How to Fall in Love With Veggies

Why you don't like vegetables, and what you can do about it

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If you know anything about health and wellness, you know that you are supposed to be eating vegetables. But knowledge does not always lead to smart choices. Today, 70 percent of Americans don't meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture's daily fruit and vegetable recommendations. Are you one of them? Chances are, the reason you don't like to eat vegetables is simple, and the solution to overcoming your veggie phobia is even simpler.

Rebecca Scritchfield
Rebecca Scritchfield
Know the Vegetable Target

In case you aren't sure exactly how many vegetables you should be getting, all you need is a plate as your guide. About half of that plate should be veggies (or a combo of veggies and fruit) at most of your meals. Most people make the mistake of thinking "fruit or vegetables," and they overdo the fruit, but skimp on the veggies. Try to be mindful and reach for those veggies. Varying vegetables and fruits helps ensure you get an ideal balance of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.

Now that you know the target, give yourself a break. Don't try to be perfect. It's like playing a game of darts, I always tell my clients. Of course, you want to hit that "bull's-eye," but you also score points for hitting anywhere on the dart board. We all live in the real world. We run out of food. We order take-out. We get stuck eating dinner at the airport. We can do our best to strive for the target, but it doesn't always work out perfectly. Be OK with it. You will eat again in a few hours, and you will have another chance to hit the target.

Please Your Inner 7 Year Old

If you feel like a stubborn 7 year old has taken up permanent residence in your brain when it comes to eating vegetables, don't give up. It's all about figuring out ways to make that 7 year old happy.

There could be any number of reasons why you have an aversion to veggies. I'll boil it down to three: past experience (thanks, mom!), texture issues, and taste issues. Your past experience may have included mom forcing you to stay at the table until those Brussels sprouts were gone. Perhaps the canned green beans on your school you lunch menu have completely turned you off. Whatever was in your past, let go of it. There was probably something wrong with the vegetable's taste or texture.

Rethink Taste and Texture

One of the key issues with taste is bitterness. We all have taste buds that detect bitterness and fulfill a protective function. They help us detect toxins and poisons. This is the reason most people don't like bitter tastes. We sweeten our coffee with sugar or milk to try to offset the bitter taste. Roughly 25 percent of people are super sensitive to bitterness and really can't stand it. They have been called "supertasters," because they have a lot more taste buds than most people, and they react more strongly to taste, especially bitterness. Guess which types of food rate strongly on the scale of bitterness? Yep, vegetables. So essentially, you don't like vegetables because they taste like poison to you!

But you aren't off the hook quite yet. Rather than avoiding vegetables, why not make them taste better? Bitter is the opposite of sweet, so adding sweetness can work wonders. Think honey, pure maple syrup, crushed pineapple, raisins, sweet-and-sour sauce, and even melted peanut butter drizzle (especially good with greens). Adding spicy flavors, such as red pepper flakes, or salty flavors, such as Parmesan cheese, may also help make the veggies more palatable. Try adding umami, a savory taste, by using soy sauce or fermented shrimp paste. Let's not forget about fat. A little bit of butter goes a long way to flavor up your veggies. Try garlic and olive oil too.

You can also try to select "young" vegetables because they are less bitter. Try baby bok choy and baby spinach sautéed with any of the flavor methods I suggested. Another strategy is to go for sweet-tasting vegetables such as sweet potatoes (including yams), squash, carrots, beets, parsnips, peas, corn, vine-ripened tomatoes, avocados, cucumbers, fennel, romaine lettuce, head lettuce, and baby lettuce. Don't worry about whether they are starchy. What matters more is that you get the color on your plate.

The problem with texture is usually overcooking the vegetables until they basically become mushy. Who the heck wants to eat mushy vegetables? Worse, the more cooked a veggie is, the more bitter it tastes, so we're back to the whole "toxic" taste rejection. While vegetable cooking times vary, most should be short, so the vegetables retain some of their crunch. Many vegetables will cook within a three to seven minute window. To avoid the mush, taste-test often and rinse them under cold water, or shock them in an ice bath for a few seconds to stop the cooking process.

Rate your plate. If you have trouble filling half your plate with vegetables, it could be because you haven't fallen in love with them yet. Test out the strategy to counterbalance the bitter taste with sweet, salty, savory, or spicy flavors, and don't forget to avoid the cook "mush" by keeping to time limits and dousing cooked veggies with cold water.

If you have a favorite way to flavor up veggies, I'd love to hear it!

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Rebecca Scritchfield, MA, RD, ACSM Health Fitness Specialist, helps empower people to build healthy lifestyles. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins University, Scritchfield is a Washington, D.C., based registered dietitian and fitness expert who encourages clients to find exercise that feels great, learn to manage stress, and establish lifelong eating skills that balance individual nutrition needs with hunger and pleasure. Visit her blog at: www.rebeccathinks.com.