Knowing where to look for your veggies the key to solving the nutrition riddle


September 20, 1994|By Colleen Pierre | Colleen Pierre,Special to The Sun

Recently I met with some health-oriented folks who admitted they don't eat three vegetables a day, the current recommendation of the National Cancer Institute and the Food Guide Pyramid. Their reason: they don't know how to prepare them.

This is a common complaint among Generation Xers who feed in fast-food shops where french fries predominate. It rings true, too, among singles of all ages who rely on microwave food for sustenance. But some vegetables are close at hand for both these groups. Other vegetables can be added easily.

Most fast-food shops offer side salads as well as lettuce and tomato on sandwiches. But how do they stack up as vegetables?

First, let's look at the leafy vegetables. One measuring cup full equals one serving. That's a pile about the size of your fist. Iceberg lettuce doesn't count. It's mostly water and offers no nutrients. But a salad of Romaine or spinach is a big winner.

Non-leafy vegetables add up faster. Just one-half cup is a serving. Take another look at that side salad. Even if it's mostly iceberg, it might also contain a half-cup of vegetables like carrots, green peppers, onions and celery.

Half a small tomato equals a half-cup. That's more than the see-through slice on standard sandwiches. But features like Roy Rogers' "Fixin's Bar" make it easy to pile on enough slices to make a serving.

So there are vegetables in fast food shops.

Anyone familiar with the microwave has a world of vegetables at his fingertips. To start with, frozen dinners always include a half-cup serving of mixed veggies, carrot coins, green beans or cooked spinach. They count.

And while you're buying frozen meals, pick up a couple of bags of frozen vegetables. They're just as nutritious as fresh, and each package comes with cooking instructions even a beginner can follow. They take just minutes in the microwave, and easily turn a sandwich meal into a high-nutrition dinner. Most are plain, but some come in high-fat sauces. Fortunately, the Nutrition Facts label will tell you just how much fat is in a serving.

Combine these sauced veggies with an otherwise low-fat meal to stay within healthy guidelines. But if you've had a high-fat day, choose the plain varieties. It's overall balance that counts.

To cook fresh vegetables in the microwave, wash but don't dry them. The small amount of water that clings will be just enough to keep them moist while cooking. Cut your veggies into sizes and shapes you like, or leave them whole. Place them in a microwave-safe dish with a lid, or cover with plastic wrap, to keep moisture in. Cook on high for about three minutes. Stir, then cook for two more minutes. Test by piercing with a fork. Most vegetables yield to gentle pressure when done. Continue cooking for one or two minutes at a time until done. Do not overcook.

If you don't have a microwave, try a steamer basket, available in most grocery stores or cookware shops. Put the basket in a pot large enough to hold it and your vegetables with the lid snugly in place. Put about an inch of water in the bottom of the pot. Pile the veggies in the basket. Cover and cook on high until the water turns to steam. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until veggies are done.

To spice up your vegetables, season before cooking. Cook Brussels sprouts -- four make a serving -- with sliced onion, a pinch of dried oregano, and some freshly ground pepper.

Squeeze fresh lemon on broccoli or cauliflower (six small florets make a serving). Or try sprinkling on some salt-free seasonings like Mrs. Dash or Parsley Patch.

By far the easiest way to eat fresh vegetables is raw. Just wash thoroughly in clean water, peel if necessary, cut or slice if you like, then eat. What could be better.

One-fourth of a green pepper, one small carrot, a rib of celery, half a small zucchini, or a handful of radishes makes a half-cup serving. If you're not into peeling and slicing, stop by the produce department of your grocery store and pick up a ready-pack. All the work is done for you.

Vegetables are so easy to prepare. Start reaping their health benefits now.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant the the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

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