Just before Halloween, I was on the phone with my sister, planning a dinner and an evening to carve no less than seven pumpkins. Knowing that she and her family are difficult eaters, I figured I better just ask her what they wanted.
“You know,” she said. ”Something healthy. Oh, and you know, I just eat chicken.”
Poultry fetish aside, I also knew that “healthy” has a very different
meaning for my sister than it does for me. For her, healthy means “it won’t make me fat.” I define healthy more by mundane things like, say, nutrition content.
Thus, I cannot serve a meal without at least one vegetable. I tried to choose some of the veggie dishes that would appeal to the masses. I figured, if they try it great, if they don’t, we’ll eat it. Sort of like my approach to toddler food. However, my toddler likes more vegetables than they do.
The menu was simple; Chicken Sausage Cassoulet, Carrot Souffle, Fresh Green Beans sautéed with shallot and roasted tomatoes. For dessert, Vanilla Bean Sweet Potato Pie with Brown-Sugar Pecan crust.
Dinner was not so simple. For starters, both my sister’s kids drank soda with dinner. When I put dinner on the table, there was silence and frightened stares. I tried to explain what was in each dish.
“It’s just beans, chicken sausage and tomato. You know, really basic. The green beans are fresh, not canned, they taste good.”
No go. The rest of the meal including dessert looked like a competition to see who could eat the least and still look halfway polite. Meanwhile, at the end of the table, my toddler was eating green beans one after another.
None of them took any vegetables. My niece was the most polite.
“If I LIKED green beans, I would like these,” she offered.
My sister was more blunt. “I don’t like cooked vegetables.”
When they inquired about the dessert, I tried to mutter “sweet potato” so it would come out sounding like “chocolate cream.” No go. However they ate it, and were surprised they liked it.
I didn’t tell them about the pecans in the crust. They don’t like nuts.
My husband and our other dinner guest were both shocked. I think the exact comment was “I’ve never before seen people get served fantastic, healthy food, and act like you were trying to poison them.”
I barely heard that. I was still trying to figure out just how many and which vegetables my sister would eat if she only liked them raw. It’s a short list. Rule out any exotics like marinated asparagus and snow pea pods. Basically, for her it’s just iceberg lettuce and, very rarely, the usual suspects on the ready-made veggie and dip tray at the local supermarket: broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery … uh, I said carrots, right?
A few of these represent some of the healthiest of vegetables. But the idea of facing down five to nine servings a day of the same, plain, raw vegetables is less than appetizing. And often, less healthy.
Take carrots, for example. These orange beauties are widely known for their high beta-carotene content. What few people know, however, is that not only is the nutritional value of the carrot not diminished by cooking, the heat helps break down the fiber of the vegetable, making the key nutrient and the carrot’s natural sugars more available. As a result, cooked carrots taste sweeter and provide more beta-carotene.
Tomatoes are perhaps the most extreme example of the benefits of cooked vegetables. Cooked tomatoes offer up to eight times more lycopene than raw tomatoes. While yellow and orange tomatoes are tasty varieties, the red ones are the best source of lycopene.
Light steaming is also recommended for many of the cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and other dark greens. The cooking process makes the phytonutrients in these plants more available.
Broccoli actually changes in nutritional content based on whether it is consumed raw or cooked. Raw broccoli is higher in vitamin C and folate. Cooked broccoli is higher in cancer-fighting phytonutrients and beta-carotene. Cooked or raw, cruciferous vegetables represent some of the nutritional all-stars of the produce aisle. Red cabbage even contains the same compounds, anthocyanins, which make foods like purple cauliflower, blueberries and red wine beneficial.
While all this sounds complicated, there’s really only one key to getting the most nutritional value from vegetables, either cooked or raw. You have to eat them.
Sauteed Red Chard with Clementine Sections, Feta, and Balsamic Reduction
Roasted Green Beans
Braised Red Cabbage with Blueberries, Raisins and Goat Cheese
Looking for these recipes? They will be included in my upcoming book co-authored with Ali of Cleaner Plate Club!