I'm a french-fries-and-ranch kinda gal, a clam chowder lover and a Buffalo-flavored-anything devotee. I'm also salad obsessed (chopped salads are my favorite right now), and a huge fan of doubling up a delicious veggie side dish recipe and turning it into the main star of the meal. I have a healthy balance overall but there are definitely days where I'm far from getting in the five servings of fruits and veggies recommended by the World Health Organization—gasp! I know what you're thinking: "But aren't you a dietitian?!" Well, yes, and I do know all the amazing health benefits that come with eating produce, but that doesn't change the fact that it just simply doesn't happen sometimes. Here's why I'm not worried.
For the most part, I'm a healthy eater. My day typically starts off with fruit, yogurt and granola, with lunch being either leftovers from the night before, something I pulled together before running out the door (usually some bread and toppings for toast) or a meal-prep lunch recipe I made over the weekend. When I do dinner at home, there's always a vegetable or two thrown into the mix, be it fresh, frozen or canned. So, on the days where I may only have (literally) one veggie serving at dinner—because the day was too crazy, when I'm out to eat and too excited about other options, or the times where I don't have the time, energy or desire to make it a priority—I don't get too worked up. The point being, what matters more is what you're doing most of the time. If you prioritize healthy eating most of the time, you shouldn't worry about the few days where you fall short.
Nutrient deficiencies and chronic diseases, like diabetes and heart disease, develop over time and are a combination of a number of factors, not just a lack of fruits and vegetables. However, research consistently shows that the more fruits and vegetables you do eat, the lower your risk, so they certainly play an important role. Staying active, not smoking, eating less red meat and more plant-based proteins, going for whole grains, limiting added sugar and keeping an eye on your sodium intake are all important factors in staying healthy.
The thing that can happen pretty quickly if you're not eating enough produce is constipation. Fruits and veggies are high in fiber and without them, you're missing out on all the amazing things fiber does, like keeping you regular. The solution is pretty simple—add them back at your next meal and load up on water to get your bathroom routine back to normal.
In today's world of dieting and weight loss where keto and low-carb reign supreme, what's worse than not getting in a full five servings of fruits and veggies every day is excluding entire food groups altogether. Deemed as "bad," carb-containing foods like fruit, starchy veggies, grains, legumes and dairy items are perfectly healthy foods with important nutrients that are hard to get from other foods (including fiber, vitamin C and calcium). When you ban them from your diet, you put yourself at a much greater risk for nutrient deficiencies and health issues that can have lasting effects. Plus, you make it harder to lose weight in the first place, because fiber is what keeps you feeling fuller for longer on fewer calories. Rather than keeping a running list of all the foods you "shouldn't" be eating, focus on getting more of the ones you should—especially whole grains, fruits, veggies and legumes, if you're looking for more fiber.
All that said, I do know how important it is to get in my fruits and veggies and I certainly feel better when I do—I have more energy, I tend to be more motivated to get in my exercise, I'm more regular (thank you, fiber) and I'm overall in a better mood. Here are a few of the top strategies I rely on to make it easier to get in my 5-a-day.
The number one thing that helps me eat more fruits and veggies is meal prep. It could be something as simple as cutting up a pint of strawberries so they're ready to add to my yogurt each morning, washing and chopping up a head of romaine to have on hand for quick salads, or making a big batch of brown rice to save myself 40 minutes of cook time on those nights when dinner can't be ready soon enough. Or it can be slightly more involved, where I meal-prep one recipe to pack up and take for lunch during the workweek. My go-to lately has been these Insta-worthy Chopped Rainbow Salad Bowls with Peanut Sauce. The quick-cooking bulgur and speedy sauce keep the total prep time under 30 minutes, even with all those colorful veggies to chop. (See how to prep this recipe and others in this Easy Meal-Prep Lunch Plan for Summer.) When I don't have time to prep, I turn to frozen fruit for breakfast and snacks, and hit the salad bar at the grocery store for already-chopped veggies.
This simple strategy is a game-changer. When I build my breakfast yogurt, I add my fruit to the bowl or meal-prep container first and fill it up halfway before I add the other components. Otherwise, I find myself too heavy-handed with the yogurt and granola and don't leave any room for the fruit. When I'm dishing out dinner, I always add veggies to my plate first and aim to fill up half of my plate. This means there's only so much room left for my starch and protein components, which have smaller serving size recommendations, rather than the other way around.
I live in a small city (Burlington, Vermont) with a huge appetite for good food, so there's no shortage of great places to eat. Needless to say, I go out to eat at least once or twice a week and have come to rely on the side salad to help me keep my meals veggie-heavy. And, to be clear, I'm not ordering a salad in place of fries (I can't, I love them too much), but in addition to my meal. At the end of it all, I get to eat whatever menu item is calling my name along with my other favorite—salad.