Do you struggle to eat a respectable amount of vegetables in your daily diet? Do you ever find yourself trying to remember the last time you actually ate a vegetable? French fries, ketchup and jalapeno poppers don’t count.
If this sounds familiar, take heart, you aren’t alone. It’s estimated that only about 1 in 10 people in the US eat the daily recommended 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables. – despite the well known facts that people who eat the minimum recommendation of just five fruits and vegetable servings (that’s about 2-3 cups of vegetables total) every day lower their risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other health conditions. We know we should be eating way more vegetables and fruit than we do, so why do so many of us fall short most days?
I was definitely one of the 9 other people who opted for one or two servings of vegetables or fruit a day – if that. Growing up in the 80s in Maine, vegetables were an obligatory side dish for meat and potatoes and fruit was best if it was incorporated into a fruit roll-up or a popsicle. My aversion to vegetables continued through most of my adult.
Things started changing in my mid-thirties. Not only was losing weight harder to do, I found that my Standard American Diet (SAD) that was heavy on starch, meat and sodium was making me feel awful. I had high blood pressure and bouts of mild depression and was tired most of the time. I would be motivated to start a diet a couple times a year – but it never stuck. I would eat “good” for a few weeks, but I always ended up returning to my bad habits: McDonalds, Chinese Food, Chips.
As I approached 40 I knew that I was going to have make a change. My dad died of cancer at 53, his sister of cancer at 59. I had watched my older relatives wrestle with diabetes and congestive heart failure and general poor health in part from a poor diet lacking in fruits and vegetables for most of their life. And I was on track to be just like them.
As the big 4-0 loomed closer I started thinking about how I wanted to make this change. Every diet I had ever tried had failed. And this wasn’t just about losing weight, it was about cultivating a healthy lifestyle that was both enjoyable and sustainable. No diet I had ever been on – not Atkins, Weight Watchers, Paleo, Keto – had been either of those things I wanted to do it in a way that I could be successful for a change.
So, I started very slowly by adding in more vegetables at dinner and at snacks. I started making fruit smoothies a few times a week in lieu of breakfast sandwiches for breakfast. I experimented with zucchini noodles (zoodles) in place of pasta. In just a few weeks I noticed I had more energy, a little weight loss (Ok - I wouldn’t have minded a little more weight loss- but hey, it’s a start) and an overall sense of well being that comes when you take charge of your health and wellness.
I slowly increased fruits and vegetables in my diet until I reach the minimum five servings a day. Then I worked my way up to 6, 7, sometimes 8 servings a day. I’m still working on improving my diet, it certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s leaps and bounds better than it used to be.
Here are 10 tips that helped me increase vegetable and fruits in my daily diet that went beyond eating salad at every meal. ;)
1. Keep fresh, frozen and canned vegetables and fruit on hand. The biggest roadblock I faced when trying to eat healthier was not having a selection of fruits and vegetables at the ready when I was cooking at home. Yes, there were usually some wilted lettuce and rubbery carrots in the bottom of the refrigerator crisper, but often that was it. I started stock piling a mix of fresh, frozen and canned vegetables to make sure that I had options when it came time to cook.
2. Experiment. I made zoodles half a dozen times before perfecting my recipe so that I genuinely enjoyed eating them. Not every dish is going to be a 10. Try not to be discouraged. You will find delicious vegetable recipes that your (and your family!) will love. If you have been eating a diet heavy on salt and additives, it is going to take some time for your taste buds to adjust to the more mellow flavors of vegetables. Don’t be afraid to add spices and oils, for extra flavor. I use garlic powder, oregano, rosemary, basil and a little olive oil to dress up my vegetables in most dishes.
3. Know What a Serving of Vegetables Looks Like. I was dee-lighted to find out that one serving of vegetables was equal to a ½ cup of chopped veggies – that’s like 10 baby carrots. That was manageable for me. For some reason, before I measured my food out, I thought I would have to eat, like, a bushel basket of vegetables to reach my daily recommendation.
4. Track Your Food. Write down what you’re eating. This will help you track and see if you hit your target of 5-9 servings each day. I use the LoseIt app on my phone to track all my food. In addition to eating enough fruits and vegetables, the app also keeps me honest when I eat less-than-stellar foods.
5. Keep a journal. Yes, it’s little on the touchy feely side – but writing down how you feel about your food choices can be a powerful way to understand why you eat the way you do – both good and bad. For example, in my daily planner I usually make a note of how I did for the day – it can be as simple as “grant report was being a pain in a$$ - ate a junky lunch” or “Ate all my veggies by noon – felt GREAT in the afternoon! Worked out extra in the PM.” Reviewing these daily notes helps reinforce my motivation to continue to make the best possible food choices for my body and my spirit.
6. Gather Up Plenty of Recipes. Please, please, pluh-leese don’t make yourself eat salad every day forever. Don’t get me wrong - salad is great, but there are also so many gorgeous vegetable recipes on Pinterest (follow me). Be willing to get out of your culinary comfort zone and try something new! And then be sure to tell me about it. J
7. Focus on adding and not on taking away. If you love ice cream, have it. Add some strawberries or a sliced banana to it, to get in a serving of fruit. Enjoy your favorites, along with some sides of vegetables. Try to make half your plate vegetables. You can still enjoy your steak or burger, along with a salad or zoodles or other veggie-based recipe.
8. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t hit the mark every single day. There are still occasional days when I just call uncle and eat the burger and fries. But usually the following day I am ready to make better choices.
Remember, eating well is a journey – not a destination. Lasting change takes time. And always remember how far you have come.