Few of us eat the 2 1/2 cups of vegetables per day recommended as part of the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Why are vegetables vital?
They're good sources of fiber. Fiber makes you feel full and can help control calorie consumption. Vegetables also promote regularity and may play a role in preventing heart disease.
They provide vitamins and minerals. This is especially true for the darker-colored, stronger-flavored vegetables.
They don't provide fat. With the exception of an avocado, the fat in vegetable dishes comes with the preparation.
The scoop on amounts
If 2 cups of fruit and 2 1/2 cups of vegetables per day sounds like a lot, a 1-cup serving of lettuce amounts to only four leaves. A cup of vegetables is about the size of the average adult fist. You can even drink your vegetables and fruits as juices. Incorporating vegetables whenever you can makes it pretty easy to get up to 2 1/2 cups each day.
You may even be surprised to learn that some of your favorite foods are vegetables. That's because the USDA looked at the nutrients in the things we eat and figured out what we need for a healthy diet:
Biologically, a tomato is a fruit, but it counts as 1 vegetable serving, because that's the way we eat it, the USDA says.
Lentils and dried beans fall in the meat and poultry category because they're regarded as protein. (Green string beans, however, are vegetables.)
A potato is a vegetable.
If you want to veg out, here are some suggestions:
Think creatively. Go beyond lettuce, tomato, and onion in a sandwich; try adding pepper strips, cucumbers, or carrot curls. With pasta dishes, add squash to the red sauce. Add peas to your stew. Each time you change vegetables, you change taste as well as nutrition.
Go for variety. That ensures you get all the vitamins and minerals and it also heads off boredom. If you do get stuck on one vegetable, carrots are a good choice. So are all dark green vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and asparagus.
Choose vegetables first. Then add meat and grains. Have carrots with a sandwich instead of chips.
Don't fixate on freshness. Fresh, frozen, or canned? It doesn't matter. The biggest issue in canned foods is added salt. Frozen vegetables can be as nutritious as fresh.
Use it, don't lose it. If you cook vegetables in water, the water-soluble vitamins go into the water. Save the water and use it as a broth. Bake, steam, or roast vegetables to retain all the good stuff.
Eat the whole thing. Buy vegetables with as much of the plant intact as possible. Cooking beets with their greens will give you vitamins and minerals from the stems. Keep the skin on potatoes, but make sure they're scrubbed well.
Cream of broccoli soup
Instead of hot chocolate, chase a winter chill with a steaming cup of cream of broccoli soup:
1 cup powdered nonfat milk
2 tablespoons cornstarch
4 cups cold water
2 tablespoons chicken bouillon powder
1 to 2 teaspoons dried basil
1 onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
3 cups chopped fresh broccoli, or one 10-ounce package frozen chopped broccoli
Dissolve powdered milk and cornstarch in cold water. Add bouillon powder, basil, onion and broccoli. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until broccoli and onion are soft, about 5 to 7 minutes.
Makes approximately six 1-cup servings. Each serving contains approximately 79 calories, 7 grams protein, less than 1 gram fat, and 7 grams carbohydrate.
Variation: Chop leftover baked potato into soup. Garnish with a light sprinkling of shredded cheddar cheese.
Parsnip or potato puree
For a side dish that's a smash, boil parsnips (they look like big, pale carrots) and onions with potatoes, then mash.
2 parsnips, washed, peeled, and cut into cubes
2 all-purpose potatoes, washed, peeled, and cut into cubes
1 onion, coarsely chopped water to cover (and reserve for mashing)
1 teaspoon powdered chicken bouillon
Put vegetables into pot and add water to cover. Bring to boil and let boil approximately 10 minutes or until potatoes and parsnips are soft. Pour off water but reserve vegetables for mashing. Add powdered chicken bouillon to 1/2 cup reserved cooking water. Mash with electric beaters.
Makes approximately eight 1/2-cup servings. Each serving contains approximately 53 calories, 1 gram protein, less than 1 gram fat, and 12 grams carbohydrates.
Roasted carrot sticks
For a finger food alternative to French fries and a warm alternative to carrot sticks, stick 'em in the oven.
4 large carrots, peeled, and cut into french-fry-sized strips cooking oil spray
Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare carrots. Put cooking oil spray on a cookie sheet. Put cookie sheet in oven for two minutes. Spread carrot sticks on sheet. Roast for 10 minutes, turning once about halfway through. Serve hot or cool.
Makes four servings. Each serving contains approximately 30 calories, 1 gram protein, less than 1 gram fat, and 7 grams carbohydrate.
Variation: Want something on your carrots? Mix a little mustard in soy sauce and you have a fat-free dip.