Timaree Hagenburger: Experimentation is the key to getting more veggies on your plate

Ridiculously Delicious Purple Cabbage Salad with Li-Miso Dressing is a great way to experiment with trying a variety of veggies. (Courtesy)

Happy National Nutrition Month! Perfect timing for the third article in my series about getting out the the “Try Trap.”

If you have ever said, “I try to eat enough vegetables,” you may have realized that it can be pretty easy to get stuck in the awkward space between learning something new and implementing it. No worries, though! I have some practical strategies and a tasty recipe to celebrate spring and the amazing vegetables just waiting to tickle your tastebuds and support the healthiest version of you.

While some of my students grew up in families who ate a variety of veggies, many have a relatively narrow “comfort zone” when it comes to vegetables they incorporate on a regular basis. While peas and carrots are great, they don’t provide enough of a variety of phytonutrients to enable our bodies to thrive.

When I think about vegetables, I get excited — sooooo many possibilities, textures, colors, nutrients and more!

However, when some of my students hear me say the word “vegetables,” they don’t always have such a positive reaction. They may conjure up images of pale, wilted iceberg lettuce and mushy, tasteless tomatoes that they take off their burgers or out of their sandwiches; overcooked or strong-smelling broccoli or cauliflower that they leave on their plates; or canned spinach that hasn’t seen the light of day for who knows how long...

No more! We can preparing vegetables in ways that entice people to enjoy every bite!

• Mindset Switch: If we adopt a mindset marked by experimentation, the pressure is off when we make a new recipe or use a vegetable in a way that is new for us (e.g., substituting fresh spinach leaves on sandwiches instead of lettuce, mashing lightly steamed cauliflower and potatoes together with roasted garlic, or using baby bell peppers sliced in half from stem to tip as a dipper for hummus instead of crackers).

• Taste and Tweak: When you think of your kitchen as a culinary laboratory, you can follow a recipe (the first time), sample along the way and have fun tweaking the ingredients to move from “tastes pretty good” to “tastes great” to “tastes super!” The principles you want to keep in mind include color, texture and flavor.

• Color: We begin the eating experience with our eyes, so your plate should represent as many colors of the rainbow as possible. Not only will the retinal cells in your eyes be stimulated, which will communicate with your digestive organs, but the naturally occurring plant pigments are the health-promoting phytonutrients that protect your cells!

Are your meals in need of a colorful upgrade? There are so many options. You can enjoy lots of deep greens (leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus), reds/purples (tomatoes, beets, purple carrots/potatoes/cabbage, eggplant), orange (carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, bell peppers) and more.

• Texture: In many dishes, a mixture of textures is very desirable. When you serve a hearty chili, topping it with some crunchy pepitas, thinly shredded red cabbage and finely sliced red onion will not only up the nutrient density, but can take the eating experience to a whole new level.

Some individuals have told me that they don’t “like” the texture of beans. My next question is usually, “Do you like edamame?” If they have tried them, then they typically respond positively, as edamame seem to be somewhere between a bean and a nut when it comes to texture. They are a great place to start. They can be enjoyed as a snack, in a brown rice- or noodle-based dish, or even in minestrone soup.

Let your creativity flow when it comes to legumes. I always recommend trying all different types with an open mind. You might be surprised how much you would enjoy garbanzo beans in a salad (or made into hummus), red lentils cooked into a pasta sauce or black beans in tacos, burritos or enchiladas.

To add crunch, consider shredded cabbage, and/or carrots, celery, baby bell peppers, jicama or water chestnuts, all diced small. Texture can also be added with sprinkle of chopped walnuts, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, ground flax seeds, and/or a salt-free, multi-herb/spice seasoning blend.

• Flavor: Since each of us have different flavor preferences and taste is learned, it is great to be able to modify the spicy, sweet and sour qualities of a dish. If you like your food spicy, play around with incorporating arugula, watercress, mustard greens, radicchio and different types of radishes (they will be “hotter” when grown in warm weather and left in the ground for a few extra weeks to develop more cancer-fighting isothiocyanates).

While fruit is the natural “go-to” when it comes to adding sweetness to a recipe, caramelizing onions (recipe at www.thenutritionprofessor.com) and roasting carrots, sweet potatoes and butternut squash can all produce palate-pleasing results.

Drizzling your dish with a bit of your favorite vinegar or a squeeze of fresh citrus juice can provide just the right amount of sour to balance the overall flavor profile. A splash of hot sauce or spoon of your favorite salsa can also be a great addition to many dishes.

Be flexible — embrace “The Foodie Bar Way” approach and consider a variety of mix-and-match options. If you don’t enjoy cilantro, use parsley instead. If you don’t have black beans on hand, use kidney beans. If you don’t have vinegar, experiment with fresh lime, lemon or even grapefruit juice (or a combination of them).

The bottom line is to get busy in the kitchen! As I have said before, it is virtually impossible to steer a parked car, so get rolling by experimenting. You can quickly develop culinary wisdom by using different techniques and ingredients and paying attention to how each affect the results.

Better yet, invite a friend over and have a “Cook2gether,” so that you can talk, laugh and cook simultaneously, and then split up the food you make to enjoy throughout the week.

Timaree Hagenburger is a registered dietitian, certified exercise physiologist with a master’s degree in public health, and a nutrition professor at Cosumnes River College. Timaree is also a professional speaker, does corporate wellness work, has a regular segment on California Bountiful TV. Her first cookbook, “The Foodie Bar Way: One meal. Lots of options. Everyone’s happy.” is available at www.foodiebars.com, where you will also find details about Timaree’s upcoming cooking demos, book signings and talks about the incredible power you yield with your fork. For previously published articles, recipes, shopping/cooking videos and podcast interviews, visit www.thenutritionprofessor.com.

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