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If you could add one vegetable to the list accepted by everyone at your dinner table, which one would you choose? Do the vegetables served at your family meals reflect the likes and dislikes of your partner? If so, you are not alone. The simple exercise of making a list of the vegetables you enjoy but your family does not, quickly exposes why so many of us default to a short list. Potatoes, corn, peas, carrots, green beans, lettuce, and sometimes broccoli or cauliflower are vegetables often accepted by everyone.

Eating more vegetables, especially deep orange, cruciferous and dark leafy greens are associated with lower chronic disease risk. When it comes to vegetables in short supply in American diets, these three groups of vegetables with great health benefits come to mind:

• Deep orange (carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and winter squash, such as butternut squash).

• Cruciferous (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts).

• Dark leafy greens (mild — dark lettuces, kale, Swiss chard and spinach, or savory — mustard, turnip, beet and collard).

Why Eat Deep Orange Vegetables?

According to the Penn State Extension Totally Veggies (2017) program, free radicals are molecules the body produces during the digestion of food as a result of an unhealthy diet, or exposure to tobacco smoke, pollution and chemicals. Because free radicals result in disease such as heart disease, cancer and eye problems, we need a way to neutralize them. Fortunately, antioxidants neutralize free radicals, thus reducing the risk of disease. Deep orange vegetables are a great source of three antioxidants: vitamins A and C, and carotenoids.

You can see how the process works by cutting an apple and dipping the slices in lemon juice. Although oxidation would cause the apple to become brown, the vitamin C in the juice acts as an antioxidant, keeping the apple white. Think of the browning on the apple as free radical damage. The effects of antioxidants are the main reason we are advised to eat more vegetables.

Why Eat Cruciferous Vegetables?

Cruciferous vegetables naturally produce bitter, sulfur-containing compounds to protect themselves against insect predators. These bitter sulfur-containing compounds, called phytochemicals, are what give the cruciferous vegetables their stronger flavors and smells, and surprisingly, also help protect us from common cancers when we eat them.

Why Eat Dark Leafy Greens?

Macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss among Americans aged 60 and older, is an age-related disease that can blur sharp central vision needed for driving and reading. Dark leafy greens contain lutein, a carotenoid thought to be important for eye health. In the body, lutein concentrates in the macula, a small area in the retina responsible for central vision. Eating dark green leafy vegetables is the most effective way to guard eye health.

Introducing New Vegetables Into Family Meals

The most protective vegetables might be unfamiliar to you, or not served due to family norms that discourage experimentation with foods. If your family evening meals focus on meat and potatoes, what would it look like to introduce new vegetables at family meals? Might you want to try the vegetables first, and then offer a tasting to your family along with a familiar meal? Do this once a week, and then when you find a vegetable that two or more enjoy, serve it again.

Don’t allow one person’s dislikes to veto a new vegetable or recipe. The idea that everyone must like what is served is common in families, but this limits your ability to introduce new foods. You may be very surprised at what your family members like and will eat. If there is a vegetable that your partner does not like, let it go unsaid so that it does not affect the willingness of others at the table to try and enjoy it. If parents model vegetable eating for children, the eating habits can transfer to the children. Children who are involved with food preparation and choosing recipes are more open to trying new vegetables.

Vegetables are low in calories and filling; therefore, eating more vegetables results in eating less of the other foods offered at a meal. This might be as simple as serving a salad first at dinner, and then watching how it decreases the amount of the main dish that is eaten.

Ideas for introducing more vegetables into family meals include using salads, soups and side dishes and including vegetables in mixed dishes for family dinners. Sometimes a vegetable prepared one way is undesirable, but the same vegetable prepared another way might become a new family favorite. When you find ways that your family enjoys them, vegetables offer exciting colors, flavors and texture, plus they contain vitamins, minerals and fiber that protect against many chronic diseases.

Search the Penn State Extension website at extension.psu.edu for excellent resources including Learning to Like Vegetables, Picky Eaters, the Totally Veggies online course, the Totally Veggies Resource Guide, and the Pennsylvania Produce: A Guide to Quality Produce Grown in PA.

Dori Owczarzak is Penn State Extension educator based in Washington County

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