Whatever your wellness goals for the new year, one powerful change could go a long way toward your success: Eat more vegetables. The proven benefits of doing so read like an infomercial: Boost gut health! Manage blood sugar! Reduce inflammation! Improve immunity! Keep blood pressure in check! Lower risk of heart disease! Support a healthy weight! But wait, there’s more! In this case, however, the too-good-to-be-true is actually true.
We know why, to a degree. Vegetables brim with health-protective compounds, including essential vitamins and minerals, fiber, and a broad spectrum of antioxidants, which destroy damaging free radicals in the body. Scientists have isolated and studied many of these plant compounds, but they have only scratched the surface. One thing they have discovered is that taking the compounds in pill form doesn’t have the same benefit. It’s the package deal of the vegetable that protects us. As David Katz, a specialist in preventive and lifestyle medicine, so cleverly put it, “The active ingredient in broccoli is broccoli.”
Yet roughly 90 percent of Americans fall short of the recommended vegetable intake (two to three cups a day for women and three to four cups a day for men), and about 62 percent of the vegetables we do eat come from the same five sources, three of which are white-potato-based, with one of the most common being french fries, according to a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2022. Not that there’s anything wrong with potatoes — they are nutrient-rich and darn delicious. We just need to branch out (and fry less often).
Vegetables have unique nutrient and antioxidant profiles, so more variety is key to a broader spectrum of health-protective benefits. Color is a helpful cue, since different antioxidants impart different hues to food. Harnessing the full color wheel of produce (including white) not only works in our favor nutritionally, it also makes our meals so much more alluring.
On top of the nutrients you get from eating more vegetables, there is a beneficial displacement factor. Opt for, say, mushrooms and peppers on your pizza instead of your usual pepperoni, or dip sliced cucumbers rather than pita chips in your hummus, and you not only get more nutrition, you also, by default, typically reduce calories, sodium, refined grains and processed meats. But it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Even if you get mushrooms, peppers and pepperoni on your pizza, you’re still better off.
(I know, I know, mushrooms are not vegetables, botanically speaking. Neither are tomatoes, cucumbers or zucchini, for that matter, but from a nutritional and culinary point of view they all count as vegetables.)
Whether you are a beginner who is ready to venture beyond the occasional baby carrot or a vegetable aficionado who wants to broaden your horizons, here are simple ways to eat more plants.
Add a vegetable to what you already eat
There’s no need to overhaul your life to incorporate more vegetables — simply toss them into what you are already making. Cooking pasta with tomato sauce? Add a handful of prewashed arugula or baby spinach to the warm sauce to gently wilt it, or pile the greens on top of the finished plate to add a burst of fresh color and flavor. Fresh chopped baby spinach is also nice to add to chicken noodle soup, minestrone or ramen. If you are ready for something more adventurous, try escarole or dandelion greens instead.
Frozen peas, cauliflower or broccoli are ideal add-ins to mac and cheese. Add a handful to the cheese sauce to warm through before you stir in the pasta. (Frozen vegetables are comparable nutritionally to cooked, fresh vegetables; they are also economical, often require no chopping and are easy to keep on hand, so take advantage of them.)
When you make a sandwich, venture beyond the usual lettuce and tomato. Pile on thinly sliced radishes or cucumber, grated carrot, or sprouts. A handful of spinach or kale in your morning smoothie is basically undetectable but adds nutrient-rich dark-green leafys.
Beef up meat dishes with extra vegetables to allow for a more sensible-size serving of meat while keeping overall portions bountiful. Mushrooms do the job especially well thanks to their meaty texture and savory flavor. Saute them first so they are nicely browned and release their water, then add them to just about any meat dish, from burgers and meatloaf to sloppy joes and stroganoff. This allows you to reduce the meat by about 1/4 pound per eight ounces of mushrooms used. Add plant power beyond the usual carrots and potatoes to meaty stews, too, with mushrooms, bell peppers, green beans, and root vegetables such as rutabaga, turnips and celery root.
Don’t relegate vegetables to the realm of the side dish — they can do so much more. Cuplike lettuce leaves, such as Bibb or baby gem, make lovely wrappers for all sorts of fillings — think anything you might put in a taco or wrap sandwich. You can also use sturdier collard greens or kale leaves to make bigger, heartier wraps. (I like to blanch those first to tenderize them.)
Vegetables also make supreme scoops for dips. Beyond the usual carrots and celery, try scooping with endive, radishes, snap peas, and blanched broccoli, cauliflower and green beans.
Flip the narrative from the passe one, where the protein gets all the culinary love, and dote on the vegetable instead. Preparing vegetables in surprising, enticing ways keeps you wanting more and can turn around vegetable naysayers. It doesn’t have to mean more work, just a shift in focus.
I hope these ideas spark you to get more vegetables into your life, and in more varied ways. Start small, choosing a couple of suggestions you feel are doable and build from there. It’s a habit well worth cultivating, in the new year and beyond.