Given the choice between ice cream and spinach salad, many people would reach for the sweet stuff. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention no-profit health partner, Fruits & Veggies More Matters, only 6% of Americans eat the recommended number of vegetable servings each day – and of those veggies, not many of them are green.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), starchy potatoes are the most frequently consumed vegetable, at roughly 52 pounds per person, per year, with tomatoes (31 pounds) and onions (8 pounds) rounding out the top three. Leafy greens, such as spinach and kale, didn’t even make the list. Considering the USDA suggests adults consume at least 1.5 to 2 cups of leafy greens per week, it’s clear most people come up short.
I like french fries and pizza just as much as the next person, and I’ve been known to pass up a salad in favor of saltier, fattier, sugar-filled fare. But leafy greens don’t have to taste like you’re chewing on grass, and if you learn to incorporate them into your diet, you’ll benefit from all of their health-boosting, cancer-fighting benefits.
Leafy greens are packed with fiber, folate, calcium, and vitamins A, C, and K. The American Institute for Cancer Research states that the carotenoids found in leafy greens act as antioxidants that help prevent free radicals from causing damage to cells, and may help inhibit certain types of breast, skin, lung, and stomach cancers. Likewise, the folate found in greens can help reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer, while fiber-full foods reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.
Foods & Recipes to Green Up Your Diet
Even with all the good-for-you statistics, the reality of eating a bowl full of collard greens and kale may be too much to stomach. If you need a few ideas to up your intake of Popeye’s favorite foods, check out these tips.
Juicing is a great way to add greens to your diet, particularly if you have a hard time eating salads. Juicing, when done at home, requires a juicing machine that physically extracts fruit and vegetable juice from whole fruits and vegetables that you feed through the juicer. If you plan your juice wisely, you can pack multiple servings of vegetables into a single glass.
There’s a trick with juicing though: If you use too many fruits when creating your juice, you can overdo the juice’s sugar content, which could lead to a spike in your blood sugar, followed by a subsequent crash. If you use too many veggies, you may be turned off by the flavor (particularly if you’re new to juicing), and stop the practice after a single attempt.
The goal is to create a juice that’s pleasing to the palate without being overly sweet. My favorite, beginner-appropriate green juice is made with the following:
- 1 cucumber
- 2 cups spinach
- 2 small green apples
- 1/2 lemon, squeezed into the finished juice
This combination makes approximately 10 to 12 ounces of fresh juice that tastes sweet and tangy, without overdoing the fruit content. And once you get used to the slightly “grassy” flavor (there are two cups of spinach involved, after all), you can gradually reduce the green apples to a single apple, reducing the number of fruit servings.
It’s also possible to buy prepackaged green juices, but be a little careful about making a purchase. Fresh juices hold their nutritional value better than those that have been sitting on a shelf, and some juice companies add sugar to their drinks to make them taste better.
Smoothies and juices carry many of the same pros and cons. Smoothies are an excellent way to sneak greens into your diet, but it’s possible to overload them with fruits and other add-ins, such as yogurt, turning them into calorie- and sugar-laden monsters. The good thing is, when you choose to “smoothify” your drinks rather than juice them, you retain the fiber content of the fruits and veggies you use, making them a more filling option that’s less likely to result in a blood sugar spike (as long as you keep a lid on the amount of fruit you add).
My favorite smoothie includes:
- 1 cup plain kefir (you can use vanilla if you prefer)
- 1/2 small avocado
- 3 cups spinach
- 1/2 cup frozen blueberries
The result is a roughly 16-ounce sweet and tangy smoothie that will fill you up – it’s perfect for breakfast. If you try it once and decide it doesn’t keep you full long enough, consider adding 1/4 cup dry old fashioned oatmeal before you blend. The texture will change slightly, but the additional fiber will slow digestion to keep you fueled all morning.
When winter rolls around, nothing hits the spot like a steaming bowl of soup. Most broth-based soups can easily accommodate greens without overwhelming the flavor. For instance, you can throw a couple cups of collards into a beef stew, or add spinach or kale into your favorite homemade minestrone or Italian wedding soup recipe.
You can experiment with cheese and cream-based soups as well, but be careful about the amount of fat and calories you’re consuming in a single sitting – these soups can add up fast. Look for “skinny” or low-fat options. For example, zucchini and leeks can give some soups a creamy texture without any actual cream.
Like soups, casseroles make it easy to add veggies without even noticing they’re there. You can layer greens into your lasagna, or add cooked broccoli or spinach to your cheesy tuna casserole. I recently whipped up an enchilada-style black bean, sweet potato, and kale casserole that was to die for – and I don’t like sweet potatoes or kale all that much.
Whip up the recipe on your own by following these instructions:
- 2 large sweet potatoes
- 1 bunch kale, de-stemmed and washed
- 1 can black beans, drained
- 4 or 5 whole wheat tortillas, sliced into strips
- 1 cup mozzarella cheese, grated
- 1/2 cup fresh salsa
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Garlic powder, to taste
- Salt, to taste
- Paprika, to taste
- Crushed red pepper, to taste
- 1/4 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with tin foil and set aside.
- Dice two large sweet potatoes, spray with olive oil, and season to taste with garlic powder, salt, crushed red pepper, sage, and thyme. Place in oven and begin to roast.
- Spread half of the tortilla strips along the bottom of a 13-inch by 9-inch casserole dish. Top with de-stemmed kale, half the mozzarella cheese, and the can of black beans.
- When the sweet potatoes have cooked through (about 25 to 30 minutes) and have begun to crisp around the edges, add them to the casserole.
- Top with the remaining tortilla strips, cheese, and salsa.
- Bake for approximately 15 to 25 minutes, until the cheese melts and the tortilla strips start to crisp. Remove and serve hot.
Most people don’t think of “spinach” and “dessert” in the same sentence, but you’d be surprised how good some desserts are with a little extra green. For instance, you can whip up delicious spinach brownies, or spinach cake. After a personal failed attempt at making spinach ice cream, I was able to concoct a shockingly delicious spinach shake with dark chocolate and protein.
You can try it yourself by using this recipe:
- 7 ounces condensed milk
- 1/2 pint half and half
- 2 tablespoons raw honey
- 2 tablespoons plain whey protein powder
- 3 small pieces of dark chocolate
- 2 teaspoons vanilla or mint extract (mint will give it a more mint chocolate chip flavor)
- 3 cups packed, fresh spinach
- 2-4 cups ice cubes
- Place the condensed milk, half and half, honey, protein powder, vanilla or mint extract and spinach into a blender and blend until well mixed.
- Add the dark chocolates and blend again, until the dark chocolates have broken up into pieces and mixed well (10 to 20 seconds).
- Start adding ice and blend until the shake reaches the desired consistency.
- Once you’ve reached the desired consistency, taste the shake and make adjustments based on personal preference. For instance, you might want to add a little more honey or extract.
- Pour into glasses and top with nuts or shaved chocolate.
If you see the phrase “spinach shake” and want to run screaming in the other direction, I understand. Not every dish or meal needs to be turned into a leafy green landing zone. That said, it’s important to prioritize leafy greens as a key component of your day-to-day life. If you find yourself adding up your veggie servings by eating french fries (potatoes) and pizza (tomatoes), then it’s time to find ways to increase the variety of the veggies you eat, adding brighter, greener options to the table. Start small and aim to add at least one extra serving of leafy greens to your diet each day. Your health, and maybe your waist, will thank you for it.
What’s your favorite way to eat your greens?