Soon after arriving home from a short trip to Manhattan, I took a vitamin pill. No, there was nothing arduous about the return journey that required a dose of nutrients. But on the train back to Boston, I reviewed in my mind the various places where we breakfasted and dined (lunch was usually skipped) and realized, that except for a shared salad at one dinner and some fruit at a breakfast, I had failed miserably at consuming the recommended daily servings of fruit and vegetables. For a 2000-calorie diet, the recommendation is to consume about 2 -2 ½ cups of fruit and 2 cups of vegetables daily.
This wasn’t because I had left vegetables and fruits untouched on my plate. There were never any on the plate. The restaurants (Greek, French, and mixed American), chosen by consensus, had large selections and theoretically should have been able to supply some vegetables. Indeed, the Greek fish restaurant did have appetizers, i.e., Meze, that incorporated some vegetables like eggplant and cucumbers into purées, dips and wraps (like grape leaves). But the main courses in all three restaurants presented an entrée on an otherwise naked plate. To be sure, vegetable side dishes and salads were available but the size and, quite frankly, the cost of these extras made them less attractive. Somehow spending the money for three grilled asparagus that one would spend for a pound of the same vegetable at Whole Foods seemed like an unjustifiable extravagance.
Desserts were not considered but quick polite scans of the dessert menu (after all, if a server puts one in your hand, the least one can do is look at it) showed a uniform absence of anything resembling a fruit.
Obviously eating away from home because of business, travel or vacations is not going to cause acute malnutrition. And is certainly possible and not that all difficult to choose restaurants that offer enough vegetable and fruit selections to satisfy the USDA nutrient intake recommendations as well as one’s mother. Had we been eating on our own, we would have done so.
But we have come a long way from the time when all restaurants put vegetables on the plate, gave you a salad along with the breadbasket, and included fresh fruit on the dessert menu. There was a time when cafeterias were as common as fast-food restaurants are today, and the number of cafeteria trays holding vegetables was as numerous as those containing meat, chicken or fish. To be sure, the salad may have consisted of watery iceberg lettuce and tasteless tomatoes, and the vegetables came straight from an industrial size can, but no one expected a lunch or dinner meal to consist only of a solitary protein entrée. Fifty or sixty years ago, if you were served a plate with two lonely lamp chops or a chunk of fish and nothing else, you might have thought the server forgot to put the two veg and a potato on your plate.
Like other cultural changes that creep up on and take hold (who remembers records and landlines?), we don’t notice the chronic absence of vegetable options in the “nice”’ restaurants, or our habit of putting together our own meals without including them. And a result, we fail to notice that we may have stopped eating vegetables altogether. They have become a forgotten food.
In contrast to the ongoing debate over high and low-carb or high & low-fat diets, the extraordinary powers of protein to turn us back into Paleolithic cave people, and the devastating effects of gluten on the brain, no one discusses vegetables. Who debates the merit of spinach over kale or Brussel sprouts over broccoli? When was the last time the Science section of leading newspapers had research on the merits of vegetable consumption?
Fortunately, there are some recent trends that may forestall an outbreak of scurvy or other nutrient deficient diseases. Leading chefs are inventing ways of turning the ordinary carrot, string bean or beet into creative, original dishes that rival the importance of the protein selections on the menu. Vegetable-laden smoothies and juices are becoming ubiquitous; the selection of bottled vegetable juices go far beyond V8, and juice bars allow customization of vegetable and fruit mixtures. Mixed drinks containing vegetables haven’t found their way into wine bars yet but someone will come up with an alcohol beverage that somehow incorporates kale. Supermarkets have, for many years now, made vegetables available for immediate consumption. No washing, peeling, slicing or dicing necessary; just chewing. And to remedy the “How do I get my family or spouse to eat vegetables?” problem, many frozen varieties are sold with sauces or suggestions on how to transform the pea or carrot into a gourmet dish.
But….the vegetables have to be bought and eaten at home, not left to gradually decompose in the vegetable bin. If eating away from home is more frequent than dining in one’s kitchen, restaurants should be chosen that offer healthy salads and vegetable side dishes with affordable prices. Most restaurants display their menus on the Internet so it should be possible to find some that do not regard vegetables as a colorful garnish. The cost of those vegetable side dishes could be decreased if both the entrée and the vegetables and/or salad, are shared. Lunch is an easy meal at which to eat vegetables as these days many feature salads or salad bars; even airport restaurants offer a variety of freshly made salads. (Our problem in New York was that we skipped lunch).
It takes some effort to develop scurvy; even the British sailors who did so were not vulnerable until many weeks of vitamin C deprivation. But it also takes a little effort to remember that vegetables are part of a healthy diet and should be hunted and gathered, even if the gathering is at a salad bar.