What to Eat: How I Learned to Stop Fussing and Eat My Vegetables

fractal cauliflower
Stare directly into the cauliflower.

You know those kids who will not eat their vegetables, no matter how much you prod and bribe and threaten? The ones who gag at the sight of a bowl of peas?

That was me. Until about two months ago.

All right, I’m exaggerating a little– I started eating some vegetables in college– but it was only recently that I started seeking veggies out and eating them voluntarily. Before that, it took serious effort to get anything leafy, green or nutritious through my lips. My stepbrothers still tease me about that bowl of peas.

I’m telling you this with the zeal of the recent convert. I want you to know that it’s possible. I’m not some tofu-eating hippie who grew up vegetarian, no ma’am. I was the food industry’s dream, a pleasure seeker who refused to read food labels and thought a cream-filled oatmeal cookie sandwich in plastic wrap was a nutritious breakfast. I spent an entire year of high school eating Lance wafer cookies and Burger King for lunch every day. Don’t blame my mom– she tried her best to get those veggies into my mouth, but I just wasn’t having it.

It turned out, as I got older and started developing health problems, that some of those veggie aversions had to do with food allergies. I didn’t like raw carrots because they made my mouth feel funny– turns out it was oral allergy syndrome. I was glad to hear I wasn’t just a brat (although, let’s face it, I was), but I still didn’t actually want to eat vegetables.

As I got older, a few things happened to open up my palate. I lived with a wonderful poetry professor who showed me that vegetables tasted a lot better when they’d been picked from a friend’s organic farm that very morning. I started hanging out with Indian people who liked to cook. And, most importantly, I discovered that I was willing to eat any food if it would impress a guy.

When Joe and I met, he was a vegetarian. (I’ll pause here so those who’ve met him recently can have a good laugh.) I ate no vegetables, he ate no meat. The only thing we agreed on was cheese. Fortunately, he opened my horizons without knowing it. He kept offering me what were then new and exotic foods to me– things like hummus, pesto and guacamole. And I swallowed my fear and tried them, because I didn’t want him to think I was a small-town hick (which I was). And… they were good. Really good. So my palate gradually widened.

But I still didn’t seek the veggies out on my own. Sure, I’d eat them if they were well disguised, but me? Order a whole plate of bok choy? No way.

Until Marion Nestle. I’ve been reading her newest book, What to Eat, and people, it has changed my life. I reviewed her book Food Politics several months ago, and enjoyed it thoroughly, but What to Eat deals with the most basic question of all: seriously, what on earth should I eat?

I think most of us are asking this question. How do you cut through the thicket of food labels and omega-3s and carbs and Certified Organic seals and figure out what exactly is good for you? When I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, the picture became even cloudier: other than beets, there was no clear dietary path. I just knew that I couldn’t keep eating the way I had been.

Marion* makes it simple: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. In What to Eat, she walks the reader through a supermarket, clearing away the lies on the labels, pushing aside the processed, nutrient-free, high-fructose nastiness, and helps us find our way back to eating food that tastes like food and actually nourishes our bodies. While the book is clear enough to appeal to a wide audience, Marion doesn’t shy away from explaining the science behind nutritional claims and choices. I feel like I’m now armed with enough knowledge to make intelligent decisions when I shop now– it’s empowering and exciting, and exactly what the junk-food industry doesn’t want.

But now that I have all this knowledge, now that I’ve heard Marion say it a thousand times, I can’t deny it anymore– vegetables are good for you. Really, really good for you. And their goodness comes in ways you just can’t get anywhere else. So by the time I’d gotten to about page 200, I realized I had to start forcing myself to eat my vegetables.

Which brings me to the weird part of this story. I started choking down some veggies for the first time in my twenty-seven years on this earth… and after two weeks, I started craving them. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not magically loving everything I come across… but I like a lot of these weird green plant thingies, and they make me feel good. Maybe it’s also that I’ve been working out, but I’ve noticed that I have a lot more energy now that I’m eating my vegetables. Coincidence?  And even stranger, those greasy pizza-shop sandwiches I was eating before are starting to gross me out.   Suddenly, it’s all about the vegetables.

So here are my favorite things to do with them:

-Fractal cauliflower, aka Romanesco cabbage, pictured above. I saw this at Livengood Farms in the Reading Market, and bought it just because it was so pretty and psychedelic-looking. It’s actually really tasty steamed and sprinkled with spices– Joe made it with galangal the other night, and also once with cumin.

Stir fry. This is a great way to get multiple veggies. Snow peas, carrots, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots, all in one go, crunchy and pretty and delicious.

-Sauces! OK, I realize that sauces add lots of salt and fat and other things Marion wouldn’t recommend eating on a daily basis. But hey, I’m a beginner here, and I figure if it gets the vegetables into my stomach, that’s a good start. I had vegan General Tso’s chicken with my friend Joel last night at New Harmony in Chinatown, and ate the broccoli– a big step for me! Navrattan korma from Tiffin is also a winner.

-Smoked eggplant. Baingan bharta (eggplant curry) is delicious, and baba ganoush is not only delicious but unexpectedly easy.

-Bok choy, stir fried with caramelized garlic. Oh yeah.

Spinach salad!

Tips? Suggestions? Veggielicious recipes? Encouragement? Leave a comment. And in the meantime, go forth and get thee a copy of What to Eat! (But don’t eat it.)

*Dr. Nestle, properly, but after reading the book I feel like I know her. Also, I refer to her with annoying regularity– “But Joe, Marion says that Vitamin Water is mostly just sugar and that we should get our vitamins from vegetables! Marion says the label only says that because of industry pressure on the USDA! Marion says organic blueberries are the bestest thing ever! Marion, Marion, Marion!” What can I say? The woman is my nutritional hero.


6 Responses to “What to Eat: How I Learned to Stop Fussing and Eat My Vegetables”

  1. leftyprof Says:

    Glad to know that I’m “Indian people”! 🙂

  2. therealpotato Says:

    Indian people who like to cook. Important distinction, my eggplant-roasting friend. 🙂

  3. pal002 Says:

    Spinach Salad has bacon. Bacon is the candy of meats. So a spinach salad is like eating a big bowl of candy, no?

  4. MrsBug Says:

    Another good book is World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey. Fun book with, obviously, tons of veggie recipes from around the world. Lots of spice mixes and sauces and rubs and etc too. Welcome to Veggie World – it’s better here. 🙂

  5. Marion Nestle on Food Allergies « The Real Potato. Says:

    […] on Nestle’s work here and here.  Or, of course, you can read her blog, which has interesting tidbits several times a day. […]

  6. News you can use, from sushi to booze « The Real Potato. Says:

    […] nothing like good crabmeat treated well. I used to turn down homemade crab cakes during my picky-eater childhood; I could kick myself for doing that […]

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