The Main ‘Vegetables’ Americans Eat Are Pizza and French Fries

New USDA research finds we’re mostly fooling ourselves that we're eating our vegetables.

(Photo: Henrique Bagulho/Getty Images)

May 22, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The way your’e meeting your daily quotient of vegetables is probably a lot less healthy than you think, according to a potentially surprising finding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The non-newsworthy headline is that Americans aren’t eating enough vegetables in the first place—an anemic one and a half cups on average per day versus the two to three cups recommended by federal nutrition guidelines.

Duh. Like the fact that we watch too much TV, don’t exercise, and eat too much junk food, our collective aversion to eating our veggies has become a stock item on the litany of explanations for why, when we venture out in public and are surrounded by our lumbering compatriots, it all too often feels like we’re walking onto a cattle feedlot. We’ve heard this one before.

To make matters worse, a lot of the vegetables we are consuming when we deign to eat them aren’t that good for us—or they’re being served up in ways that would make any self-respecting nutritionist shudder.

More than half the veggies we consume—51 percent—come from two sources: potatoes and tomatoes. Most of the potatoes we eat are in the form of (you guessed it) french fries or potato chips. Is there any need to spell out why french fries are to a serving of vegetables as searching for the TV remote is to exercise?

Tomatoes fare only a slightly better. While we Americans do like ’em raw sometimes, we consume a significant portion as sauce on pizza and pasta. Leaving aside the question of just how healthy it is to get a scant serving of vegetables smothered beneath a heaping layer of cheese and sausage, the USDA points out that while raw tomatoes are naturally low in sodium (nine milligrams per cup), a cup of your average canned sauce contains more than 1,000 milligrams of sodium—about half of what’s recommended for an entire day.

When all is said and done, the USDA finds that what most of us would probably consider a healthy serving of vegetables—things like the kale, spinach, broccoli, and carrots at your local farmers market—makes up only about 10 percent of our vegetable intake.

How can this be, given the rise in popularity of farmers markets and the fetishization of farm-to-table produce by the food press? From a nutritional standpoint, fruit and vegetables are often lumped together, but in reality we consume them in different ways. Fruit is sweeter, and it’s easy to eat whole and raw—which in addition to being convenient means it isn’t often prepared in a way that obliterates its healthiness (e.g., deep-frying).

Vegetables, on the other hand, can require a lot of tedious prep (peeling, seeding, cutting), and too often we end up dousing them with salt and fat.

I’ve long been on a quest to eat more veggies, though I’ll admit, it’s been with mixed success. In any case, I’ve compiled some of the more helpful tips I’ve come across, along with some based on my own experience, which I imagine other vegetable-challenged folks out there might find helpful.

Keep MyPlate in Mind

You probably know the USDA ditched the food pyramid a few years ago in favor of MyPlate. While it may seem cheesy to resort to what seems like an elementary-school educational prop to decide what you’re going to eat, the idea that half your plate should be given over to fruits and vegetables is an easy guideline to remember.

Join a CSA

Because my husband and I have tended to be away for part of the summer, this hasn’t made sense for us. But my friends who’ve signed up swear by it. Nothing inspires you to eat more vegetables like a box of farm-fresh ones hauled into your kitchen every week. You can find a CSA in your area through Local Harvest.

Don’t Shy Away From Frozen

Of course, most CSA subscriptions only last part of the year. Frozen veggies are superconvenient, you can stock up on them, and they have the same nutritional benefits of fresh.

Get a Salad Spinner

I’m not one to hawk useless kitchen gadgets, but we absolutely couldn’t live without our salad spinner. Now, it must be said that you have to eat more than a cup of fresh greens to equal a serving of cooked vegetables. But our salad spinner allows us to keep lettuce, spinach, and the like on hand at all times without risking getting to the bottom of the pack and finding a bunch of squishy black leaves.

Double the Veggies in Your Recipes

You’re already chopping and peeling, so what’s a little more? Soups, stews, and casseroles take a heap of extra vegetables with no problem.

Don’t Peel

As for the tedious prep, skip a step when you can: Don’t peel vegetables with edible skin. The skin often contains a lot of good fiber (and yes, that includes potatoes).

Swap Out Bread for Lettuce

It sounds weird, but hearty leafy greens can make great wraps for sandwich fillings. Alternatively, layer your lunchtime sandwich with plenty of fresh vegetables and less meat and cheese.

Skip the Chips

Sliced carrots, bell pepper, or cucumber make great vehicles for dips like hummus and baba ganoush, and they’re better for you than even the best pita chips.

DIY Chips

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of store-bought chips, especially if you’re grabbing lunch on the go. But at home, making your own healthier chips isn’t that hard—and they taste great. I slice my potatoes thin (I like red potatoes), brush a cookie sheet with olive oil, arrange the potatoes in a single layer, and give the tops a brush of olive oil too. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, and bake 15 to 20 minutes at 425˚ F, loosening the potatoes about halfway through.

DIY Pasta Sauce

I don’t know why anyone would use canned pasta sauce when it’s so ridiculously easy to make your own. To serve four, slice a handful of garlic cloves, and heat about a quarter cup of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Simmer the sliced garlic until it’s golden, a few minutes, and add two pints of grape or cherry tomatoes (the oil will sizzle like it’s really pissed off). Stir the tomatoes and simmer until they start to fall apart, 8 to 10 minutes. Throw in chopped fresh basil and toss with cooked pasta and grated Parmesan.