Veggetize Meals and Snacks

Written by Karen Verna Carlson, N.D., Ph.D..

carlson-march-2012Adding fiber- and flavor-rich fresh veggies lets you enjoy favorite foods, while educating your family's palates and habits towards healthier fare.

This month, families are encouraged to implement healthier eating habits. "Eat more fresh vegetables," has become an organizing focus for me to keep upgrading my nutrition. Eating more vegetables will unequivocally boost your family's nutrition. Here are some ideas to inspire your journey towards a healthier lifestyle and a more attractive physique.

• Natural vs. Refined •

But first, a question. Do you realize the vast health difference between eating complex carbohydrates and sugars as originally packaged by Mother Nature and Father Time versus refined versions produced by mankind's mind and machinery? Our bodies respond quite differently to natural glucose molecules that look exactly the same as refined ones under a microscope. Over time disproportionate amounts of refined carbs (like commercial kids' cereals) and refined sugars (like high fructose corn syrup) HUGELY disrupt healthy metabolic processes. That disruption contributes to weakening health in general, and figures into a remarkably broad spectrum of health problems.

• Balance •

Blood sugar balance is a major bodily focus for survival and involves subtle chemical and structural interactions that baffle even cutting edge scientists. Eating refined carbs and sugars spikes blood sugar levels, triggering pancreas, adrenals and liver to work extra hard to restore balance, which seriously affects all other physiological systems. Diabetes is one resulting disease, which debilitates every bodily system.

• Anticipate Local Produce •

So, work up a little excitement anticipating our local crops bursting with flavor freshness. While we don't know how this mild winter will affect our crop qualities and yields, I can vividly imagine those first spears of asparagus inching up out of the soil in a few weeks. If you ever have the chance to snap off a stalk and eat it right there, please do so. The experience will take asparagus appreciation to entirely new levels.

Pretty soon local strawberries will make their 2012 debut. And sooner or later most of us get to adopt somebody's garden surplus of zucchini or tomatoes. Yummmmmmmm!

• Slow-Motion Suicide •

Our great grandparents ate about 30-40 pounds a year of natural sugars from fruits and veggies, with maybe a couple pounds of refined sugars. Today's annual average consumption of refined sugars and carbs adds up to hundreds of pounds per person. And our children's increasing obesity, diabetes, allergies, behavioral disorders, and more are directly related to what Nicholas Krilanovich calls slow-motion suicide in his classic No Sugar Added or Redesigning Our Children's Future (November Books, Santa Barbara, Ca, 1982). His book cites nearly 500 scientific references, and accurately foretells today's horror health stories plaguing our refined-foods society.

• Processing Diminishes Nutrition •

Let's take a moment to shine the light of consciousness on what we mean by refined food. Consider each process that a whole food is subjected to before it reaches your mouth. First, it's plucked from the soil or branch. Storage, whether for a day, a week or longer, is a second process. A third process would be washing and cutting it up. Cooking would be a fourth. Each process diminishes nutritional value and flavor, but if we start with food grown naturally in fertile soil, these four "refinements" do not significantly deplete the food's value to our physiology.

• Food Engineering •

In developed countries, however, industrial scale agriculture adds several more processes by using fertilizers and pesticides, as well genetic engineering. More processes beyond that include additives or irradiation for longer shelf life, more flavor and "better" color and texture. These adversely affect not only the basic nature of food, but also our body's ability to get the full complement of nutrients it needs for good health.

• Upgrade Eating Habits •

More than 75 years ago, Adele Davis' Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring documented the importance of eating whole, naturally grown foods, and warned about the dangers of adulterated produce. However, mainstream America has chosen to harvest profits, convenience and entertainment while seeming to care about nutrition. As you check out the facts for yourself, start to make some fun, easy upgrades in eating habits—veggetize!

•Roast or Grill Veggies •

Choose a few of your very, very favorite fresh veggies—peppers (sweet or hot, green or red), string beans, mushrooms, onions, carrots, eggplant, zucchini, celery, whatever you really like—cut them into bite-sized pieces and place them in a heavy plastic bag. Drizzle on a little olive oil and massage the outside of the bag to coat everything inside with a thin film of oil. You'll be pleasantly surprised how little oil it takes to moisten a huge bagful of cut veggies. Sprinkle in a little salt (or sodium-free seasoning) and some herbs for even more flavor. Rosemary and oregano bring forth images of olive groves in Umbria. Or create a Tex-Mex smoke-and-fire experience. Same vegetables take on Tropical, Indian, or Asian personalities with different spices.

• Tender and Firm •

Grill or spread the veggies onto a roasting sheet and into a preheated 350-degree oven. After about 10 or 15 minutes, turn veggies with a spatula, and roast another 10 or 15 minutes. They should be firm as well as tender. Place a couple cups of roasted/grilled vegetables on your plate and then top with an appropriately sized serving of mashed potatoes. Add a side salad of tender greens, dried cranberries, a few walnuts or pine nuts, crumbled feta or gorgonzola drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette. Desert could be a hearty whole grain apple or pear crisp sweetened with fruit juice.

• Greens Are Versatile •

Leftover roasted veggies have lots of uses. Augment with others for a variety of flavors, colors and textures. Combine with any whole grain (brown rice, millet, kasha) for a quick, tasty meal. Add to soup or stew. Make spaghetti sauce and spoon onto a bed of steamed greens cooked with a little (or lots) of garlic. Try endive or watercress. Learn to bake or steam spaghetti squash al dente for another really healthy pasta substitute. Replace lasagna noodles with eggplant or thinly sliced (lengthwise) parsnips or zucchini.

The convenience of frozen spinach, kale, mustard or collard greens makes it easy to instantly transform too many refined carbs and too much fat into a more balanced, satisfying meal that your body joyfully uses to build better health. Add some thawed and warmed to dishes like mac and cheese, pot pies, green bean casserole (heresy!), New England clam chowder, potatoes au gratin, or anything creamy or starchy.

• More Veggies, Less Meat •

By the way, this works with meat lovers, too. You can healthify any heavy meat meal by adding veggies. Plop that gravy-slathered stuffed pork chop onto a mound of homemade sauerkraut embellished with chopped onion, apple and/or grated carrot, and call it dinner for two (with escarole soup, side salad, and fresh pineapple topped with a dollop of ice cream). Save the usual baked potato (or sweet potato or yam) for another meal and put that on a bed of greens or roasted veggies. Skip the butter and drizzle with olive oil. Some fresh cracked pepper or a little Old Bay seasoning is palate pleasing, too.

Separating meat meals and starch meals is a healthy step in the right direction if you include a plethora of vegetables. This gently reeducates your palate towards greater enjoyment of whole, natural foods and gives your hard working body the resources it requires to keep working pretty well.

• Sacred Snacks •

Veggetizing snacks seems more challenging than veggetizing meals. I think that's because snacks are such personal comfort foods we don't want any interference. Therefore, changes to our snacking habits are a delicate matter requiring patience and a light hearted sense of adventure.

• Be Courageous •

Have you ever eaten a peanut butter and tomato sandwich? When my British friends suggested we make that for a snack, my brain cells went cross-eyed. I LOVE PB & J (or honey or sliced banana or raisins). Somehow, I had great mental difficulty switching sweetness for a "tomahto." Somehow, I felt that something fundamental was being threatened. What a surprise to see how quickly I can get stuck in some irrational gridlock, despite all these decades practicing flexibility as a spiritual discipline. Courage won out. I'm looking forward to eating PB & T sandwiches all summer long.

• Salty Crunchies •

Are you ready to tackle another snack healthification? Let's talk chips. I love the instant gratification of their crunch and saltiness, not to mention the energy boost from easily absorbed processed carbs (which is always followed by a logy stupor). It doesn't matter that I've purchased those baked, not fried, or even "healthfood" varieties. When I open the bag, I eat them all. So, I make my own.

• Real Potato Chips •

Thin slice a fresh potato and fan slices overlapping by about half in rows on a baking sheet. Brush the rows with egg whites, sprinkle a little salt and/or seasonings (paprika, onion or garlic powder, cayenne, for example) and roast awhile at 350 degrees to your desired level of brown and crispy. Turn them over a whole row at a time, brush on egg whites, sprinkle with more seasonings if desired, and brown. Commercial potato chips are too refined to be considered a vegetable! Of course, this method makes yummy chips from sweet potatoes and yams, parsnips, as well as green and yellow squashes. Being labor intensive, this could be a great family activity.

• Slow Food •

Have you heard about the new trend, "slow food?" Whole foods slowly prepared and slowly savored. Give up unconsciously stuffing your pie hole. How many more times do you have to guiltily groan, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing!"

• Kale Crisps •

My latest discovery is making kale crisps. You know kale as the leathery-looking deep green leaves with ruffley edges, snuggled next to the mustard greens and collards at the grocery. Swish them in your veggie rinse. Pat dry. Fold the leaf halves together and zip a knife along the rib to remove it. (Steam and dice ribs—or dice and steam—then add to soup, stew, casserole or omelet.) Cut or tear leaves into medium pieces. Place in a plastic bag, drizzle in a tablespoon or two of olive oil, and gently massage bag to coat leaves with oil. Sprinkle in a little salt (or sodium-free seasoning) and herbs. Spread kale onto a roasting sheet. Preheat oven to 350-400 degrees. After roasting about 10 minutes, turn leaves with a spatula, and roast another 10 minutes until crispy. Eat these like chips or sprinkle onto salads, cooked veggies, stews, etc.

Play with your veggies to create the desired appearance, taste and texture that satisfies your palate and your tummy. Making progress towards a healthier lifestyle is our objective here. It's a gentle journey to be enjoyed that pays lifelong dividends.

How do you store fresh veggies? Does your refrigerator crisper compartments harbor plastic bags filled with slimy greens and budding potatoes? No wonder you feel uninspired to venture into chaos and decay to forage some dinner vegetables. Here are simple strategies to keep your produce vibrant and tasty.

Use old tea towels or pillow cases, which wick up moisture, to wrap veggies for refrigerator storage. Droplets of moisture sitting on the surfaces of produce hasten deterioration, so it's best to wash them when you're ready to use them.

Leafy greens can be gently cradled in a towel so as not to break or crush them. Then ease the swaddled greens into a plastic bag to keep them crispy, and carefully place on top of other stored vegetables. Obviously, the most effective arrangement puts the heavy vegetables (cabbage, winter squash, turnips, potatoes, onions, celery, carrots) on the bottom of a drawer, then medium weight ones like peppers, tomatoes, summer squash. A cool, dry corner of garage or basement would be a better storage site than the fridge for those heavy veggies, nested in crumpled newspaper.

Parsley, watercress, scallions stay fresh when stems are refrigerated in glasses of water. Loosely cap each little bouquet in its own tiny greenhouse with the end of a plastic newspaper sleeve or produce bag sort of twisted onto the water glass.

Please share your veggie storage tips and tricks:

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