I’ve always been that person who really hates vegetables.
As a kid, I was the master of making vegetables disappear off my plate without ever taking a bite, whether it involved feeding them to my dog, subtly flushing them down the toilet, or hiding them under the couch. (I know.)
I considered baked potatoes and the tomato sauce on my pizza to be an entirely adequate amount of vegetable consumption, and the older I got, the fewer actual vegetables I ate. Once I got to college, with no parents forcing me to gag down my beets, I basically subsisted on a steady diet of waffles, chicken tikka masala, and Chipotle steak bowls. After college, I moved to Turkey, where I basically spent a year trying every type of meat kebab the country had to offer, without letting a single green thing pass my lips.
Then, a few years ago, I moved to New York, where I decided that the weather being below freezing for several months a year justified a perpetual diet of melted cheese and potatoes. Within a few months, however, I started rethinking my dietary habits. For one, my college metabolism slowed down in a big way, meaning the nonstop stream of carbs, meat, and sugar I’d once thrived off of now made me sluggish and sedentary. None of my pants fit anymore. And I started actually considering the long-term impact of eating a diet composed largely of processed crap. Something had to be done.
Over the past year, I’ve made a huge effort to go from being the girl who slides the lettuce off her burgers in disgust to someone for whom vegetables are a normal part of a daily diet. Though this has meant occasionally forgoing fries for the side salad at restaurants and adding fajitas to my Chipotle order, the biggest change and challenge has been finding new ways to cook vegetables at home.
Here are the 13 most important things I’ve learned in the course of my Year of Veg-ucation.
1. If you hate something, you’re probably cooking it wrong.
This year, Brussels sprouts taught me two very important things. One, that bacon basically makes everything better (see below). And two, that many of the vegetables I hated as a kid were frequently just vegetables that were cooked wrong.
The crunchy, caramelized Brussels sprouts that are ubiquitous in every New York restaurant today are basically a completely different food from the bland, boiled sprouts I recall being forced to swallow as a young’un, which tasted — excuse me — of farts. Boiled Brussels sprouts are a crime against humanity. But when they’re roasted until golden with a teeny bit of brown sugar and balsamic vinegar and a sprinkling of bacon and garlic, Brussels sprouts are nothing short of magical.
Too often, the vegetables we eat are overcooked, boiled, or otherwise smushed into submission in a way that robs them of their natural delicious flavors. There’s a good chance that if there’s a vegetable you hate, changing the way you cook it might change your mind.
2. When in doubt, roast. Everything.
Roasting is the easiest way to make your vegetables delicious, and probably the only way many vegetables should be cooked. Roasting makes vegetables the perfect level of crispy-tender, naturally sweetening and intensifying their flavor in a way even sworn veggie haters like me find it hard to dislike. Roast a whole tray of root vegetables at the start of your week and use them in every meal you make thereafter.
3. Or put bacon on it.
This experiment quickly taught me that there is no vegetable on Earth that cannot be improved with the addition of bacon. You could probably top Brillo pads with bacon and not only would I eat it, I’d ask for seconds. Wrap some bacon around asparagus, sauté green beans with it, or sprinkle bits over mashed sweet potatoes! The possibilities are literally endless.
4. Prep veggies ahead of time so they don’t turn into a mold-fest in your fridge.
Every so often, I’d optimistically drop a big chunk of change on bags of greens and vegetables at the grocery store, bring them home, and dump them in the crisper with every intention of incorporating them into my week. Two weeks later, I’d open that crisper to discover something resembling a science experiment more than a source of nutrition.
Now, pretty much the minute I get home from the store, I load up a Netflix episode and spend an hour washing, chopping, and otherwise prepping any vegetables I plan to use for the week. Investing in quality Tupperware was a game-changer for this. Not only am I more likely to remember and use the veggies in my fridge when they’re all nice and chopped and ready to go, but I’m more likely to snack on celery sticks or bell pepper slices when they require no extra effort to prepare during the week.
I took all my chop-and-prep inspiration from Jessica at Girl Walks Into a Bar(bell).
5. Salads don’t have to be sad, even at your desk.
I was absolutely one of those people who only ever associated salads with “sad wilty thing I’m eating at my desk in an effort to be ~healthy~ this week.” But over the past year, I’ve started to look at salad less as a chore and more as a vehicle for other foods I normally enjoy eating.
When you substitute greens for fun things like tortillas or noodles, salads go from being depressing mounds of lettuce to healthier, filling meals that don’t feel like deprivation at all. The best salads have a ton of flavor and textures and hopefully some avocado, like this fajita steak salad, or this super-easy avocado caprese chicken salad.
6. Up your soup game.
I’ve never been a soup person, but earlier last winter, when I had my wisdom teeth out, I was faced with the prospect of no solid foods for two weeks. This was when I discovered that you can turn anything — from a born winner like butternut squash to even the vegetables I find repugnant, like spinach and cauliflower — into a creamy concoction that warms your soul from the inside out. And it’s really easy.
For nearly any soup, you can start with roasting whatever veggies you’d like, add some aromatics (think shallots, garlic, and fresh herbs), and puree with liquid — stock, cream, coconut milk, or plain old water all work great. Soups are an especially good way to get in your five-a-day when it’s freezing out.
This coconut curried cauliflower soup is my go-to for cold-day Thai food cravings, and this butternut squash soup with bacon and goat cheese takes one of my favorite fall foods to a whole new level. For something lighter, try this fresh spring greens soup.
7. You can make veggies disappear (by hiding them in something else).
OK, this is absolutely the most childish way to eat veggies, but still — sometimes the best way for me to get my veggies in is to hide them in something else. Spinach basically disappears when it’s mixed into a smoothie, zucchini is undetectable when baked into lasagna, and parsnips and cauliflower vanish amazingly into mashed potatoes.
I used to detest mushrooms for their weirdly chewy texture, but I recently discovered that dicing them and adding them to Bolognese is a great way to cut down on meat while still getting all that amazing flavor in. This mushroom Bolognese sauce is one of my favorites — I still tend to add a half pound of minced meat, but it’s almost impossible to tell the difference.
8. Squash does a really great impression of spaghetti.
Like many other post-college millennials, there are entire weeks when my diet is roughly 90% pasta. So when seemingly overnight my friends started swapping bow ties and penne for squashes and a spiralizer, I was less than convinced. Then I ended up grudgingly trying spaghetti squash at a friend’s potluck. I wasn’t totally converted, but I had to admit that the squash was a pretty solid approximation of the chewy strands of angel hair pasta, with a slightly nuttier, sweeter flavor than actual noodles.
9. Overcooking should be illegal.
Every week or so when I was a kid, droopy, mushy “green” beans (that were actually gray and smelled vaguely farty) would make an appearance in the cafeteria lunch at school. As an adult, I’ve almost never gone to some sort of formal dinner where there wasn’t over-blanched, bitter asparagus moldering in a pile next to my steak. Eating overcooked vegetables is a surefire way to make anyone sad, which is why it’s so important to get your cooking times right.
With things like green beans and asparagus, a light hand is best. Green beans cook in just a few minutes in boiling water, while asparagus only lasts about 10 minutes in a really hot oven before becoming overcooked. Get your cooking times right and never be forced to gag down reduced-to-mush vegetables ever again.
10. Fries are forever.
I could basically live off of fries and mayo, the most delicious combination known to man (ketchup purists, take your hate elsewhere). That’s why one of my all-time favorite ways to eat vegetables is to bake them into “fries.”
From the perfection that is sweet potato fries (maybe with a lil’ chipotle mayo on the side) to these Parmesan-crusted zucchini fries to these incredible parsnip fries with rosemary, basically any root vegetable can be sliced thin and tossed with herbs, garlic, Parmesan, and olive oil (or some combination thereof) into the healthy-ish snack of your dreams.
For the days when nothing but real potatoes will do, these baked chili cheese fries are still healthier than McDonald’s. Probably.
11. You can turn almost anything green into pesto.
There are few things I love more in life than really good pesto slathered onto a baguette, and maybe topped with some mozzarella. As it turns out, making pesto is a great — and super easy — way to get some greens in. All you need is olive oil, some nuts and Parmesan, and whatever greens are currently in season.
Homemade pesto goes great with basically everything — in pasta, on bread, or with grilled chicken or fish. Though pesto can be pretty calorie-dense, it’s high in good fats and nutrients, and a little goes a really long way. This rosemary and Swiss chard pesto is a favorite, and this arugula-basil pesto is my go-to for weeknight pasta dinners.
12. Seasoning is everything (and garlic is your best friend).
I learned pretty early on that literally the easiest way to start enjoying vegetables is using seasonings to make them taste better. Salt, aromatics, and herbs make even simple sautés and stir-fries a lot more flavorful without having much of an impact on the nutritional value.
Herbs like rosemary, sage, and thyme make every roast vegetable dish better, or go Asian-inspired by adding a little ginger, garlic, soy sauce, or fish sauce to your greens. I’ve learned that there’s no reason to dislike 80% of the vegetables I’ve encountered — not in a world where we have easy access to sauté pans and garlic.
13. …but it’s still OK to be a hater sometimes.
While the Year of Veg-ucation has taught me a lot about how to make vegetables an everyday (even somewhat enjoyable?) part of my life, I’ve also come to the realization that there are just some vegetables I still hate. Raw tomatoes is one; kale is the other.
And that’s OK! My rule is to try everything three times in three different ways, and at the end of that, if I’m still gagging, it’s OK to give up. I’m never going to be the girl discussing the merits of my kale salad at work, and I’m fine with that. But over the last year, I’ve slowly transitioned from the girl who blanched at the sight of anything green on her plate to someone who actually enjoys cooking and eating (some) vegetables on an everyday basis. Right now, that’s good enough for me.