You may have seen the recent headlines about a new study recommending that we increase our produce intake and eat 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Doing so could prevent more than 7 million premature deaths.
Look, I want to prevent premature deaths as much as the next guy. But I had some initial reservations about this new advice, like how much is this going to add to my grocery bill? How many market trips will it take to regularly stock 40 servings a day (for my family of four)? And how can I get my kids to eat even more of the green things they already don’t want to eat?
The answers, I found out, are: nothing, no more than I already make, and lots of different ways (respectively).
What constitutes a serving
“We get so overwhelmed with the concept of big servings of fruits and veggies, but in reality, we can really cut it back,” says Marilyn K. Tanner-Blasiar, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Usually with fruits and vegetables, half a cup is a serving. That really takes the size down. And for raisins and dried fruits, it goes down to a quarter cup.”
Keep in mind those recommendations are for adults; young children need smaller serving sizes and fewer servings per day, she adds.
Speaking of kids: These two printable coloring pages — one for fruits, and one for vegetables make a cute activity and also provide concrete examples of exactly what one cup (two servings) of fruits and vegetables looks like, such as one large banana, one ear of corn or 10 to 12 baby carrots.
Caroline Passerrello, RDN, LDN and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, agrees that the takeaway from the study isn’t that we should be measuring out 10 exact amounts of produce each day. “It’s about getting more fruits and vegetables into your diet in general, and the more the better,” she says.
Passerrello dug further into the study and found that the researchers qualify a serving as 80 grams, which is a little less than 3 ounces. “That’s really what the existing USDA dietary guidelines already recommend for an adult,” she says. “Ten servings is something to strive for, but somewhere between where you are and 10 is going to be an improvement.”
Time-saving and cost-effective produce
I usually end up at the grocery store twice a week: Once on the weekend for a big trip, and once during the week for all the stuff I forgot. I don’t have room — neither in my schedule nor in my budget — for more. But Tanner-Blasia has an easy solution: by incorporating frozen and canned fruits and vegetables into my weekly meal planning, I won’t have to spend additional time or money.
“Fresh fruits and vegetables are great, but do not beat yourself up if you resort to frozen," she says. "Those are really good because they’re packaged at peak of ripeness and the nutrients have been preserved. Plus they’re quick and easy for parents.”
Frozen and canned fruits and veggies got a bad reputation over time when there was a perception that they are canned with brine or frozen with added sweeteners, Passerrello says. “If you find the single-ingredient food, at least nutrient-wise, fresh and frozen are completely the same. Sometimes the quality is even better in the frozen because whenever those are in season, they’re picked and flash-frozen right away. Fresh produce is still a few days from farm to grocery store, so it has a little time to age.”
Buying canned and frozen can save money, too. Fruits like blueberries are expensive outside of their season, and melons may not have as much flavor. But stocking up on frozen blueberries, strawberries, melon balls and the like will be more cost-effective and provide better-tasting produce in the off-season, Tanner-Blasia says.
For canned produce, opt for fruits packed in water instead of syrup to cut down on sugar, she says. If you’re worried about the sodium content of canned veggies (maybe you or a family member has high blood pressure or kidney issues), try this: “Put the canned vegetables in the colander, run water over them and warm them in fresh water.”
There might be a taste difference, Tanner-Blasia admits, and there may be a visual difference — olive-colored green peas are definitely canned, and frozen ones are bright green, for example. So it’s natural to have preferences. “You’re going to have what you like and what you don’t like, but there’s nothing wrong with canned or frozen produce. Find them and fit them in."
And don’t be afraid of store brands, she reminds: “ Generic is great — often the generic brand is the same as the big-name brand, but they’re just packaged differently.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a super handy tool on its website with a sample two-week menu for a family of four, which contains all the recommended servings of produce, dairy, grains and meat. They also include a two-week grocery list and pantry-staple list.
Tricks of the trade
Kids need smaller portions of produce and fewer servings per day. If you have a picky eater, try sneaking cauliflower into mashed potatoes or sweet potato puree into chicken nugget breading. (Photo: karelnoppe/Shutterstock)
Now for the hard part, at least in my house: Getting your family to eat more fruits and vegetables. Tanner-Blasia and Passerrello were full of helpful advice and practical approaches.
1. Be sneaky, if you have to. Tanner-Blasia says she and her husband tried recipes for chicken nuggets and sloppy joes from Jessica Seinfeld's book, "Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food." The nuggets incorporate vegetable puree into the breading, and sweet potato puree goes into the sloppy Joes, adding servings of vegetables without anyone else knowing it.
Other ideas: Add steamed and mashed cauliflower to mashed potatoes (or skip the potatoes and use all cauliflower), add sweet potato puree to chili, include extra tomatoes in marinara sauce or use avocado in place of mayonnaise.
2. Try a smoothie. These blended beverages may be an option for some parents to sneak in fruits and vegetables, but both Tanner-Blasia and Passerrello say it shouldn't be the only way kids are exposed to produce. "If that’s the only way to get a fruit or vegetable into a picky eater, it’s a great way to start. Continue offering and showing the fruits in various forms so they recognize what they’re eating," Passerrello says. Kids need to get a sense of the texture and crunch of non-pureed produce, Tanner-Blasia adds.
Depending on the kid, smoothie-making doesn't have to be a stealth endeavor. Some kids will enjoy tossing ingredients into the blender and gulping down their creation. Passerrello adds that smoothies are better than juice because the fiber and nutrients are retained from the whole fruit.
If you invest in those pouches of pureed fruits and vegetables found in the baby food aisle, Tanner-Blasia says they're great — just watch the sugar. The front of the packet may say the ingredients are kale, peas and apples, but if you look at the ingredients, apple puree is often the first ingredient (for sweetness) while kale is way down the list.
3. Make sure Dad sets the example. "Women can eat all the produce they want, and their kids still might not follow their example. But if Dad eats them, the kids are more likely to, as well," Tanner-Blasia says, citing research by world-renowned author Ellyn Satter, RDN. Moms should be a role model, too, but getting fathers on board is particularly important.
Tanner-Blasia says an easy veggie-filled option for men is a Southwest-style bowl of beans, corn and salsa. Beans have great fiber, salsa has veggies (and lycopene, which is good for prostate health) and the corn adds color and a serving of vegetables. "Combined that might be a cup of produce — you’re that much closer to your 10 a day, and it tastes good so you don’t even know it."
4. Make it a game. Passerrello has a fun activity she likes to play with young children. You take 10 carrots and prepare them 10 different ways: raw and plain, steamed, pureed, topped with dip, etc. The kids are asked to try the different preparations. This shows children that just because they don't like cooked carrots, for example, they may enjoy raw carrots.
Another game, of sorts: Have children eat the rainbow. When we have playdates at my house, for example, I like to buy a rainbow of fruit and some wooden skewers. I cut up the fruit and have the kids load up the skewers with a rainbow of fruit: red strawberries, orange slides, pineapple, green grapes, blueberries and purple grapes. They look pretty, but more importantly, kids are getting what Tanner-Blasia calls the color code. "With those different colors come different vitamins and minerals and benefits, and kids are exposed the tastes and the textures."
6. Keep trying. Exposure is the name of the game, both experts say. Tanner-Blasia says it often takes 10 to 20 exposures before a child will try a particular food. "Kids at age 2 or 3 are scared of new things — they have to try it and play with it to get to the point where they’ll consume it," she says. "Get it in their mouth so they try it. They can say no thank you, but at least they've tried the taste, texture and smell."
Passerrello says the taste part takes a while. "You may have to offer a food 20 or 30 times because it takes 10 tastes for some kids to recognize what they're eating."
In the end, Tanner-Blasia says, it’s all about balance, variety and moderation. "Don’t overwhelm yourself initially — you can’t do it overnight. Embrace it and slowly add more fruits and vegetables into your day as part of your new lifestyle. The big push is to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables."