Eat your veggies - and here's why and how

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Leaves are falling, temperatures dropping and things are slowing down in Walla Walla. Without the demands of weekend catering and preparing meals for others, I have time to focus on my own family's needs. A leisurely visit to the farmers market last week was a rude awakening and realization that my own children need my nutritional counseling and planning.

It all started with an innocent stop at the WIC booth, where they were promoting healthy eating and sampling butternut squash soup. Wanting to support the cause, I took a sample and encouraged my kids to do the same.

"Nope."

"OK, how about just a bite of mine."

"No thank you."

I begged and pleaded, asking them to be good role models and show how much nutrition knowledge and appreciation they had. Still no.

Inspired to give it another shot and prove to them (and myself) that they would like squash if given a chance and a good recipe, I prepared roasted delicata rings for dinner. My husband gobbled them down and my son ate a few. But I had to do my best persuading to get my daughter to eat a measly two pieces.

Normally I can get them to eat vegetables -- and they do like most vegetables -- but I have gotten out of the habit of preparing them beyond the mandatory lunch carrots, evening unthawed frozen veg and occasional salad. I realized that if I, a trained chef and educated nutritionist, am having a hard time serving enough fresh vegetables in my house, imagine how the rest of the nation is doing. I figured it was time I address this situation and get back into preparing more fresh veggies at home.

So why even bother? Does it really matter if we skip the vegetables at mealtime?

Yes! It does matter! Let's take a look at a typical day of meals in our household, without the vegetables. Oatmeal and orange juice for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly plus an apple for lunch, chicken and rice for dinner. With a diet like this, we exceed the recommended daily allowance for carbohydrates, but get less than a quarter of the necessary vitamins and minerals -- like Vitamin A, E, calcium, potassium and niacin -- and very little antioxidants.

Adding a handful of carrots at lunch and a small spinach salad and yams at dinner fills the nutritional gap with little fuss. The vegetables add more color, variety and flavor to the meal and supply essential fiber and antioxidants.

Having spent two years studying nutrition, I know the importance of a balanced diet based on whole foods. I understand we need whole grains for their fiber, vitamins and minerals. We need fruits and vegetables for their antioxidants to protect our cells from damage by free radicals, their fiber for proper digestion, and vitamins and minerals for regulating body function and maximizing cell production. I know each different colored vegetable offers a different nutritional profile and we should eat a variety of colors each day.

Knowing all this, I'm making this change one of my top priorities in this downtime from work. Keeping healthy is as simple as spending a little extra time planning and chopping vegetables.

Here's my plan: Write a menu on Sunday for the following week. Buy all necessary dry foods and vegetables, and include the kids in choosing veggies of the week. Prep carrot, cucumber, red pepper sticks for lunches, and add a little water and cover to avoid drying out.

For nights I work late, prep meat and vegetable, label and place in fridge. Write menu and any cooking notes on fridge door, for myself and my husband. Have a backup bag of frozen veggies and frozen cheese pizza, for emergency. Have chopped veggies ready to add to emergency pizza, if needed. Include and enjoy as much local fresh produce as possible, while it's still available.

Melissa Davis, a local chef with a bachelor's degree in nutrition, specializes in natural foods. She can be reached at jadenluna@gmail.com. More of her writing is at www.melissadavisfood.wordpress.com.

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