Where are the Vegetables in Vegetable Products?

Headlines continually blast news that veggies harbor amazing health benefits, but the skimpy amounts in many processed foods and on dinner plates aren’t enough to offer much nutrition. By Maureen Callahan, MS, RD

Fresh Produce

Photo: Randy Mayor

Where are the Veggies?

Much as that little voice nags to “eat your veggies,” 64% of Americans come nowhere close to dining on the two to three cups of vegetables per day the Food Pyramid recommends. To say it’s a challenge is an understatement.

Yes, vegetables are delicious addition to meals. They’re high in fiber, low in calories, and chock-full of all kinds of good-for-you nutrients and disease-fighting chemicals. The trouble is they take some planning to include at meals, particularly when the meal is something cobbled together from take-out or what’s in the pantry.

We’ve looked at the full vegetable spectrum, from vegetable-scarce to a full-fledged vegetable serving. The more you eat from the “full-fledged” side, the more benefits you reap.

Carrot Cake Pancakes

Photo: Becky Luigart-Stayner

Vegetable-Flavored Baked Goods

Seeing isn’t always believing. Those shredded carrots or zucchini visible in prepared muffins and tea breads amounts to about 2 tablespoons per slice. That’s nothing to celebrate considering that’s about 1/4 a vegetable serving in a high-fat, high-calorie pastry package. A better bet is to make your own veggie-packaged treat, like these Carrot Cake Pancakes or a classic Zucchini Bread. The vegetable serving isn’t huge, but making it yourself ensures you use heart-healthier fats like canola oil.

View Recipe: Carrot Cake Pancakes

Eggplant and Goat Cheese Sandwiches

Photo: Kana Okada

Sandwiches

A leaf of lettuce and a thin slice or two of tomato is a start, but it’s barely half a serving of veggies. So load on more veggies like sliced cucumbers, sprouts, spinach, and roasted red peppers. Aim for at least 1/2 a cup of veggies or add a side salad. Or opt to make a meat-free sandwich like these Eggplant and Goat Cheese Sandwiches. We start with roasted eggplant, sweet red peppers, and peppery arugula as a hearty base. You could add any variety of veggies from here.

View Recipe: Eggplant and Goat Cheese Sandwiches

Frozen Peas

Photo: Charles Nesbit/GETTY IMAGES

Frozen Entrées

Plenty of frozen meals either skimp on (we measured just two tablespoons of veggies in some entrées) or oversell portions. Broccoli may be the first ingredient listed in Steak Tips Portobello, but the net amount is barely 1/2 cup. So turn it around by microwaving frozen broccoli or other frozen veggies to add to the plate.

Herbed Arugula-Tomato Salad with Chicken

Photo: Becky Luigart-Stayner

Mixed Salads

Shredded iceberg with a few colorful shreds of carrot and cabbage doesn’t add up to many calories, but it’s not nutrient-rich either. So opt for darker greens—spinach, arugula, Romaine—and add at least 1 cup of extras in the way of tomatoes, cucumber, and mushrooms to boost the veggie profile of salads. This basic chicken-topped salad is a great start. You can pile on the veggies from here.

View Recipe: Herbed Arugula-Tomato Salad with Chicken

Curried Potatoes and Squash

Photo: John Autry

Vegetable Soup

This one’s a toss up. Some prepared soups are veggie-rich; others stuff in more pasta than vegetable or negate health benefits with hefty amounts of cream or fat. Look for vegetable(s) listed as one of the first two ingredients and try to keep a lid on sodium and fat. Better yet, make homemade soup that’s brimming with vegetables, like this Curried Potatoes and Squash stew. A heavy dose of flavorful veggies—potatoes, squash, tomatoes, green peas, green onions—make this a nutritional A+.

View Recipe: Curried Potatoes and Squash

Carrot Juice

100% Juice

One-hundred percent vegetable juice—single variety or a blend of several juices—are a good choice. The hitch: Fiber goes missing and sometimes salt, or sugar, is added. It takes seven carrots (14 grams fiber) to make just one cup of juice (2 grams fiber). Still, a new study suggests veggie juices—rich in potassium—are one way to boost intake and may lower blood pressure.

Makaruni Pasta with Morel Mushroom Sauce

Dried Vegetables

Dried vegetables are smart nutrition choice. Nutrients and calories will be concentrated, but for most vegetables, which are super-low-cal to start with, that’s no big deal. Trendy freeze-dried offerings, including dried corn and carrots, don’t concentrate calories or injure nutrients, but steep price tags make them more for garnish. Dried mushrooms (like in the recipe pictured) are a great choice because they make interesting and often expensive wild mushroom varieties available year-round, at a more affordable price.

View Recipe: Makaruni Pasta with Morel Mushroom Sauce

Sauteed Brussels Sprouts

Pure Vegetable

This one’s a nutritional slam dunk. Fresh vegetables sport different colors, textures, and flavors in a skinny low-cal package. And canned and frozen veggies--minus creamy sauces and salt--count, too. Mix them up to net different nutrients and antioxidants. Carrots pack beta-carotene, spinach nets you iron, and green beans offer folate. You can’t go wrong with simply prepared whole vegetables.

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