Friday, 30 January 2009

It’s Easy Being Green (and Red, and Yellow and Orange)

“Please buy me some Brussel sprouts – you haven’t bought any for ages and I really like them”.

Heads absolutely spun round in the supermarket the day my son announced that in the vegetable section. He was eight at the time, but he had loved vegetables right from the very beginning – particularly “baby cabbages” or Brussel sprouts. From broccoli to parsnips, butternut squash to zucchini, even now he is a teenager, I cannot think of a single vegetable my son will not eat.

That sort of thing is definitely a rarity these days, and not just amongst children and young people. Government publications and medical professionals urge us to eat our vegetables, but it seems a lot of folks are just not listening.

Almost nobody, it seems, likes Brussel sprouts. Broccoli is an endurance test, and spinach, well, let’s not even go there. Parsnips taste funny, salad is rabbit food and mushrooms are yucky. A huge number of people struggle to get their kids to eat their veggies, and have to force themselves to eat their own. Now I am no vegetarian, but I love vegetables and just cannot understand why other people do not. Wherever I travel, from London to New York, Chicago to Los Angeles and everywhere in between, the story is the same. Loads of people, adults and children alike, hear the word vegetables and grimace. It staggers me.

When we were in New York recently I noticed a worrying pattern. It is the same one I noticed when we were in Florida late last summer, and in California not long before that. Vegetables seem to be disappearing off many American restaurant menus. If they are served as a side dish, the portions are very small, which is incredibly unusual for American restaurants, where portions are almost always generous. More and more often I noticed that if I ordered meat, the vegetable served alongside was a baked potato. Now I know potatoes are a vegetable, but they are not the kind of vegetable doctors and nutritionists are exhorting us to eat. What we need is more of the multi-colour stuff – like green, yellow and red vegetables. It seems restaurants assume that their customers do not really like vegetables, so why provide them? There were some restaurants where vegetables were offered as an addition to the meal, to order separately at an extra cost. This is a problem in itself. Seriously, if someone is not keen on vegetables to start with, do you really think they are going to pay extra for them?

Not only is this perceived dislike of vegetables a real shame, it is positively dangerous. Vegetables are packed full of substances called antioxidants that can prevent and even repair damage done by free radicals. This means they can fight against nasty things like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, macular degeneration and even the ageing process itself. Just eating your vegetables could make you look younger - yet many people refuse to even taste them. We are a generation who will do almost anything to look good and live longer – from undergoing stringent detox regimes to having syringes full of Botulinum toxin stuck in our wrinkles– and yet we can’t bring ourselves to eat our veggies? And if we won’t eat them, how on earth can we get our kids to?

In a quest to find out how vegetables became such a huge issue, I questioned family, friends, acquaintances and even total strangers - basically anyone who would talk to me. It raised some interesting issues. A recurrent theme in many of the conversations I had was the most obvious - over cooking. I heard tales of soggy grey cabbage, wrinkled peas and wilted broccoli. I had personal experience of this recently when helping out in the kitchen over the holidays when I watched the Brussel sprouts being put on to cook a good hour before the meal was due to be ready. The lady who was helping the hostess with the sprouts insisted “you need to boil them for at least forty minutes ”. It took us ages to persuade her otherwise. Incidentally, she professed to hate Brussel sprouts – and if she regularly cooked them for that long, I can’t say I am surprised.

There also seems to be a perception that eating your vegetables has to be endured. Aside from the ubiquitous green bean casserole and broccoli smothered in cheese sauce, most of the people I interviewed think vegetables are boring. They have become something to be dreaded -an overcooked, under-flavoured endurance test. I was met with blank looks when I suggested light sauces or garnishes. At my house, parsnips are roasted in butter with honey or maple syrup, crisp carrots are topped with a light coating of garlic butter, asparagus is drizzled with delicious extra virgin olive oil and crunchy stir fries are seasoned with sweet chilli and soy. Seriously, vegetables can be anything but boring if they are properly prepared.

When I researched children and vegetables by talking to lots of parents and kids alike, it became apparent things are often even worse. Even those little ones who start out eating their veggies often stop when they go to school. Other children or even older siblings persuade them that vegetables are not cool and they succumb to peer pressure. Some adults told me of endless struggles over vegetables – of driving themselves to distraction by finely chopping them and “hiding’ them in spaghetti sauce or shepherd’s pie or of making children sit at the table for ages “until they eat their vegetables” and eventually just giving up. Vegetables are a huge problem in so many households – often because one or more of the adults there won’t eat them either. One little girl said to me that “Daddy doesn’t like vegetables so neither do I”. No wonder her Mom had no chance when it came to getting her to eat them. Incidentally, a conversation with Mom revealed that the little girl had actually never tasted most of the vegetables she professed to hate – nor, it seemed, had her father.

As I mentioned earlier, I had none of those issues with my son. The thing is, I had no preconceived notion that vegetables were going to be an issue and as a result I was very relaxed about them. I approached vegetables with a sense of fun, telling him stories about broccoli trees that grew in magic forests and allowing him to experiment with sauces and seasonings on his vegetables. There were also no rules in our house when it came to vegetables. Although my son already liked broccoli, a spillage of ketchup on one of the rare occasions he had French fries with his dinner convinced him it was improved by the addition of that red sauce. I was not very happy but I figured it was better he eat broccoli with ketchup than not eat it at all so I did not make a big deal of it. Eventually he realised that broccoli was one of those rare things that was not really improved by the taste of ketchup. No harm was done and we did not end up in a power struggle that could have resulted in him refusing to eat broccoli altogether. Several of my friends were absolutely scandalised when they saw me allowing him to put ketchup on his broccoli though – but I have to say that most of their kids won’t touch the stuff (broccoli that is, not ketchup!).

I heard a fabulous story from another like-minded lady. Her son, who had loved cauliflower until he went to school, came home one day and announced he was never going to eat it again. Soon after, she introduced him to a wonderful new vegetable called white broccoli - which he loved. Clearly he did not even remember exactly what cauliflower was, he had decided to just go along with his friends. A measured response can avoid huge problems. Of course, white broccoli was never served when his friends visited in order to avoid this small deceit being revealed, and by the time he realised it did not actually exist, he liked it too much to stop eating it and even managed to laugh about the little white lie he had been told.

And that is the key, we have to laugh about our prejudices against vegetables and start to get over them as quickly as we can. None of us can afford not to eat the healthiest diet possible in these testing times. Stress levels are through the roof and incidence of many diseases is on the rise. It’s time to start eating healthily – and the best way to begin is by incorporating more vegetables into our diets.
The restaurants that are phasing vegetables out of their menus– or making them an optional and costly extra - help none of us. It reinforces the belief that vegetables are unpleasant, and that is just not true. Properly prepared, they are among the most delicious things you can eat – and that is coming from me – someone with a serious chocolate addiction! Whether we think we like them or not, we all need to take a fresh look at vegetables. Let’s face it, if you decided you disliked cabbage when you were ten and you are now middle aged, do you not think there might be even a possibility your tastes might have changed? And what would you rather do, choke down a little broccoli (which incidentally does taste very nice stirred into macaroni and cheese) or deal with the medical side effects of a poor diet?

The best way to look and feel better virtually overnight is not by popping down to Saks or Macys for the latest pot of wonder cream, by taking a family vacation or by visiting your plastic surgeon – it is by incorporating more vegetables in your diet. It might not have been easy for poor Kermit being green, but for us mere mortals eating green (and red, yellow and orange) is the easiest and quickest way to a youthful appearance and good health I know.

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