Within the wonderful, yet often wildly contradicting, world of nutrition, a piece of dietary advice that has stood the test of time is the importance of eating our vegetables. Being such nutritional powerhouses of micronutrients (iddy-biddy nutrients vital for health), antioxidants, dietary fiber and so much more, they’re a non-negotiable part of our diet – and the more we eat, preferably in a rainbow of colours, the merrier.
Despite their amazing health benefits many struggle to hit their recommended serving of 5+ a day. As a nutritionist I often hear “but vegetables are so BORING”. There’s certainly a misconception that vegetables are about as exciting as a limp ice-burg lettuce salad or a boring plate of boiled mixed veg – that is dull, yes. But when it comes to vegetables there truly are so many delicious ways to celebrate them that will have you reaching back for seconds, or even thirds.
If your current daily intake sits at a few lonely peas in your bolognese sauce at dinnertime, then it might be time to step it up a notch in the kitchen and explore some different methods of preparation. They're just too wonderful for us to be an optional side dish at meals! Here are some exciting ways to enjoy them:
1. Sexy salads
If you don't love salads, then you're not doing them right! Salads are an easy way to get a variety of veggies in, but it's so easy to dive into a boring salad rut. Make salads more exciting by getting more creative with ingredients (fresh and seasonal), different textures (crunchy nuts and seeds, creamy avocados and feta cheese) and seasoning.
- Greek salad: chopped tomato, cucumber, red onion, capsicum, olives, olive oil, vinegar and crumbly feta. Add 1x 400g tin of butter beans to turn it into a meal.
- Middle Eastern salad: spiced chickpeas (sauté 1 x 400g tin with a sprinkle of ground coriander and cumin), baby spinach leaves, golden raisins, parsley, mint, olive oil, lemon juice and feta cheese.
- Colourful coleslaw: sliced green and purple cabbage, grated carrot and spring onion, dressed with whole mayonnaise.
- Garden salad: select whatever is freshest and in season - leafy greens, tomato, capsicum, mushrooms, red onion and carrot.
- Roasted pumpkin, spinach and feta: roasted pumpkin, spinach, toasted pine nuts, crumbly feta, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
- Black bean salad: tinned black beans, tinned corn, finely chopped tomatoes, red onion, avocado and coriander.
2. Mash - not just for potatoes
The ultimate comfort food. I love mashed potatoes (who doesn't?!), but there's plenty of vegetables that will give the traditional version a run for its money in the taste department, while also adding extra colour, nutrients and sweetness to a dish.
Great vegetables to mash/puree include:
- sweet potato/kumara
Get creative with your mashes! They don't need to be limited to one lone vegetable. For a gloriously golden mash try mashing potatoes, sweet potato and carrot with a little butter and milk - so yummy.
Spiralising is the art of turning vegetables into faux noodles. It requires a nifty machine called a spiraliser, which you can pick up pretty cheap ones for around $20 from your local homeware store. It's super quick to do and within minutes you'll have a plateful. They're fantastic if you're on a lower-carb diet, gluten-free or would just prefer a lighter meal. Spiralised vegetables have a similar texture to pasta and noodles, so they are fabulous in pasta-based dishes e.g. spagbol. Courgette spaghetti also has the coolest name in the world - COURGETTI.
Great vegetables to spiralise include:
4. Colourful stir-fries
Stir-fries are a great way to get through a surplus of veggies in the fridge. The keys to a great stir-fry is using fresh seasonal ingredients, fast cooking and a hot wok. Aim not to over-crowd the pan, as otherwise the vegetables may steam rather then stir-fry - you're after a sizzling sound when the veggies are in the pan. Saute onion, garlic, ginger and spring onion to get the flavours going, then later introduce fresh herbs, chilli or soy sauce. Garnish stir-fries with sesame seeds or cashews for some extra crunch and texture.
When selecting veggies to use, aim for plenty of colour! Different colours are indicative of different nutrients (eat the rainbow!). Great vegetables to stir fry include:
- bok choy
- green beans
5. Get dippy
One of my daily go-to snacks is veggie sticks and hummus. I could literally eat platefuls, I love it. From a nutritional perspective pairing veggies with a source of fat (e.g. olive oil in hummus) helps bump up the nutrient absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, which requires the presence of dietary fat to be absorbed. Yes, we're not what we eat, but rather what we digest and absorb.
You don’t have to limit your dip to just hummus either – pesto and nut butters are also fab. To save prep time try chopping up a big container of veggie sticks at the start of the week and grabbing a cup or so with a few tablespoons of hummus for a snack.
Great vegetables to use as veggie sticks:
- green beans
- sugar snap peas
6. Rainbow vegetable skewers
Vegetable skewers are a fun way to get a variety of colourful veggies into your meal. Simply chop up your favourites into bite-sized pieces, thread onto metal/wooden skewers, season with a little oil and dried herbs, and then grill in the oven or over the BBQ until cooked. Get the kids involved with this one - have them pick out their favourite vegetables and then help them to carefully thread onto skewers. Children are often more inclined to eat their veggies if they've had a role in food prep. You could also include bite-sized pieces of chicken, beef, lamb, seafood, tofu, halloumi cheese or pineapple chunks on your skewers - yum! Make sure to pre-soak wooden skewers before threading to prevent them from burning - mine caught on fire once in the oven when I forgot to soak. Also, aim to cut everything into similar sized pieces to the meat to ensure even cooking.
Great vegetables to use for skewers:
- red onion
- cherry tomatoes
- corn cobs
7. Bump up mince-based dishes
Vegetables can really make sauces sing. Whenever I'm making bolognese, meatloaf, burger patties or meatballs, I'll always add grated/chopped veggies to the mix. They add a lovely flavour and moistness, and work wonderfully in mince-based dishes. If you have picky eaters who turn their noses up the moment a vegetable enters their peripheral vision, then this is a great way to bump up their daily intake. Just wait for them to finish eating then blurt out what vegetables they just ate. Ha. You can grate your veggies, finely chop them, or just chuck the lot into a food processor and process until fine - too easy.
Great vegetables to add to mince-based dishes:
8. Homemade fries
Fries may not have the best reputation within the health world, but it really comes down to how they're made! Preparing your own at home allows you to control the cooking method (oven baking over deep-frying), and the seasoning (less salt, more herbs and spices). Fries aren't just limited to potatoes either - try giving these vegetables a go:
- sweet potato/kumara
9. Get roasting!
Roasting your vegetables brings out an incredible flavour that you just don’t get through other cooking methods, such as boiling or steaming. It turns the outside lovely and caramelised, which will coax out sweetness, while concentrating flavour – even an avid veggie hater will struggle to resist.
When preparing your veggies cut them into similar sized pieces, so they’ll cook at similar rates. Don’t forget to add a little oil, as this will help cook them evenly and add a lovely richness. I usually use my hands to massage each piece with oil until evenly coated, and then add some extra goodies to take it up a notch, such as salt, dried/fresh herbs, paprika, crushed garlic, or even parmesan cheese. When placing your veggies in a roasting pan give them a little room to breathe – if they’re too close to one another they will steam rather then roast, which is not what we’re after!
Great vegetables to roast include:
- broccoli. I could eat a mountain of roasted broccoli – it goes from like a 2/10 when boiled to a straight 10/10 when roasted (especially when covered in crushed garlic).
- red onion
- heads of garlic
- brussel sprouts
- sweet potato/kumara
10. Green smoothies
Green smoothies are smoothies with the addition of leafy greens. If you're new to green smoothies try and experiment with the quantity/variety of greens to find out what you like best - some may find a few handfuls great, while for others this may be a little potent to start off with. I recommend beginning with a mild leafy green like baby spinach, and once you have a few smoothies under your belt then venture out into your more bitter (and insanely nutritious) kale and chard varieties. Smoothies are fab because they're so portable, quick and convenient to whip up!
Great greens to include in smoothies:
- baby spinach
- green lettuce