Mother Nature can be a bitch. She loaded vegetables with disease-fighting phytochemicals and then packed them with fiber and water to help you fill up and keep lean, yet somehow neglected to put their taste appeal on par with your favorite junk food. This may have been what turned you into a guy who would rather watch Fried Green Tomatoes than eat one.
But take heart: You may in fact be genetically wired to be a sensitive "supertaster" of vegetables' bitter compounds (see "Are You a Supertaster?" below). If genetics aren't the source of your problems, you may instead be one of the poor sods who simply never learned to love his vegetables. Whatever the case, we can't force you to stay at the dinner table until you've finished your vegetables--but our 10 tips can help you find ways to sneak more greens into your diet.
1) Shred 'em
Cut up your vegetables and hide them in your food. "Some shredded vegetables that work really well are zucchini, squash and carrots," says Kathleen Zelman, M.P.H., R.D., a nutrition consultant and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "You can hide them in meat loaf, soups, stews and sauces--anything that you'll cook for a period of time so they'll soften and become incorporated into the dish."
2) Eat 'em With Meat
And you thought MSG was just that stuff in Chinese food that gives you headaches and joint pain. Free amino acids such as glutamate (also known as MSG) help dull the bitterness in certain vegetables. Glutamates are present in meat--especially in aged meat such as pepperoni and aged beef. So mix chicken with your greens, or stir-fry a vegetable and a low-fat sirloin.
3) Put 'em on Pizza
Fermented foods and some vegetables also contain free glutamates, so pile them on a pizza for a glutamate bonanza that will help you down your vegetables without any unpleasantness. "Pizza has a tremendous amount of free glutamate," says Paul Breslin, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. "Bread is fermented, cheese is fermented, and tomatoes and pepperoni contain a lot of free glutamate." When you do get a pizza--which shouldn't be all that often--have the pizza guy pop your vegetables onto a thin crust with half the cheese (and skip the aged meats). You'll cut down on the empty carbs and saturated fat and load up on the disease-fighting phytochemicals.
4) Heat 'em Up
Heating up vegetables, either steaming, microwaving or stir-frying, helps dull their bite. In fact, heated vegetables, especially the roasted kind, taste sweet. "Roasting an onion, garlic or any vegetable makes it taste much better," says Zelman. "The high heat caramelizes it, so it takes on a whole different flavor and texture."
5) Shake on a Little Salt
Sprinkle your greens with some sodium, which will also cut the bitterness. "We're still not sure how the mechanism works," says Breslin. "It has something to do with salt interfering with bitter-taste signals getting to the brain." Again, do this in moderation.
If you're hypertensive, don't do it at all.
6) Add Some Healthy Fat
According to Breslin, some bitter compounds are lipophilic, meaning they dissolve readily in fat. So try adding a little fat (and we stress a little) to your vegetables by sauteing them in oil. Olive oil is very low in saturated fats and loaded with healthy monounsaturated fats, so choose it over others. However, for a little variety you can use sesame oil or peanut oil, which are also low in saturated fat--just go easy with these.
How to saute: Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add two teaspoons of olive oil. (Heating the oil should take about a minute.) Cut your vegetables into uniform sizes so they cook in the same time, and saute them for about five minutes until they're crisp-tender. Be sure to stir the vegetables, lifting them up frequently and moving them around the pan.
7) Get Saucy
If you eat tomato sauce on pizza, meatball subs or spaghetti, ostensibly you're eating vegetables. Since pizza and meatballs don't fall into what we consider health foods, try smothering your skinless chicken or ground turkey breast with tomato sauce. You can even double your vegetable intake by mixing some shredded zucchini or carrots into the sauce (the sugar in the marinara will squelch any bitter taste). And don't labor over your own sauce; simple old Prego or Ragu works just as well.
8) Dip Your Chips
Salsas offer a spicy way to get your vegetables, says Zelman. Try mixing freshly diced tomatoes with scallions, garlic, cilantro, peppers, black beans, corn and onions. The free glutamate in the tomatoes will help take the edge off the other vegetables. Scoop up the salsa with some low-fat baked chips or celery, or use it to pour over chicken breast or fish.