By Rachel Meltzer Warren,
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Although it’s true that nutrition experts sometimes disagree on the healthfulness of certain foods, you’d be hard-pressed to find one who would put fruits and vegetables into the questionable camp.
They supply a lot of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber for very few calories. Plus, with their high water content, they help you stay hydrated. And studies show that people who have a produce-rich diet are at lower risk of many health problems, including dementia, depression, digestive problems, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.
Yet 58 percent of Americans consume fruits, vegetables, or juice less than twice a week — and 2 percent don’t eat any at all, according to a 2020 survey from Produce for Better Health Foundation, a nonprofit group.
It’s not for lack of trying. More than half of American adults have the goal of eating more fruits and vegetables, the survey found. But often they’re derailed by common obstacles, says Maya Feller, an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University.
Affordability is one. If money is an issue, it can be hard to prioritize produce. “We know that when finances are of concern, people tend to choose high-energy [high-calorie], low-cost foods,” Feller says. “That can mean more packaged food and less produce.” Another challenge is that doing a lot of produce prep can feel like a chore.
And for people who aren’t sure how to serve fruit and vegetables in easy, tasty ways, incorporating them into meals may seem daunting, says Wesley McWhorter, an assistant professor at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. But there are easy ways to address these hurdles.
Be savvy when buying
Shop the sales. Tweaking your shopping list according to which fruits and vegetables are on sale can cut your costs and add variety to your meals.
Plan your meals. Be realistic about the amount of fresh produce you’ll eat between shopping trips and buy accordingly, so it doesn’t go bad before you have a chance to use it up. Individuals toss more than a third of a pound of fruits and vegetables per day, a 2018 study in the journal PLOS One found. “That’s a lot of money going into your trash can instead of your pocket,” Feller says.
If you do find yourself with more than you can use, you can freeze it. For example, if you end up with too many ripe avocados, peel them, then puree with some lemon juice, divide into containers that will hold single or double servings, and freeze.
Can’t finish the whole head of broccoli or cauliflower? Blanch what you haven’t used, rinse in cold water, dry and freeze individual florets on a baking sheet. Once frozen, transfer to a container for longer storage.
Think cheap and highly nutritious. Hearty greens, such as cabbage, collard greens, kale and mustard greens, are some of the least expensive, healthiest options you can buy. They pack a punch with nutrients such as folate and vitamin K, as well as plant compounds that may counter inflammation and cut cancer risk. Other inexpensive items are apples, bananas, carrots, onions, potatoes and winter squash. Compare the prices of fresh with frozen, too. Frozen has as many nutrients and is sometimes less pricey than the fresh equivalent.
Make produce prep easier
Sharpen your knives. “A sharp knife is fundamental in a kitchen,” McWhorter says. Larger vegetables can be hard — and downright unsafe — to prep if your knives aren’t sharp enough to tackle them.
Make friends with the microwave. Restaurants use microwaves all the time to whip up tasty veggie sides, McWhorter says. You can do the same by cutting veggies to an even size and adding 1 tablespoon each of oil, seasoning and water per pound of vegetables. Microwave in a vented covered bowl until tender.
Embrace the rough cut. A large or oddly shaped fruit or vegetable, such as melon or zucchini, can be tricky to cut. To get past any fear you may have, use the rule of halves (and your sharp knife, of course). “Cut the item in half, then cut those halves in half,” McWhorter says. Continue cutting the pieces by half until you get the size down to where you want it. Evenly cut pieces will cook evenly, too.
Scrub instead of peel. For vegetables such as sweet potatoes, carrots, and thin-skinned squash, like delicata, you can save yourself some time and forgo peeling. “Just make sure they’re clean,” McWhorter says.
Perk up the flavor
Personalize your plate. “Everyone has a culture and history around food,” Feller says. If salads aren’t your thing, don’t feel pressured to eat them. Look at your own preferences, and think about the changes that will work for you. “There’s a way we like our food to be prepared, and that’s what we should lean into.”
Add salt last. It adds unnecessary sodium, and it can draw moisture from vegetables when you roast or sauté them, causing them to turn mushy. You can sprinkle a little salt on once they’re cooked. This also means you can use less and still get a salty flavor.
Don’t fear oil. If you don’t use enough oil when you’re roasting or stir-frying vegetables, you won’t get the crispy texture you’re looking for, McWhorter says. Fat can also help your body better absorb nutrients in dark green and orange and red vegetables, such as vitamins A and K.
Add produce to convenience foods. Put berries or sliced bananas or peaches on cereal, yogurt, or even ice cream. Toss canned beans into pasta (they count as vegetables, as does tomato sauce). A can of soup becomes more filling and nutritious if you add a cup of frozen vegetables as you heat it. Or try warming up a frozen dinner and turning it out onto a plateful of leafy greens. You can also top pretty much anything with a generous handful of chopped fresh parsley — yes, fresh herbs can be considered veggies.
Pair carbs with vegetables. Chopped sautéed spinach makes a nice addition to cooked rice or orzo, spiralized zucchini or squash can bulk up pasta dishes, and mashed and steamed celery root or parsnips add flavor (and extra nutrients) to plain mashed potatoes. Mashed avocado can be used as a spread on toast or a bagel and is lower in sodium and saturated fat than butter or cream cheese.
Produce-load your protein. You can stuff a chicken breast with cheese, Feller says, but why not use vegetables like chopped spinach or broccoli? Finely chopped and sautéed mushroom and onion can blend seamlessly into ground beef, adding nutrition and stretching your dollar.
Copyright 2021, Consumer Reports Inc.
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