Everyone knows that vegetables are good for them and their loved ones — but how exactly? Is it enough to shoot for a colorful plate or is there more that can be done? What nutrients are kids likely to fall short on when they go on veggie strikes?
Vegetables are categorized into subgroups based on the nutrition they offer. For example, orange vegetables are rich in vitamin A and starchy vegetables, like potatoes, are packed with potassium. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines categorize vegetables in the 5 subgroups detailed below:
1. Red and Orange
These include red and orange vegetables such as red peppers, tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, and pumpkin.
Nutrition: This class of veggies are rich in vitamin A and contain varying levels of vitamin C. There are numerous carotenoids (antioxidants) responsible for the orange and red colors which the body converts to vitamin A. For example, beta-carotene is found in carrots and lycopene in tomatoes. Vitamin A helps maintain a strong immune system and is essential for eye health.
Tip! Serving orange and red veggies as a side dish is great but if your child is resistant, try carrots/red pepper slices with a tasty dip, pumpkin/butternut squash bread and muffins, pureed carrot or squash soup, and homemade tomato sauce on pizzas and pastas. Cantaloupe (orange in color) is rich in vitamins A and C too.
2. Dark Green
These include dark-green leafy vegetables and broccoli, including spinach, romaine, kale, collard, swiss chard, turnip, and mustard greens.
Nutrition: This class of veggies contains varying levels of vitamins A, C, and K and folate. Some leafy greens like collard greens, spinach, and swiss chard contain beta-carotene while others are rich in antioxidants vitamin C, lutein, and zeaxanthin.
Tip! Greens can be sauteed or served in salads; also serve broccoli raw with a dip, roasted, or steamed. Resistant kids can have greens added to smoothies and sandwiches or may like Kale Chips. If your child won’t touch green in any way shape or form, vitamin A can be found in orange veggies and cantaloupe, vitamin C in fruits like oranges, strawberries, and kiwi, vitamin K in vegetable oils, and folate in cereals and other grains.
3. Beans and Peas
These include all cooked beans and peas such as kidney beans, black beans, lentils, lima beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, and pinto beans (not including green beans or green peas).
Nutrition: Beans are the only vegetable that counts as protein and a vegetable because they are rich in protein, iron, and zinc (similar to meat). The bonus is they are packed with dietary fiber, potassium, and folate and according to research, has one of the highest amounts of antioxidants in the vegetable family.
Tip! Have meatless meals (like meatless Monday) and include beans as the star show. Put beans in burritos and quesadillas, include in chilis and soups, serve as a side dish, and top on salads.
4. Starchy Vegetables — Potatoes, corn, and peas.
Nutrition: While all vegetables contain potassium, starchy ones lead the pack and are also rich in fiber. One small potato contains 21% Daily Value (DV) for potassium, 21% vitamin B6, 15% Manganese, and 10% manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, niacin, and folate.
Tip! Perfect as a side dish such as baked potatoes, Parmesan peas, grilled corn, baked fries, and mashed potatoes. Peas are a nice addition to pasta dishes like macaroni and cheese while potatoes go well in many soups.
5. Other Vegetables
This category includes veggies like iceberg lettuce, green beans, cucumbers, celery, mushrooms, and onions.
Nutrition: These vegetables still contain key nutrients and phytochemicals, they just vary in amounts and are hard to group together. Mushrooms are rich in selenium, for example, while celery and cucumbers are good sources of vitamin K.
Tip! In one study, kids didn’t think cucumbers (and tomatoes) were actual veggies because they liked them so much. Many of these vegetables are good raw with dip, in salads, or roasted. Even though they may not be the superstar vegetables, they are still vegetables and a stepping stone to the more colorful variety!
To maximize nutrition and exposure for kids, rotate these subgroups in your family’s diet. Below are weekly recommendations taken from the Dietary Guidelines based on age/calorie intake. Please use this as a guide for offerings (and not literally) or it will drive you crazy!
Young toddler: 1/2 cup dark greens/2.5 cups orange/1/2 cup beans/2 cups starchy/1.5 cups other
Preschooler: 1 cup dark greens/3 cups orange/1/2 cup beans/3.5 cups starchy/2.5 cups other
School-age: 1.5 cup dark greens/4 cups orange/1 cup beans/4 cups starchy/3.5 cups other
Teen/Adult: 1.5 cups dark greens/5.5 cups orange/1.5 cups beans/5 cups starchy/4 cups other
Are you happy with your family’s vegetable variety? Did this post spur any ideas?
For more specifics on nutrition by age, see Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School