It’s no secret that eating your fruits and veggies is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle; a decision that can even lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other ailments. But it can be difficult to actually eat the recommended servings—roughly 90 percent of American adults fail to meet the mark.
To be fair, the specific guidelines can seem daunting. The American Heart Association recommends five servings of vegetables and four servings of fruit a day. Nine total servings is a lot, and it may be enough to keep some folks from even trying.
But there’s good news. A study published earlier this year found that just two fruit servings and three veggie servings are enough to help prolong your life. This new finding is in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and the World Health Organization’s “five-a-day” messaging, which sounds more manageable.
What counts as a serving can be confusing, but this handy AHA infographic makes it easy to get started. These examples, such as 1 cup of raw spinach or half a cup of cooked spinach, were in line with the 80-gram serving sizes in the recent study.
With a manageable goal, the only thing left is thinking beyond salads and steamed broccoli. We asked chef Andrea Strauss for help making fruits and veggies more fun to eat.
Strauss specializes in working with clients with special dietary needs, whether that’s a professional athlete preparing for a season or a person with an autoimmune disorder. More than a decade of preparing nutrient-dense foods has taught her to be prepared for a few common challenges.
The first is serving up a plate where “protein is not the star.” She recommends filling your dish with fruits and veggies and including small sides of meat (or a plant-based protein) and carbs. She tells her clients to visualize a meat serving about the same size as an iPhone, with a vegetable serving twice as large. She acknowledges this can vary by the size of your phone and your own dietary needs, but says it’s still a relatable point of reference.
It’s relatively easy to consume fruit—grab a medium apple, toss it into your lunch bag, and you’re halfway to meeting your two fruit servings for the day. Strauss notes that people tend to find it more difficult to add veggies to their meals, particularly at the start of the process. You may find it easiest to incorporate these nutrient-rich foods into a recipe at some point during the day. Strauss was more than happy to share her secrets.
Blend veggies into your breakfast
For me, looking up YouTube videos on how to cut fruit has helped me add some to my breakfast. But vegetables feel more out of place in my morning meal.
Strauss says smoothies remain a go-to option for breakfast, with some recipes including as much as two servings of fruits and vegetables. For a veggie twist, she recommends adding frozen cauliflower to a smoothie—it provides a creamy texture—but suggests adding plenty of other sweeter ingredients to mask the taste.
For a breakfast that you can just heat and eat, a veggie-loaded frittata—which you can think of as an egg pizza—will last a few days, Strauss says.
“Sautée veggies like kale or spinach, onions, peppers, mushrooms, maybe broccoli. Sprinkle cheese, pour your whisked eggs over, and put it in the oven until cooked through,” she explains. And don’t forget to season it well.
When you remove your oven-safe pan from the heat, put the frittata on a cutting board and slice it like a pizza. With that done, you’ll have breakfast for busy mornings, and you can use your leftovers for lunch or a quick dinner. She suggests adding a side of arugula with lemon and salt for lunch or dinner.
If you’re pressed for time, you can add a raw spinach base to simple fried or scrambled eggs. Strauss notes that adding a bed of raw spinach is an easy way to get veggie servings in at any meal. Try it with fried eggs, an omelette, or huevos rancheros at breakfast.
Toss together more than a salad for lunch
Salad is an obvious way to add veggies to your day, but it can be hard to get excited about eating salads for lunch. Strauss offered two suggestions.
The first is finding your “staple salad.” This is a go-to combo that you’ll almost always be happy to dig into. I enjoyed the salads I ate in Greece, and I often love salads at Italian restaurants, too. If you also enjoy Mediterranean food, you might like a bowl with tomatoes, cucumber, feta cheese, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil. When it comes to leafy greens, some baby spinach or butter lettuce will do the trick.
The second is adding some variety with pre-cut vegetables. She recommends starting out with the steamable bags of veggies in the fresh produce section—grab some squash, carrots, jicama, edamame, broccoli, spiralized beets, and consider adding a few toasted pumpkin seeds for crunch, she says.
For some real fun at lunch, Strauss recommends putting together a salad platter, which holds some of the same visual appeal as a charcuterie board. If it looks pretty, you’ll want to eat it, she says. Also, if you and yours love to share food, this type of presentation is perfect at an office or party post-pandemic. Possible ingredients include radishes, peas, sunflower sprouts, tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, and seeds. Supply dips like hummus and dressing, and break out some crackers to complete the spread.
Strauss says chips and salsa boards are also popular with her clients. She slices baby bell peppers in half, scoops out the seeds, slices them lengthwise, and serves them with a dip. The bell peppers remind people of “scoop” tortilla chips, and they have a similar crunch. Sliced cucumbers and radishes can work as chips too.
Sneak your veggies in at dinner
For a more straightforward veggie fix at dinner, you can rely on your staple salad or roast some vegetables. If roasting (which can take up to an hour) is too slow, Strauss suggests trying an air fryer.
“Stick some veggies in for 10 to 15 minutes, sprinkle some sea salt, and use spray oil to lower the fat but keep the crunch,” she says.
Supper finds some people dealing with the pickiest eaters in their households. If you live with kids or adults who want more creative veggie options, hiding vegetables in sauces and pasta dishes is a good option, Strauss says.
Strauss has found that kids and adults alike tend to enjoy pre-made chickpea or quinoa pastas. She also uses sautéed zucchini noodles as a base for shrimp scampi.
To add veggies to pasta sauce, she brings out her blender. With kids, the less they see of the veggies, the better. She blends sautéed veggies until they’re a purée, which allows them to fill the role of tomato paste in any classic marinara recipe. You can even mix the purée with a jarred sauce in a pinch. She suggests trying a combination of beets, celery, mushrooms, and peppers.
Strauss also has a secret weapon in the form of her vegan cheese sauce, which features sweet potatoes, nutritional yeast, coconut milk, and salt, and serves as a great replacement in macaroni, nachos, or on top of broccoli.
Chef Andrea Strauss’s simple plant-based cheese sauce
- Time: 30 minutes
- Difficulty: easy
- Yield: 3 cups of sauce
- Potato peeler
- 4-quart saucepan
- 2-quart saucepan (or microwave)
- 1 cup of organic, unsweetened full fat coconut cream
- 1 ½ cups of sweet potato (about 1 medium sweet potato)
- 2 teaspoons of nutritional yeast
- ½ teaspoon of salt (or to taste)
- ¼ teaspoon of Dijon mustard
- (Optional) a pinch of cayenne pepper
- Prepare the sweet potato. Peel the skin off the sweet potato and rough chop it into 1-inch cubes.
- Boil the sweet potato cubes. Place the sweet potatoes in a 4-quart saucepan with salted water. Bring it to a boil, cooking the potatoes until they’re fork tender. Then drain.
- Prepare the coconut cream. Shake the can of coconut cream very well before opening it. Divide it into half-cups.
- Blend the ingredients. Pour ½ cup of the coconut cream into the bottom of a blender. Add the sweet potatoes, nutritional yeast, Dijon mustard, salt, and cayenne pepper. Top it with another ½ cup of coconut cream. Blend well on high setting to combine until smooth. Taste for seasoning. Add more coconut milk if you’d like thinner sauce. Add a little cayenne to kick it back up a bit. Blend it all again.
- Heat and serve. To serve the sauce, heat the sauce in a 2-quart saucepan on the stove, or covered in the microwave until it’s warmed through. Enjoy over french fries, broccoli, nachos, or macaroni.
She also recommends starting with so-called hybrid dishes to optimize taste and nutritional value. For example, she’ll start with real cheese sauce and then slowly add in puréed sweet potato or butternut squash.
“Taste as you go,” she cautions. “You want to stop before the veggies overpower the sauce.”
For dessert, she bakes grated or puréed zucchini into muffins. To incorporate fruit, she uses it to color her frostings in place of liquid dyes by taking some freeze-dried fruit and blending it into a powder. From there, she can mix some into icing or frosting to provide a pop of color.
The most important thing, says Strauss, is to remember to play around and try new things.
“Cooking is its own science experiment,” she says. “Have fun making your food look good, taste good, and, most importantly, make your body feel its best.”