We all know that vegetables provide us with a multitude of important nutrients including fiber, vitamins and minerals, and health benefits such as protection against heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and certain types of cancer. Despite this, the majority of people are not meeting vegetable intake recommendations. State surveys report that about 23% of adults and 38% of adolescents eat vegetables less than once each day.
So what should our daily vegetable intake look like? Actual recommendations for vegetable intake vary by age, gender and activity level, but average to about 2–3 cups of vegetables for women and 3–4 cups for men each day. Choosing a variety of different types and colors of vegetables including dark green leafy, red and orange is also recommended. And all forms count. This means they can be raw, cooked, frozen, canned, dried, whole, cut-up or mashed, and even vegetable juice counts.
Because our body uses the nutrients in vegetables differently when they are eaten raw vs. eaten cooked, we should vary our vegetable preparation methods as well. There are many ways to prepare vegetables to enhance their flavors, preserve their nutrients and colors and keep them interesting to eat.
Plunge vegetables into boiling water for 1–3 minutes and quickly transfer to ice water to stop the cooking process. This is good for hard vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, and peppers to make them tender crisp, prep them for later use or prepare them for freezing.
Place vegetables in a small amount of liquid such as broth or water. The liquid can be flavored with chopped tomatoes, onion, garlic, or herbs and then be used as the sauce for the vegetables. Braising is best for long cooking vegetables such as carrots, kale or potatoes.
Brush vegetables with a small amount of oil or marinate them in something such as teriyaki sauce or low-fat dressing and place in a grilling pan or on skewers. This works well for tomatoes, large mushrooms, eggplant, zucchini, summer squash, potatoes, and peppers.
Place vegetables in a microwave safe container with a small amount of liquid and stir or rotate during cooking to prevent drying and hot spots. This is good for frozen vegetables and vegetables that require a long cooking time such as carrots or sweet potatoes.
Toss vegetables in a small amount of oil and seasoning and roast at high heat, about 400–450°F until tender in shallow baking pan in one layer. This is great for cooking winter squash, carrots, beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes.
This method uses raw vegetables, forming them into long thin strips with the use of a hand grater or a food processor. They have many uses but are particularly nice in salads and sandwiches. Try shredding Brussel sprouts, zucchini, carrots, and cabbage or dense lettuce leaves such as Swiss chard, turnip greens and escarole.
Place vegetables in a steamer basket above boiling water. Tightly cover the pan to keep the steam in and cook until tender crisp. Steaming preserves more nutrients, flavor and texture than other cooking methods and is especially good for green vegetables.
Use a small amount of oil, fat free broth or nonstick spray and cook vegetables over high heat, tossing continuously until tender crisp. Small pieces of vegetables work best with this method. A wok is the traditional pan for stir-frying, but a heavy skillet will work as well.
Learn more about the health benefits of vegetables by visiting njaes.rutgers.edu/functional-foods/lesson/vegetables to see educational materials to the topic Bringing Vegetables to the Table: A Celebration of the Harvest.