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How to eat your vegetables

(post, Cindy Burke)

I'm having the same relationship with this post that I used to have with vegetables. I want to write about eating your vegetables, I think it's important to write about eating your vegetables. But then, I decide the weather is finally sunny, so I'll take a walk. Or I feel an urgent need to clean out my spice cupboard. I feel certain that I will get around to writing about the importance of eating vegetables, but there are just so many other things that I need to do first. 

I can't argue with the logic of including more vegetables and fruits in my diet. With benefits that range from lowering blood pressure, reducing the risk of heart disease and some cancers, and stabilizing blood-sugar levels, there doesn't seem to be any downside to eating your five-to-seven daily servings of vegetables. Except that you have to find a way to make four cups of vegetables appealing — every single day. And potatoes don't count — tragically, French fries and potato chips can't be counted as a vegetable serving. 

For years, I planned to eat my five-to-seven servings of vegetables per day. I tried to find good recipes for vegetables, I shopped for vegetables, and I tucked them away in the refrigerator crisper. But there were baguettes to tear into and soft creamy cheeses to savor, and after that, well, who's hungry for vegetables? I liked vegetables, really I did, but I rarely ate the recommended four cups of veggies and fruits per day.

But there's something I've noticed about Life now that I'm in my late 40s: Things have a way of catching up with you. Choices we made when we were in our 20s can have a major impact on our health during midlife. It's like, there you are in your mid-40s, sitting around the table eating a healthy meal with your polite, well-mannered children, and then one of your college roommates shows up at your door with a bottle of tequila, a stash of pot, and a bagful of junk food. Hey, dude, remember the parties we used to have? Gulp.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Chard at the market."] 

At least that's the way I felt when I was diagnosed with a particularly bad-ass form of heart disease. But in my case, I didn't smoke, my diet was pretty healthy, my weight was normal, and I was in pretty good health — which is why my doctors and my family were stunned when I had a sudden heart attack at age 44. 

As I discovered later, a blip in my genetic code, called the EpoE gene, makes my body create large dense particles of cholesterol that sink into my arterial walls, build up, and turn into layers of arterial plaque. To slow the progress of my aggressive heart disease, my diet now centers on eating those five-to-seven servings of vegetables each day.

I am an outlier, because my heart disease was diagnosed at such an early age, but most Americans will also die from diseases related to our eating patterns and our food choices. Michael Pollan made this point during a lecture I attended recently. He scanned the crowded room, the hushed expectant faces, and said, "Almost every person in this room will eventually die from a food-related disease." 

It was a dramatic opener. Unfortunately, it's a fact. Most people in this country, most children in this country, do not eat the kind of plant-based diet our bodies thrive on, and it's killing us. Literally. 

To get started on the path toward better health, most of us need to eat more vegetables. For the past eight months, I've been eating my vegetables — as in, eating all of my vegetable servings, every day. When I first started trying to change my diet, it was a struggle to eat that many vegetable servings in a single day. It's still a struggle some days, but I have found ways to make vegetables more appealing at every meal (yes, even breakfast) and easier for me to enjoy as snacks. I'm planning to write several upcoming blog posts with great recipes and ideas for making delicious meals that focus on vegetables.

For now, here are a few tips for getting more vegetables into your diet:

# Buy high-quality, organic vegetables in season. Get your vegetables from the freshest source you can find — farm stands, farmers' markets, a CSA share from a local farm, or a busy co-op or grocery store. When you buy high-quality veggies, they taste better, look better, and have more nutritional value.
# Spend an hour on Sunday washing and prepping your vegetables for the upcoming week. It's much easier to grab vegetables for lunch or to toss into your eggs or your dinner if they are already cleaned and trimmed. When you have grab-and-go veggies ready, you're more likely to use them. 
You can buy precut carrots and other vegetables (especially from Trader Joe's), but I find that the quality is not optimal and I'd rather do it myself. Cut a whole bunch of celery into sticks and put them in a bag or cup with a sprinkle of water. Bell peppers get the same treatment, as do peeled carrots. Trimmed radishes floating in a dish of water will last a week. Cauliflower and broccoli can be trimmed into florets and stored in a produce bag. Beets can be boiled unpeeled and refrigerated; the peel slips right off when you rub it with a paper towel. Lettuce and spinach should be rinsed thoroughly, trimmed of stems, then rolled up in a dish towel and refrigerated in a produce bag. They will last a week or more when stored this way. 
# Dips! Now that you have all of those veggies at the ready, make or buy a couple of dips and you always have a great snack or lunch. Hummus or tzatziki (Greek yogurt dip) are good choices, as is guacamole. 
# When you are invited to someone's house for dinner, offer to bring the appetizer. Bring a beautiful crudités platter of fresh veggies with a delicious dip. Or make a plate of roasted peppers and olives with a light sprinkle of feta cheese. A bowl of grilled and chilled summer vegetables tossed with olive oil and herbs is another idea. Take the initiative to make sure there are plenty of vegetables at the table.
# When you really want meat, make it part of a big salad. My daughter loves steak, so I make grilled flank steak and toss strips of it in a big salad of romaine lettuce, toasted walnuts, red onion, celery, and blue cheese. Salmon or chicken are also good with this salad (but skip the blue cheese and walnuts; try orange segments and sliced almonds instead). Caesar salad is also an easy salad to make that is very good with grilled fish or chicken on top. Many meat and salad combinations are surprisingly tasty, and it's easy to experiment with flavor combinations.

reference-image, l