As obesity rates climb in the U.S. and the rate of debilitating chronic diseases climbs right along with it, the message to improve our diets by eating fewer processed foods and more fruits and vegetables is hard to escape. You’d have to be living under a rock to have missed the word that fruits and vegetables are low in calories, high in fiber and nutrients and much healthier for us than fatty, sugary, salty processed foods. But if you’re not a natural veggie lover, how do you get more fruits and vegetables in your diet? Try these seven easy tips:
- Plan your meals. Planning meals ahead of time is a great time and energy saver. Instead of coming home from work exhausted and having to conjure dinner from whatever you find in the refrigerator and pantry, what if you came home, knew what was on the menu and knew you had all the ingredients you needed on hand? That’s the power of planning. A small time investment once a week pays off every day as you put your cooking on autopilot. A menu that you’ve planned in advance can always include plenty of fresh, healthy ingredients like salads, veggie sides and fruit desserts and snacks.
- Add fruits and veggies to your grocery list. It’s not enough just to think about eating more fruits and veggies; you have to actually buy them and have them in the house. Even if you don’t plan your menus ahead, be sure your shopping cart includes at least 50-75% vegetables or fruits. If you get them into the house in the first place, you’re much more likely to eat them.
- Choose canned or frozen if you can’t get fresh. A backyard garden or a nearby farmer’s market is a luxury for many people. And supermarkets in some areas of the country have sadly inadequate selections of fresh produce. Eating fresh produce in season is always desirable, but if you can’t get fresh, choose frozen or canned produce for just as much health benefit. Although they lose some of their luscious flavor and texture in processing, frozen and canned vegetables are generally as healthful as fresh. Just watch out for added sodium, preservatives and unhealthy sauces.
- Make them easy to eat. Which will you grab first, the carrots that need to be washed, peeled and quartered or the bag of chips that’s ready to toss into your mouth? Our busy lives demand quick, convenient food, so if you want to get more veggies and fruits in your diet, make them easy to eat. Buy pre-peeled carrots, pre-washed salads, and pre-chopped fruits. And if you can’t afford the extra expense, be prepared to spend a little extra time when you first bring home the groceries. Instead of putting away the whole head of lettuce, go ahead and rinse it and separate the leaves for easy serving before you store it in the refrigerator. Cut up and portion out fresh melons, cut your broccoli into florets and wash your grapes before you put them away. If they’re ready to eat the next time you open the refrigerator, you’re more likely to choose healthy foods.
- Eliminate the competition. Cookies or carrots? Cherry pie or cherry tomatoes? You can learn to love healthy fruits and veggies as snacks, but it helps to keep unhealthy competitors out of your house. We’re all tempted by unhealthy options. Heck, they’re designed to appeal to our taste buds and our emotions. So give your willpower a break by keeping tempting, unhealthy options out of your house altogether. If you exercise your willpower once at the grocery store, it won't have to work so hard the rest of the week.
- Get sneaky. If the thought of digging in to a pile of steamed zucchini makes you gag and shudder, you may need to engage in undercover tactics. You can sneak shredded or finely diced vegetables into lots of dishes without anyone knowing it; in fact, they often add a depth of flavor that even dedicated veggie-haters love. Ground beef or turkey can take on onions, celery, shredded zucchini or yellow squash, diced mushrooms or peppers whether you’re making meatloaf, meatballs, burgers or meat sauce. Soups, stews, chilis and sauces also benefit from added vegetables. Shred them, dice them small or puree them to sneak them past your veggie haters.
- Experiment with different preparations. Sometimes taste is just a personal issue, but sometimes it’s all in the preparation. Like many people, I always hated the peppery taste and mushy texture of steamed cauliflower. And don’t get me started on the bitter, sulfuric taste and slimy texture of boiled Brussels sprouts. But then I discovered oven roasting! A drizzle of olive oil, a smidge of garlic and some high, dry heat turns these former vegetable stinkers into shining stars. Especially when the health benefits are so great, it’s worth experimenting with recipes and preparation techniques until you find a way to love your veggies.
Our taste buds really can be retrained to love the flavors of vegetables and fruits, even after years of sugary soft drinks and processed pseudo-foods. Try out these techniques, and remember that you don’t have to give up all the foods you love. Just try to make better choices every chance you get, and you’ll soon reap the benefits of a healthier diet.
(photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt)