This is one issue I find arises when using the Canadian Food Guide as a tool for teaching healthy eating. Since fruits and vegetables are grouped into one large category, even people who do eat the recommended 7 - 10 servings each day may be getting 8 or 9 servings of fruit and only 1 or 2 servings of vegetables. Although both are very nutritious and important for good health, too much fruit can contribute a significant amount of sugar into ones diet if it is not balanced out with more than a few servings of vegetables, which generally contain far less carbohydrate (or sugar). This often persuades me to use a different tool in explaining healthy eating to my clients called the Diabetes Food Guide, which is produced by The Community Diabetes Education Program of Ottawa and can be purchased on their website http://www.diabeteseducation.ca/index.php?p=page&page_id=diabetes_food_guide.
Despite the fact that is was designed as a diabetes education tool, it works well for many different clients from those wanting to lose weight to those interested in the basics on healthy eating. It highlights for diabetics which foods have carbohydrates or sugar and separates vegetables out into their own category, encouraging people to consume more than 5 servings every day.
Does this mean we are powerless and destined to go on without the benefits that vegetables can provide? NO. It comes down to one simple, yet not-so-simple tactic . . .
But what about the environment that WE create and have full control over?
What about our own kitchens?
By organizing your kitchen and doing a little pre-planning, you can create a kitchen that makes the healthy choice the easy choice. Everyone's way of approaching this task is different and it's important to find what works for you and that you are able to maintain. It's important to identify what it is that prevents you from eating nutritious food. Is chopping vegetables the bane of your existence? Are fresh vegetables shoved in a drawer or at the back of your fridge keeping them out of sight, out of mind, and out of your mouth? Or do you just hate the taste and don't know any delicious ways to cook vegetables that you and your family will enjoy? Once you identify the main barriers in your home, you can begin to develop a plan for overcoming them, making it easier to reach your goals. Here are a few tips that may help you resolve The VEGGIE Dilemma in your house (note: many of these tips will work for other foods / food groups that your family may want to consume more of)!
1) Get pre-cut veggies
Most supermarkets offer platters of pre-cut and prewashed veggies, bagged salads, or great combinations of frozen pre-cut vegetable options. I stumbled upon a new product while shopping this past week (which is what inspired this entire post) and I was so thrilled to have a new way to get more veggies into my meals that I had to share. In the frozen food aisle I found some eye-catching bags of pre-cut veggies by Arctic Gardens that were labelled for the different meals they were designed to be added to. My local grocer only seemed to have a few options but after looking at their website online I saw that they have quite a few varieties so you may find others in a store near you. I got excited for all the great meal ideas I could use them for but in true Dietitian fashion, I braced myself for the ingredient list and Nutrition Facts Label, since I expected to see a product loaded with sodium, sugar, and preservatives. Imagine my surprise when I read the labels only to find NOTHING BUT VEGGIES. That's right, no added salt, sugar, or preservatives. None. Although it's easy to find frozen California style veggies or broccoli with nothing added, I haven't come across these combinations of veggies before and was ecstatic to learn that they were actually a nutritious choice! I eagerly threw 2 bags in my cart and scooted on home to whip up a delicious (and huge) batch of pasta sauce with the Spaghettini vegetables. Maybe it's just us Dietitians who are thrilled with these types of finds, but I literally almost danced in the aisle leaving my poor husband to be embarrassed by me yet again in the grocery store. He 'loves' it when I take forever reading labels and continuously take things on and off shelves in a manner that must make other shoppers think I'm crazy (A side note about pre-cut veggies is that you will often pay a bit more for them, however I have found it to ultimately save me money in the long haul as less produce goes to waste in my fridge and I have fewer excuses for eating out when I can whip up a meal quickly on a weeknight since half of the ingredients are ready to go).
Now I don't mean keeping your veggies in the back of the fridge only to be discovered once they are beyond recognition, but instead 'hiding' vegetables into some common dishes to bulk them up and increase your intake without much effort. Not everyone loves plain steamed veggies as a side and although that can be one great way to eat them, you can also add veggies into pasta sauce, chili, casseroles, mashed potato dishes, in spreads and dips, or even as dessert (think zucchini brownies, carrot muffins that are actually loaded with carrots, smoothies with lots of spinach or kale, or sweet potato casserole as an evening snack). Adding veggies to soups and stews is a great way to get more servings out of a single recipe and can cut down on costs since vegetables are cheaper than the meat portion of the traditional recipe.
3) Get creative
As mentioned, steamed broccoli or boiled carrots just don't cut it for some of us and a big barrier that prevents people from consuming more veggies is that they simply aren't always as enjoyable as other foods. Challenging yourself to pick up one vegetable at the grocery store that isn't on your regular shopping list such as bok choy, radishes, cabbage, or leeks and then finding a new recipe to try can be an awesome way to increase variety in your diet and explore some new options that you may actually come to love! If your not feeling that adventurous, try changing up the ways in which you prepare the vegetables that you buy most commonly. The internet is absolutely overflowing with recipes so read some reviews and don't be afraid to experiment! Learning to love cooking is a huge help when trying to reach your food and nutrition goals since preparing your own food gives you the most control over what goes into your body. One of my all-time favorite blogs / websites for delicious and healthy recipes is called The Dashing Dish. I highly recommend her broccoli bites recipe - it is a great crowd pleaser and pops up on my entertaining menu quite often. The author has super creative, original recipes, and an inspiring testimony to boot! Definitely check it out!
Veggies as a snack may be a hard pill to swallow for some, but if you think about trying to get 5 or more servings of vegetables in a day, it can be quite hard to do if you are only have a serving or two at lunch and supper. Although a veggie-filled omelet is a great way to get some extra veggies in the AM, that's not always possible for people on the road or who have to be at work early. Having at least 1 or 2 servings of veggies as a snack ensures that you meet your daily goal without having to eat an entire mixing bowl of salad every day at supper. Cucumbers with dip, carrots and hummus, celery and peanut butter, or pepper with a few slices of cheese make for satisfying and nutritious snacks. Although it can be difficult to get into this habit when we are used to eating crackers and cheese, granola bars, cookies, or chips, starting with veggies as an afternoon snack 1 or 2 days a week and working your way up is a great place to start. It doesn't have to be all or nothing, as one of my very smart clients once said to me, "We should aim for progress, not perfection." Even if you are only adding 1 or 2 extra servings of veggies a week, it is still an improvement from none. Focus on what you DID accomplish and not on what you didn't.
Although this tip may take a bit more work to become a habit, it is much easier once you get started. With a little organization and pre-planning, eating more veggies really can be an easy choice. Here are some tips that keep me on track from day-to-day:
- Wash your produce as soon you get it home. This is a habit my hubby and I do regularly. Not only does washing your produce get rid of those nasty cold germs that are spreading like wildfire during this time of year, but also helps make your fruits and veggies last longer. Also, when I know that all the produce in my fridge has already been washed I am more likely to whip up a salad knowing that I don't have to wash a head of lettuce beforehand!
- Cut up your produce for snacks and lunches. This tip is perhaps the most useful one in my household. I usually get right to cutting veggies as soon as the groceries are put away and only have to do so once or twice a week instead of everyday. Although my husband has no complaints about eating veggies for a snack, he does refuse to pack his lunch the night before. By always having a platter of our favorite veggies cut up (since I don't buy everything pre-cut) it makes grabbing a bag of cucumbers or peppers much easier. Also, when I have a load of ready-to-eat vegetables, it is much easier to add them to wraps, a stir fry, or saute them for a side-dish at dinner.
- Make a massive salad 'base'. This is one I'm still working on making a habit, but has worked wonderfully the few times I've tried it. Get yourself the biggest bowl you can find and fill it up with a salad 'base' - lettuce, peppers, shredded carrots, spinach, cucumbers, and whatever else you like. Cover it with plastic wrap and all you have to do to make a side salad or entree salad is add your protein and fat. Tossing in some beans, cooked chicken, diced ham, cheese, dressing and/or croutons makes for a delicious salad with next to no effort. What could be easier?!
Have a great week!