veggie toddler - a young child learning how to walk and eat vegetables, not necessarily a wobbly vegetarian.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Eat Your Veggies

[October 5th, 2010 in the Dining section of the New York Times, Jane E. Brody wrote an article called “Even Benefits Don’t Tempt Us to Vegetables.” At the end of the article, Brody asks for opinions of why America won’t eat their vegetables. What follows is my response.]

I eat plenty of food during the day so why is it that I can’t seem to consume enough vegetables? If I treat vegetables as an afterthought, waiting to be “fit in” to my daily routine, like an optimistic visit to the gym, even I know it just won’t happen.

Nutritionists bombard me with technical information proving why vegetables are good for me. They label some of them “super foods.” I know vegetables are good for me. That’s not the problem. But no matter what cape my broccoli puts on, it won’t swoop down to save the day unless I actually eat it.

Maybe the problem is less about the actual vegetable and more about the stigma surrounding the unfortunate food group. If simply adding vegetables to my diet doesn’t work, then maybe I need to fundamentally change how I am thinking about them. What if I manipulate my daily routine by swapping out the unhealthy food, those with empty calories, and replacing them with nutritional ones like vegetables?

I can identify three basic concepts that will get me eating more vegetables, every day.
1. I don’t need to be a trained chef in order to prepare vegetables.
I visit the farmer’s market or the produce section of my grocery store and bring home some vegetables. Now what? When did vegetable-preparation become so complicated? I look on line for how to cook broccoli, for example, and I find an array of recipes from a mushy casserole to a sauté with exotic ingredients, smothered in cheese. No one tells me that I don’t need to add anything at all in order to eat broccoli but perhaps a little heat to soften up its raw crunch. A lot of vegetables can be consumed raw. Most vegetables may also be steamed, baked or sautéed. Then all I have to do is put them on a plate and enjoy. Sure I can add some butter or olive oil and salt or I may need some tips on how to peel or chop or steam, but vegetables don’t have to be gourmet.

2. I need snacks with calories that count.
 I eat snacks for a reason; I get hungry between meals. Snacks need to satisfy my hunger, give me energy without making me feel too full so I can go about my day until the next meal. Who said junk food is the only snackable food group? Companies have been perfecting junk food’s packaging, shape, taste and texture for years making it more irresistible each time. There is no way vegetables can compete on the outside. But when it comes to the inside, there is no choice. Vegetables will give me the nutrients I need without the unwanted fat, sodium, sugar or calories. A veggie snack truly gives me more bang for my buck when I consider nutrition first. Why not grab some carrots and dipping sauce or a bowl of steamed peas for a snack? How about rushing out of the house with a bag of snap peas or sliced up bell peppers? Why does a snack have to be shrink-wrapped with a shelf life of over a year?

3. I won’t eat what I don’t crave.
In between meals, my energy drops and I look around for a snack. I grab a bag of chips or a muffin or maybe even an organic granola bar. I eat the junk food and I feel satisfied. The next time I need a snack, I crave junk food. It is a cycle. My body wants what my body knows. If I satisfy my cravings with junk food, I will only crave it again the next time hunger strikes. Consider the alternative. My energy drops and I grab a vegetable snack (an avocado and salad dressing or lightly steamed string beans, for example) or even an apple. I feel satisfied after my snack and so the next time I am hungry, I crave another veggie or fruit snack. Could it really be that simple? My body craves what I give it. If I don’t reach for vegetables, my body will never know what it is missing or be able to ask for more. The same goes for meals. If I don’t include a vegetable as an integral part of dinner, I won’t miss it and then I will never eat it. But if I eat vegetables every night, when I do forget, I will miss them and crave vegetables.

If I keep vegetables on a silver platter saved for special occasions, they will never have the opportunity to infiltrate my everyday life. Super foods may have super powers but I need them to put on their street clothes and meld into my daily routine without all the excitement. Eating vegetables should be no big deal. America needs to pop the mystery bubble that makes vegetables appear unattainable and take them off the to-do list that simply never gets done.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Healthy Enough

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how you don’t need to be the tallest person around to be a professional basket ball player, you simply need to be tall enough. The same is true for education, according to Gladwell. You don’t need to go to the best college in order to win a Pulitzer Prize; you simply have to go to a school that is good enough. Well I would say nutrition works in a similar manner. Sure there will always be someone who eats a more healthy diet than I do. But in order to live a healthy life, I don’t think I need to grow all of my own food and raise my own cows. I simply need to eat healthy enough.

Perhaps there is a threshold for nutrition just like Gladwell’s basket ball players and Pulitzer Prize winners. We need to strive to eat a healthy diet but not necessarily the most healthy diet possible. Striving to eat healthy “enough” means cutting ourselves some slack now and then. I do all I can to put nutritious food in front of my family, but we also need to live a little. And at the end of the day, that makes us a little more healthy. To be healthy, after all, has to do with not only what we eat but how we live as well. Eat well, exercise and don’t forget to indulge now and then and have fun.

Of course this begs the question, how healthy is healthy enough? I am sorry to say that I have no perfect formula for what constitutes healthy enough. Everyone has their own threshold that works for them and the particular needs of their family. All I can say is that as much as I believe in nutritious food, I also believe in moderation. Every now and then it’s good to stand back from the most recent toxic plastic scare or obesity statistic and say to myself, “you know what? I am doing a pretty good job of getting fresh food on the table for my family.” Although my family may not be the most organic farm fresh, marathon-running family on my block, chances are, we are healthy enough.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Faster Than Take-Out Pasta

Well, maybe not faster but I think it takes just as much effort to call up and order food, get the kids together, drive or walk to a restaurant, bring the food home, and eat it. Okay, so maybe you’ll say, why not just sit there, at the restaurant and eat it? Or perhaps you live in an area where you can get any type of food delivered to your door. I understand, some nights I want to eat at home without making a big fuss in the kitchen. Even if I call for food to be delivered, I still have to wait maybe 30 minutes for it.

Typically I think of ordering take-out because I am tired or pressed for time or my kids are all in bad moods or I haven’t gone to the grocery store and so I think I have nothing to cook for dinner. Whatever the situation may be, the fact is, I can make a quick and easy dinner with items I have in my pantry, stocked in my freezer or left over in my refrigerator that will satisfy myself and my kids and be ready in just as much time it takes me to order take-out.

Some nights I simply need a break and order take out. But those other nights when I just get lazy, those are the times when I remember Faster Than Take-Out Pasta.

What’s my secret? Pasta, olive oil, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Really, that’s it. Okay so you may have some leftovers to throw in like left over chicken sliced up or a side dish of steamed frozen peas or garlic and zucchini to sauté. You may even have some fresh parmesan cheese to grate up or basil for garnish. Whatever you’ve got – put it together, put it on the table and call it dinner. Chances are it will be quicker, easier and certainly more nutritious and less expensive than another night of take-out. Not every home-cooked meal requires planning and shopping and standing over pots.

A nutritious meal doesn’t need to be complicated. What’s your faster than take-out meal?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Halloween Teeth

“Mommy! Mommy!” scream my kids as they run from trick-or-treating at a house in our neighborhood. “I got a toothbrush!”

One of our neighbors is a dentist. Every year for Halloween, instead of candy, he hands out a toothbrush to the kids trick-or-treating at his house. The adults standing on the sidewalk chuckle over this choice of Halloween treat. I’ve seen pencils, pennies, stickers, or even small containers of play-dough in lieu of candy. I’m always in full support of any effort to diminish the candy fever but even I recognize that the kids just want candy.

To my surprise, the toothbrush causes just as much of a craze as the candy. When we get home that night, after eating quite a few pieces of candy from their loot pumpkins, I say to my kids, “time to brush your teeth.” Usually I get a moan or an “aw mom,” before they sheepishly mope off to the bathroom for the nightly ritual. But tonight is different

“My new toothbrush!” my 5 and 3 year-old exclaim practically in unison, as they rush of to find it buried in the candy pile. Tonight they both brush their teeth with a new found energy. I suppose it could just be from all the sugar they have consumed over the course of the evening. But to me, it is an excitement over a new toothbrush that is brought up to the level of candy on Halloween.

You may not have a neighbor who is a dentist, but this experience got me thinking. Why not give the kids a brand new toothbrush as part of their Halloween treats? I know I can’t stop the candy, so I might as well get in a good brush before bedtime. Happy Halloween!