We’d like to take a look at a significant study that touts the benefits of adding more servings of vegetables to your diet. This study finds there may be parallels between eating vegetables and keeping the brain young; Of 2,000 older Chicagoans, those having two or more servings of vegetables every day showed significantly less mental decline over 5 years than those who didn’t. Here at Beachbody, for years now we’ve been recommending that you eat your vegetables. In fact, the “pious tier” on Michi’s Ladder, Beachbody’s nutrition guide, includes most of the vegetables that are cited in the study as being especially beneficial. Veggies are loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, and most have practically no calories. So what’s not to like? Well, for many, it’s the taste.
We can all agree that eating veggies is a good thing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that you eat five to nine servings each day. The question is how do you choke down those five to nine servings if you don’t care for vegetables? And how can you get your friends and family, especially kids, to “veg out” with you at mealtime without the aid of cheese sauce or a deep fryer? While the best way to consume most vegetables is either raw or lightly steamed, some of us may need to get a little more creative to get all those servings down the hatch. Here are some ideas.
1. Heal your inner vegetarian
Many of us are nursing vegetable traumas from childhood. When I was a young boy, my grandmother scarred me gustatorily by serving up numerous culinary atrocities, many involving canned or pickled beets. Soaked in sugar and vinegar until any structural integrity had dissolved into fluorescent purple mush, those beets and their sickly taste have been forever seared in my memory. It wasn’t until years later that I was served a fresh roasted beet salad, with beautiful ribbons of gold, red, and violet that bore little resemblance to those horrible vegetables I politely gagged into my dinner napkin every family holiday. Now I love hitting the farmers’ market, finding multi-hued heirloom tomatoes, purple cauliflower, exotic Asian vegetables, and all the fresh versions of the creamed, boiled, or pickled monstrosities I was force-fed as a kid (and swore I would never eat as an adult). It’s well worth revisiting the vegetables you hated as a child, as well as trying new vegetables for the first time. Often, you might find that it was the preparation you hated and not the food itself.
2. Spice up your life.
It’s been suggested that many warmer cultures began cooking with spices to help camouflage the flavor of meat that was a bit past its prime. Why not experiment with herbs and spices to give some of the blander veggies a flavor boost, or to help out veggies that have too strong a flavor? For example, many find Brussels sprouts to be less than enchanting in both appearance (they look like the alien brains from Mars Attacks!) and flavor (I’ve heard it remarked that they taste like dirt). Try cutting them in half lengthwise and roasting or sautéing them with some chicken broth and curry powder. You’ll alter the flavor, color, and texture of the sprouts without losing any of the nutritive value.
Mix and match spices, herbs, and condiments like basil, cayenne pepper, chili powder, cilantro, cumin, dill, garlic, ginger, horseradish, mustard, oregano, rosemary, soy sauce, and more to add flavor without significantly adding calories. Be creative and experiment with spices that might not immediately come to mind when you think of certain vegetables. For example, a friend of mine, a master of microwave cuisine, sprinkles frozen cauliflower with nutmeg before she nukes it, with delicious results.
3. Soup up your veggies
One great way to eat veggies whose appearance or texture might not be the most appealing is to puree them and make soup. Cauliflower is a prime candidate for the food processor. People who are put off by its rough appearance and strong flavor can get most of the nutritional value by having it in soup form. Sauté some cauliflower florets and other vegetables in some low-fat, low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth, then blend the cauliflower and broth in a blender or food processor until smooth. Make sure to include the broth you sautéed the cauliflower in, as it will include many of the nutrients. For thicker soup, blend a boiled potato into the mix. Or add some nonfat yogurt for a creamier texture. Add other veggies from Michi’s pious tier, like onions, leeks, shallots, or garlic, for extra flavor, or throw in a little nonfat Parmesan cheese.
4. Don’t be bitter
Among the healthiest of all vegetables are some of the ones that are the least commonly eaten: the dark, leafy greens. These veggies, which include kale, chard, and rabe, as well as beet, collard, mustard, and turnip greens, contain more nutrients and fiber than almost any other vegetable, but their bitter, chalky taste often puts people off. Also, when you buy them in bunches, it seems almost impossible to get the grit and sand off the leaves, which doesn’t add much to the experience. To clean your greens, start by removing the stems. You can do this easily by folding the leaf in half lengthwise, which should help you tear the leaf halves off the stem cleanly. Let the leaves soak in a sink full of cold water, changing the water several times until there’s no grit or dirt left. Or check your produce section; for a little extra money, you can buy bagged, pre-cut greens that are marketed as being washed and ready to cook. We still recommend that you give your greens a thorough rinse before you prepare them. (You can dry damp greens quickly with a salad spinner.)
As for the bitter taste, a common mistake that people make is to steam greens. This can actually seal in the bitter taste, making the greens taste even worse. The best way to cook greens is to sauté them in a nonstick pan with a bit of broth. The bitterness will disperse in the broth, leaving your greens tasting sweeter. Adding something acidic like lemon juice, vinegar, or white wine while the greens are cooking will also cut the bitterness. You can add onion, garlic, or spices to your sauté, which can improve the flavor and add their own nutritional benefits.
Greens are also terrific additions to soups or casseroles, but you should blanch the greens for 1 minute in boiling water before adding them to the main dish to remove most of the bitterness. Like coffee, greens can be an acquired taste, but the more you eat them, the more your palate will become accustomed to and even enjoy their unique flavor.
5. Hit the sauce
Okay, you’ve tried steaming, sautéing, and pureeing your vegetables, and you’re still facing silence or worse when you serve them up. It’s time to bring out the heavy artillery: sauce. Now, we’re not talking “heavy” as in old standbys like cheese sauce or hollandaise—they’re delicious, yes, but they’re loaded with fat and calories, which kind of defeats the purpose of eating vegetables for your health. (It’s like taking your cholesterol pill wrapped in bacon.) But a quick glance at the top two tiers of Michi’s Ladder shows that there is hope! There are plenty of healthy ingredients that can be combined to make some sauces that are delicious and can add to the nutritional value of your vegetable dish.
Nonfat yogurt is a great base for healthy sauces. Try mixing some yogurt with mustard to taste for a faux hollandaise sauce for asparagus or broccoli. Tofu is another exceptionally healthy sauce base. My brother gave me a recipe for pureeing soft tofu with garlic, black pepper, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, and mustard to make a thick and creamy Caesar dressing. (This helps solve another dietary dilemma: how to make heart-healthy tofu taste good.) You can double up your daily veggie servings by using vegetables to make sauce for your other vegetables. Make a Spanish Romesco sauce out of pureed tomatoes, red bell peppers, garlic, almonds, and olive oil—all ingredients from Michi’s top two tiers, which combine to make a delicious topping for green beans, kale, or spinach. And if you don’t have time to make an elaborate sauce, just keep some soy sauce, flavored vinegar, lemon juice, Tabasco®, and olive oil on hand, and dress your veggies with a couple of dashes of whatever you’re in the mood for.