and offer a dip.

This should go without saying, but don't give sippy cups of milk between meals!..or even during! Save it for after, and serve water with the food.

Thanks for this post, Skip...I've been slacking in the vegetable department, and this has started me thinking again. :)

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Since I've been reading this blog when it started last year, we have upped our vegetable intake enormously. My kids weren't really eating vegetables and turned their noses up at almost everything. Now my four-year-old loves salad and will at least try everything I offer him. We're still a work in progress, but I've learned that if I offer them vegetables and less meat for meals they expect it they're hungry enough to learn to like them. I give them less snacks and offer the vegetables first. Usually I use a lot of veggies in soups and mixed dishes, which makes them hard to push to the side and easier to chew and swallow.

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMcKenzie

For us, we were frequent diners at a nearby Salad Bar before and after our kids were born, so our kids seeing a varied array of fresh veggies was second nature. Over time we became friends with the staff and management; the whole experience of eatting heathy and spending time with our extended family made meals less of a battle. I still have a teen who won't touch most things "green" but he still has to give everything a "no thank you bite."

But I guarantee if you put bacon and/or ranch dressing on it he'd eat a truck tire.

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLizA

Last year when I first took a good hard look at this challenge I discovered that it was actually simpler than I thought to add vegetables. Salad instead of chips. Carrots instead of rice. Shredded cabbage instead of noodles. In casseroles I'd add 3-5 different veggies instead of just a can of peas or something. I also learned that beans can replace meat in a lot of things. Trade chicken for white beans in 'chicken' noodle soup. Replace ground beef with black beans and mushrooms in shepherd's pie.

The key is to have a great challenge like this and really work towards it and you'll find ways to be creative about eating more vegetables. And you really do develop a taste for them when you eat more of them!

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRill

Nicci said it. I felt it was best to expose the kids to veggies so they grew up with them and were used to seeing them. I also felt it best to be a good example. If they saw us parents eating them, they would be more apt to eat them as well. I have two children who leaned toward choosing healthy snacks more often than not, and two who struggled with it. But on the most part we've learned and developed better habits together.

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

Lucy, Aubergine is a great filler in bolognaise. Also, have you tried making Baba ghanoush? It's great for dipping bread sticks!

May 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMims

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