Conversations about eating vegetables are usually infrequent, unless one is at the farmer’s market wondering how to cook a strangely striped squash or white baby radishes. Yesterday, however, I had a long-ish discussion about produce with an elderly Navy veteran seated by me on a van ride to a local hospital. His passion was growing a large assortment of vegetables in his ½ acre backyard. Despite the vagaries of a New England spring and summer, his planting is so successful he has to give away much of what he grows. One reason that he distributes his harvest to his neighbors is that his wife is, “…Strictly meat and potatoes…She will only eat iceberg lettuce that she buys in the supermarket, even though I grow several varieties of lettuces,” he told me rather sadly. He was convinced that his superb health, except for some arthritic aches and pains, was due in part to his healthy eating: large salads every day and cooked vegetables as well for dinner. His wife, sort of like Jack Spratt and his spouse, was overweight, hypertensive and diabetic.
“Can’t you convince her to eat what you grow?” I asked, wishing I was a neighbor and could receive some of his harvest. “Nope, she won’t listen to anyone,” he replied.
Later on that morning I sat in on a weight-loss group meeting of mostly obese males, aged about 68 to 80. The dietician leading the meeting suggested I attend in preparation for some research we were planning to do together.
Eating vegetables was the topic du jour.
Brightly colored charts listing vegetables according to their nutrient components were on the screen, and copies of the charts also appeared in front of each participant. The guys were quiet and attentive but, as I listened, I wondered how many would translate the information they were hearing into food on their plates. Some cooked for themselves, as I learned after the meeting; others relied on their spouse or partner. If they increased their consumption of vegetables, it probably would not only improve their nutritional status; it might help them lose weight, the point of the dietician’s talk.
My conclusion at the end of the session was that most of these men, probably like the Navy vet’s spouse, would still prefer their meat and potatoes. No one asked how to prepare vegetables like kale, winter squash, beets and turnips. No one asked whether frozen or canned vegetables could be substituted for fresh, whether sweet potatoes were better than white potatoes, or was corn considered a vegetable or just starch. No one asked how to get enough vegetables when eating out in a restaurant, especially a fast-food chain. No one asked if it was all right to cook the vegetables in butter or oil, or to add cheese or bacon bits to the dish. I suspect that no one asked these questions because few of them seriously decided to buy the vegetables that the dietician told them to eat. No one said, “I don’t like vegetables.” But I wonder how many were thinking that?
The distance between making a sensible nutritional recommendation to eat X and avoid Y, and having the recommendation translated into eating, can be insurmountable. The recipients of nutritional information may be adults, but they maybe just as resistant to trying new vegetables, or eating them at all, as children. Perhaps even more so because like the wife of the Navy veteran, it is what they have been doing all their lives.
A better approach might be to figure out with the recipients of the information, i.e. the guys in the nutrition class, how, when, and where they might increase their vegetable consumption.
Might they be encouraged to drink their vegetables in a juice that includes enough fruit as well as spinach, carrots, and kale so the drink is tasty?
Should they be encouraged to try vegetables from a supermarket salad bar so they can learn what they like and are willing to eat without having to prepare the vegetables at home?
Could they go to a farmer’s market or supermarket, take pictures of vegetables that are unfamiliar and at the next meeting discuss with the dietician how these vegetables can be prepared?
Perhaps the person cooking for them could sneak vegetables into mixed ingredient dishes like stews, meatloaf, tomato sauce, and blended soups. To borrow a well-known phrase, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ This may be the easiest way to increase their consumption. I should have mentioned this to the Navy veteran as he told me he does much of the cooking.
Ethnic cuisines do a good job of turning vegetables into carefully prepared, well-seasoned dishes. Think of Japanese tempera, which, if correctly prepared, is greaseless…what an interesting way to introduce asparagus or string beans or carrots to the recalcitrant vegetable eater. Other Asian cuisines also do magical things with vegetables. They suddenly become as tasty (or tastier) as protein. Middle Eastern cuisines rely on vegetables as vehicles for flavorful fillings, or mixed with unlikely pairings like yogurt and garlic.
I wonder if the dietician had shown a video of how to grill vegetables from a cooking network show, passed around cookbooks featuring pictures of mouth-watering vegetable dishes, or asked the participants to cook some produce during the following week for a potluck vegetable session, so that interest and enthusiasm might have been increased.
Getting non-vegetables eaters to allow some room on their plate for vegetables is not hopeless. But it will take more than colored charts and a monologue about eating kale and carrots to bring this about.