Q:I'm pretty sure eating vegetables is key to a healthy diet, but besides grabbing some greens at a salad bar, it seems like a lot of work. Any ideas?-Justine K., Boston
A: While there are easy ways to get more veggies into your diet, proper nutrition does require some planning and commitment. The food industry in general stresses convenience over fresh and healthy, but recent trends in community gardening and farm-to-table eateries are evidence that a significant number of Americans are willing to go that extra mile for their health. And for very good reason.
Go for the Rainbow
Basic macronutrients are relatively easy to get in wholesome formats-fish and eggs provide protein; avocado and nut butters provide fat; and sweet potatoes and brown rice provide carbs. But healthy bodies need a vast array of minerals and vitamins that act as cofactors in the complex panoply of biochemical pathways that comprise tissue building and repair. And that's why veggies are so important.
Fresh vegetables are high in key micronutrients that get processed out of packaged foods. Most vegetables are goldmines of fiber, minerals, and vitamins. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Veggies are also packed with natural pigments: red is lycopene; orange and yellow are bioflavonoids; green is chlorophyll; and blue is anthocyanidins.
This rainbow display of naturally occurring pigments is important for plant health. Plants are constantly exposed to the elements, and over the eons, they developed pigmentation that not only allows them to become more complex (and thus more adaptable to their environments), but also protects them from radiation from the sun's rays. And when humans eat those plant colors, we gain some of their protective prowess against radiation and other agents of cellular damage. This is the single most important reason to make the effort to eat 1-2 cups of vegetables at least twice daily.
Every weekend, I spend time organizing food for the week, so I don't get caught without good choices on hand. Carrot and celery sticks, for instance, can live for 4-5 days upright, lightly salted, in a glass in the fridge. They're perfect for munching solo, or with hummus or nut butters.
Also consider prepping a tray of sliced zucchini, red peppers, eggplant, yam, peeled garlic, or any other vegetable conducive to slow baking. Drizzle olive oil over this visual feast of colorful slices and cook for about 2-3 hours at 200°F. When soft, transfer to glass containers. They will keep for several days, and make great grab-and-go options for lunch, or easy additions to dinner menus. Baking whole yams or sweet potatoes at a higher temperature (325°F) is another good weekend idea. Though they're best when hot, these delicious root veggies are tasty and filling any time.
Soups & Smoothies
Another terrific way to prepare veggies (or use them up before they're past their prime) is to make soups and smoothies. If you don't own a slow cooker, get one. They're wonderful for cooking vegetables and spices together for a long time over low heat. This gentle heating opens the plants' cell walls and allows their myriad healthy elements to meld together. And there's nothing better than coming home to the aroma of a stew or thick soup that has been slowly cooking all day.
My favorite tool for making smoothies is a Vitamix blender, but most other blenders will also do the job. A good smoothie base is roughly 2 parts water, 1 part yogurt, and either lemon juice and salt for a savory shake, or cinnamon and honey for a sweet one. The sweet blend can also feature fruit-try bananas, blueberries, or mango chunks-but cooked yam and a little maple syrup are also nice for a change. A savory blend can feature spinach, kale, cabbage, sprouts, garlic, tomato, cilantro, radishes, and/or any leftover cooked veggies. And don't forget the spices! A nice thick smoothie makes a good meal replacement for calorie-conscious days, and can also serve as a wonderful snack or appetizer.
Top of the Morning
And who says you can't have veggies for breakfast? Consider keeping a glass container of finely chopped onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, celery, and maybe grated carrot or jicama in your fridge to easily toss into an omelet or tortilla-or even over a bowl of warm whole grains.
If you plan on having whole grains for breakfast (e.g., oats, buckwheat millet, etc.), soak them overnight using 4 parts water to 1 part grain. This makes them easier to cook-and digest. This "soupy" porridge (known as congee in Ayurvedic medicine) is a perfect vector for any number of toppings. Try something simple such as raisins and cinnamon, or go fancier with pecans, sprouts, and a spoonful of kimchi, pickled beets, or marinated artichoke hearts, plus a big pinch of arugula. Yum!