healthy eating for healthy aging

Rules of Vegetables

Rules of Vegetables

When I hear people talking about diets or nutrition, I usually listen in. Recently a trainer and his client were talking about diet at my local rec center; the client was expressing frustration with popular diet advice. She wondered, is there a diet that doesn’t tell you to eat more vegetables? I already know that. Tell me something new!

She’s right! “Eat more vegetables” has been a nutritional mantra for years, for good reason. Vegetables are loaded with vitamins, minerals and fiber. They’re good for digestion and encourage a healthy gut microbe population. They’re filling, and help you control food intake. They’re generally low calorie, low fat and low sodium. They come in a wide variety of flavors and textures. They can be prepared in many ways. But despite all these benefits, food consumption data shows that very few people are eating even the bare minimum of vegetables. More useful advice would explain how to accomplish the “more vegetables” goal in daily life.

5 Rules of Vegetables

The 5 rules for eating more vegetables are:

  1. make them tasty
  2. prepare vegetables in a healthful way
  3. make eating more vegetables convenient
  4. buy affordable vegetables; canned and frozen are good choices
  5. consume a meaningful amount

Meaningful Portions

Let’s talk about meaningful amounts. I like to think of volume more than servings, because who knows what a serving is anyway. My volume goal is 1 quart (4 cups) vegetables per day minimum. The offcial US government advice is 2-3 cups/day for adults, including juice. My advice is 4 or more cups; juice doesn’t count. I also do not count potatoes, although I do count legumes like black or pinto beans.

If 4 cups sounds like a lot, get out a quart-sized measuring bowl. Pile in broccoli spears, a bunch of lettuce or spinach leaves, some chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers, a carrot or baked sweet potato, sliced zucchini or a cup of kidney beans, and you’ll quickly go over 4 cups. This is not a vast amount of vegetables. Spread throughout the day, it’s less than 1-1/2 cups per meal.

Plan Vegetable-Centric Meals

It’s not that hard to fit that volume of vegetables into the average day. If you eat a salad meal, you could eat the whole 4 cups at once. Making one meal per day focused on vegetables is one strategy, but you can also add a wide variety of chopped or sliced raw vegetables to other foods. Here are some ideas:

  • Have a big plate of stir fried vegetables as a meal. Add tofu, peanuts or chicken for protein.
  • Serve a bean dish for supper, such as chili or cassoulet. You can add other vegetables, like carrots, tomatoes, peppers, celery, onions or greens like chard.
  • Soups that are heavy on vegetables, such as minestrone, are another good choice.
  • Instead of topping a burger with cheese, stack it up with greens, tomatoes, carrot and roasted red peppers.
  • Chopped or sliced vegetables go especially well with wraps and burritos.
  • Load your pizza with sliced vegetables instead of sausage or pepperoni.

Vegetable-Centric doesn’t mean no meat or dairy foods, just smaller amounts of those. The emphasis is on the vegetables. Your plate of stir fried vegetables and chicken should be 3/4 vegetables and 1/4 chicken. Same goes for the amount of meat you add to chili. You can add grated cheese to a salad meal, or cheese or meat to a burrito, but the vegetables should be the Main Event.

Unfortunately restaurants don’t typically follow this advice. Burritos are overloaded with cheese and meat, with few if any vegetables. Even so-called vegetable pizzas have just token bits of vegetables on top. Meat entrées like steak or fried chicken, usually take up most of the plate, with a tiny pile of steamed vegetables and probably some potatoes. Substituting vegetables as the sideinstead of potatoes is frequently impossible.

I don’t have a good solution for any of this, except don’t go to restaurants that serve those foods. youdon’t have that option. The best bet is to make those occasions the exception, not the norm.

Vegetables for Breakfast

A colleague once said she was trying to eat more greens at breakfast. I thought it was quite a good idea. How would you do that? Spinach mixed into yogurt? Kale on oatmeal? Not likely. You could have a big plate of sautéed/steamed greens, such as chard or spinach, and put a poached or fried egg on top. Or have an omelet with cooked greens. Mushrooms go great with greens and add flavor.

You could also make a wrap with chopped fresh greens like spinach, arugula, dark leafy lettuce or kale, along with scrambled egg or cheese. Or have salad for breakfast. Make a breakfast sandwich, perhaps with egg or thin-sliced turkey, chicken, ham or cheese, and pack on greens like spinach, arugula or green lettuce.

Make a green smoothie. Kale and spinach are popular additions to fruit smoothies. They’d be puréed, but they would still be greens. Take Away Message: it is not hard to eat more greens at breakfast.

Make it easy

You might have good intentions about more vegetables, but they just aren’t around when you want them. Solution: plan ahead and stock up on the vegetables you will actually use. If washing and chopping would get in the way of eating vegetables, buy pre-washed/pre-chopped.


Vegetables have to taste great or you won’t eat them. I love fresh, raw vegetables, so salads always taste great to me, but eating salad everyday could get boring. Here are some of my favorite ways to prepare flavorful vegetables:

Roasting: chop, chunk or slice vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, fresh green beans or anything else you can think of. Toss with olive oil or avocado oil and season with garlic and herbs. Roast in a sheet pan until done. Alternatively, cover the sheet pan with aluminum foil and steam the vegetables in a hot oven until barely done. Then finish briefly under the broiler to brown them

Stir fry with Asian seasonings like soy sauce, ginger, garlic and a dash of ricevinegar. Bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, carrot, celery, onion, Napa cabbage, peppers and scallions are all great choices.

Shred vegetables like red or green cabbage, broccoli, carrots, red onions, radishes, sweet peppers, zucchini and toss together to make a frisée salad. Dress with oil and vinegar.

Grill vegetables that are brushed with oil: sweet corn, tomato halves, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, onions or slices of winter squash like butternut or acorn.

Try New Recipes

Bored with plain steamed vegetables? My favorite cuisines for delicious vegetable and legume recipes are:

  • Indian
  • Mediterranean
  • South East Asian

Remember, the goal is to add more vegetables to your daily diet in ways that are tasty and convenient. If you’re happy with raw vegetables or simple roasted or grilled vegetables, no need to fuss with recipes. If you enjoy cooking and have an adventurous palate, try some new recipes.