I doubt that it will be news to you that vegetables are good for you. The age-old message to eat your greens has certainly stood the test of time and is probably one of the only consistent nutrition messages that you will get from people, regardless what else they believe about food and nutrition.
The World Cancer Research Fund report suggests that we should aim to be eating at least 600 grams of non-starchy vegetables and fruit every day to help keep our bodies in tip-top working order and healthy from the inside out. So, what is 600 grams? Well, it is around 7 or 8 servings (handfuls) a day. Ideally, I would suggest this to be 2–3 servings of fruit, and the rest, the extra five or so, the non-starchy veggies.
How many serves of veggies do you honestly have a day? Yes, take into account the weekend. And Friday night, too. Are you having anywhere near enough?
Currently, most of us know to aim for 5+ a day, and this is certainly a good starting point. However, given that 34 per cent of Kiwis aren’t even getting three handfuls of veggies a day (and this figure actually includes the starchy veggies, too, so is an over-estimation when it comes to how many serves of non-starchy veggies we actually eat), there is work that needs to be done!
Upping your veggies can have so many positive effects. Not only can it reduce your risk of cancer and other diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, it also helps ensure that your digestive system stays healthy and that you don’t get bunged up!
If keeping your body healthy for life and preventing nasty diseases isn’t enough to encourage you to start chopping up carrots and plant a veggie patch immediately, then tune into the fact that eating lots of veggies will also help your skin look healthy and glow. Veggies are also vital to help you feel energised and they are super helpful when it comes to keeping you slim – surely that is enough encouragement?!
Eating heaps and heaps of veggies along with a balance of other nutrient-rich foods, a good night’s sleep and keeping well hydrated will put you well on your way to looking and feeling your best every day.
Vegetables aren’t all created equal. A potato is very different nutritionally from a spinach leaf and, let’s be honest, celery and pumpkin aren’t exactly the same, are they?
Vegetables can be classified in all sorts of ways – by their colour, whether they grow under the ground or on top, or if they are ‘starchy’ or ‘non-starchy’.
The colour classification is an easy one to sort out, as is whether a vegetable likes to grow in a dark place or out in the sunshine, but the starchy verses non-starchy vegetable conversation is interesting and something that isn’t very well understood. Let’s see if I can help get some clarity on this one.
Most vegetables are predominately made up of carbohydrate (starch) and water. They do, of course, have tiny amounts of fat, protein, vitamins and minerals – but the bulk by far is the starch and water.
Whether a vegetable is classified as ‘starchy’ or ‘non-starchy’ is really dependent on just how much starch is in that vegetable. A potato is clearly very starchy and a cucumber is not – it is packed with water – but when it comes to veggies like pumpkin, corn, peas and carrots things can get a little hazy. Where do they fit in?
There is no official definition for a starchy or non-starchy vegetable, but dense vegetables like potato, kumara, yam, taro, green banana and corn sit at 15–30 per cent starch and I am comfortable for those to be classified as starchy. The rest are lower than this, peas 7 per cent, pumpkin 6 per cent, carrots 4 per cent and broccoli only 2 per cent, so these would be considered less starchy or ‘non-starchy’, but you can see that there can be room for different interpretations. Spinach, lettuce, mushrooms and all the rest of the vegetables are easier to clearly classify as they have very little starch so fit well into the ‘non-starchy’ camp.
Why does this matter? Well, the vegetables with a higher starch component are much more energy-dense (have far more kilojoules per serve) than those with less starch and more water. A cup of cooked potato is 566 kilojoules (142 calories), for example, whereas a cup of cooked broccoli is 162 kilojoules (41 calories).
So, with my message to up your game on the vegetable front to help you look and feel your best, I am really asking you to focus on increasing the amount of the less starchy veggies rather than doubling your portion of mashed potato.
Including starchy veggies as part of a well-balanced, healthy diet is still fine and the amount you need will depend on how active you are and whether you are looking to trim down a little or not, but I personally put potato, kumara, yam, green banana, taro and corn into the same category as rice, pasta, bread, crackers and other well-known starchier foods.
I do completely realise that if you currently have one floret of broccoli a day and the odd carrot, the thought of upping your veggie serves to multiple handfuls a day might seem impossible – but you don’t have to do it overnight. It is simply about finding ways to increase from one serve to two, then two to three, and so on, until you are really eating a lot more veggies than you used to. It has taken me a few years to nail this one consistently.
Eating a variety of different-coloured vegetables is important. Each vegetable has its own unique set of nutritional goodies and I certainly aim to include a mixture of colours every day. Personally though, I do have a soft spot for green veggies, and at least two of my servings of veggies most days would come from greens. Leafy greens like spinach, silver beet (also known as Swiss chard) and kale are just absolutely packed with the nutritional goodness of fibre, vitamin C, B vitamins for energy, folate and non-haem iron (this is less well absorbed than the iron in meat, but certainly worthy of a mention), as well as an array of the vitamins and minerals that work together to help your body function well and you look your best. Broccoli, rocket and salad greens as well as all the herbs are winners, too – they just make you feel so good when you eat them regularly, and feeling good is the goal!
You can add greens to almost anything. Make totally green smoothies, add them to berry smoothies, omelettes, soups, mince dishes, serve them on the side – you name it, where there is a meal in my life, there is more often than not some green veg.
One of the reasons why I love them so much is that they are super easy to grow – and when you are trying to eat more veggies, if you want to avoid spending a small fortune, growing some greens in a pot, a half wine barrel or a little patch in your garden can be a life (and financial) saver. Growing a few of your own veggies, shopping at farmers’ markets and local veggie stores and having some greens (like spinach) in your freezer makes upping your greens that little bit easier.
I appreciate that eating lots of vegetables could increase your food bill but, as this is something I'd like everyone to be able to do, I want to assure you there are ways to eat cheap when it comes to veggies and I certainly do this myself. Here are my tips:
Reduce your meat/fish portion – you only need a small palm-sized amount, 100–120 grams per person is adequate. Cheaper cuts of meat can be used very successfully with the right recipe. Also, try the cheaper types of fish. You may need to find a new way of cooking them but you can pick up a whole mackerel, as an example, for a few dollars and it will serve two to three people. A few meat-free meals a week can also be good on so many levels – there are lots of recipe ideas in the back of this book to help you get started. The money you save from this approach can be used for you to spend on other things, like . . . veggies!
Use frozen as well as fresh veggies – spinach, peas, broccoli, you name it, you can find it frozen these days and it can be a very costeffective way of eating more vegetables. There is always a special on at least one of the frozen veggies, too.
Use all your veggies – don’t throw out those broccoli stalks; if you take off the tough outer layer you can slice them and add them to a stir-fry, grate them into a salad or put them in a soup. Leave on the skins of potatoes and kumara, too – more fibre and goodness!
Eat seasonally – it really is the only way to go when it comes to saving money.
Compare prices – the cost of veggies varies hugely depending on which supermarket you shop at. If you go to a local fruit store or a farmers’ market, look around. I certainly hunt out bargains and use what is cheap that week.
Pack your own lunches – buying salads out can be pricey and it is much easier to have a healthy lunch when you make it yourself.
Make soups – when the weather is cooler, this is such a fab way of getting 2–3 serves of veggies in each day without really trying. I do this in winter; then it is three servings down, only 2–3 to go! I always have a stock of single-serve portions of soup in my freezer, too, which I can quickly whip out for a light lunch or substantial snack.
Here are all the ways I get veggies into my day and these are things I have taught people who stay with me, too. Some of these ideas are great for beginners, others will require a little more thought and open-mindedness – so start where it feels right for you and, over time, try some new things.
1. Add spinach to a breakfast smoothie Blend a handful or two of thoroughly washed spinach with ½ cup of water. To this you can add:
A handful of frozen berries, a cup of low-fat milk, a tablespoon or two of vanilla yoghurt and a few teaspoons of ground LSA (linseeds, sunflower seeds and almonds) or any seeds of your choice.
1 small frozen banana, blended (peel it before you freeze it – I didn’t the first time and it got very messy!), 1 cup of low-fat milk and a few teaspoons of ground LSA or, again, any seeds of your choice
2. Have veggies with your eggs
When you say ‘eggs’ to most people at breakfast time, the logical addition is bacon. But there is no reason why you can’t have veggies at breakfast.
If you are having poached or scrambled eggs, why not add some mushrooms and tomatoes on the side? Either grill or lightly fry them in a tiny bit of oil in a pan. Spinach is also a great accompaniment to eggs, just pop some in the microwave (without water) for 30 seconds to wilt it or add it to the pan with your mushrooms and tomatoes to soften.
Omelettes are a winner for breakfast or a light meal option – I have chickens so eggs are always on tap and, wow, what a quick and easy meal they make. I use about 1–2 handfuls of veggies and 2 eggs per person. Onion (white, red or spring onion), mushrooms, tomatoes, leafy greens (I often use frozen free-flow spinach), capsicum and courgette all work super well – you can even add peas (with a little chopped mint – mmm, so good!). It might be more of a weekend thing if your week is super busy, but that’s fine.
IDEA 1: Have salad veggies as your ‘base’
In the warmer months, most days my lunch has two handfuls of nonstarchy veggies as the starting point and to that I will add some protein, a little healthy starch and some healthy fats. I know that most people plan their meals around the protein or starch part, but I like to start the other way around – the veggies are just as important. This is a mind-set shift, but something people who have stayed with me have learnt to do as have all of our clients at Mission Nutrition. Here are some of the combos I enjoy:
Lettuce can be pricey, but cabbage and carrots are often cheap. I will prepare coleslaw as the veggie component of my dinner one night a week (served with some baked chicken or fish, for example) and I always make extra so that I have enough coleslaw to last me for 2–3 lunch meals on the following days.
Half a white or red cabbage, finely shredded (you need a good knife or mandolin, ideally), plus 3–4 large carrots, grated, will make about 8–10 handfuls of veggies. I add herbs to mine (mint and parsley), some fresh chilli or chilli flakes and I would add a little dressing just before I eat it.
You can also add capsicum, edamame beans and some spring onions along with an Asian-style dressing to mix things up.
Grated beetroot and carrot with some chopped parsley is just magic – I often use a food processor with a grater blade to make it all less messy and again, I make enough for several dinner meals and/or lunches. I add a dressing just before I eat it most of the time (or in the morning before work when I take it out of the fridge, or I keep some dressing at work) and then just add some protein, healthy fat and possibly some starch.
Grated carrot with chopped veggies like celery, baby spinach, spring onion, capsicum and sliced snow peas along with some nuts and seeds also make a great combo.
Grated courgette is a wonderful base or addition to a salad, too, and when they are in season this is a genius use of courgettes.
Mixed salad combos
It is easy to make a delicious salad by mixing and matching whatever ingredients you have at hand using this magic formula: