Macaroni and cheese, pot roast, spaghetti and meatballs, steak and potatoes, Thanksgiving dinner: these are the answers you’ll likely hear when you ask almost any American what her favorite meal is. What do they all have in common? They’re all based off of huge portions of starchy carbs and protein — and don’t include a vegetable in sight. Even vegetarians’ and vegans’ favorite dishes — lasagna, enchiladas, grilled cheese — are sorely lacking in produce. And despite the urging of nutritionists and dietitians everywhere to eat more vegetables, only 23% of American meals include a serving of vegetables in their dinner.
But according to a recent study published in Public Health Nutrition, adding vegetables to your meals won’t just add valuable nutrients like fiber, vitamins and antioxidants — it actually makes those meals taste better. In the study, subjects rated dishes that included a vegetable as significantly higher on dimensions like “tasty” and “complete.” In addition, when a vegetable was included in a meal, subjects rated the meal preparer as more thoughtful, attentive, and capable. Overall, participants believed that vegetables “made the meal.”
Even though the study didn’t focus on the nutritional benefits of vegetables, this research indicates that adding vegetables to a main course makes diners perceive both the cook and the meal as more enjoyable. So how can you add vegetables to your favorite meals?
Sneak them in:
If you (or your children) don’t enjoy vegetables enough to get the recommended three to five servings per day, try sneaking them into your favorite foods. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, subjects who ate comfort food meals enhanced with pureed vegetables doubled their vegetable intake, perceived the meals as more satiating, and cut their calorie intake by up to 360 calories.
- Add grated squash, carrots, eggplant or zucchini to pasta sauces and casseroles
- Add pureed cauliflower or butternut squash to macaroni and cheese; their mild flavors are lost in the cheesy sauce, but they add fiber and vitamins to a nutritionally empty meal
- Add mild-tasting vegetables — like carrot, squash, cucumber, and zucchini — to fruit-based smoothies and drinks
- Add pureed pumpkin to muffins, pancakes and quickbreads in place of half of the oil called for (muffins and quickbreads still count as dessert — but at least you’re getting some nutrition out of them!)
- Add chopped mushroom to burgers; their meaty texture and flavor will displace some of the meat, cutting out calories and saturated fats
Put them on top:
Bump up your favorite meals by adding vegetables on top (or under or inside). No matter what you’re having — pizza, pasta, burgers, soup — there’s a way to add vegetables to the main dish (as opposed to eating them as a separate side).
- Add chopped veggies to your morning omelet
- Add any vegetables you can to your pizza. Either go for a traditional veggie pizza, or try these interesting combinations: olives, sundried tomatoes, and spinach; fennel, roasted tomatoes, and artichoke hearts; or butternut squash, mushroom, caramelized onions, and arugula
- Serve your soup over a bowl of greens; the steaming broth will wilt the greens, making them just another fiber- and vitamin-rich component of the soup
- Dress up a burger with more than just romaine, tomato slices, and red onion: try avocado and mango salsa; pineapple and beets (popular in Australia); or roasted red bell peppers and basil
- Baked butternut squash fries
- Kale chips
- Fennel citrus salad
- Raw zucchini “sushi” rolls
- Zucchini and tomato stacks with basil pesto
- Rosemary roasted carrots
- Beet green fries
Make them the main course:
Instead of relying on proteins or starches as the basis of your meal (even if they’re vegetarian, like tofu or beans), make vegetables the main event in your meal. The USDA recommends that adults get between 10% to 35% of their calories from protein, which equals out to 46 grams for women and 56 grams of men (although other factors come into play, like if you’re an athlete or if you’re pregnant). A three ounce piece of chicken contains 21 grams of protein (almost half of the daily recommended amount for a female) compared with more than 50 grams for a restaurant-sized piece of meat, so you’ll still get plenty of protein when you plan your meal around veggies.
- Veggie stir-fry: let snap peas, snow peas, bell pepper, broccoli, mushrooms, bok choy, and carrots take center stage; add protein with a small amount of tofu, chicken or shrimp
- Hearty salads: add bulk to your typical spinach or romaine salad with roasted butternut squash, mushrooms, beans, lentils, asparagus, beets, edamame, and fruit
- Vegetable curry: instead of building your vegetarian curry around chickpeas, lentils, tofu or potatoes, use bulky vegetables — zucchini, squash, broccoli, and mushrooms — as the base
- Minestrone soup, vegetable chili, butternut squash soup
- Shakshouka: cook eggs in a mix of tomatoes, onions, bell pepper, and spinach