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We tried eating the recommended serving of fruit and vegetables for a week, and it was harder than we thought

By Michelle Stark | Times Staff
Published: January 17, 2018
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, you don't need to eat a cartful, but most of us should be consuming more than we are. A recent survey reveals that only one in 10 adults meet the federal fruit or vegetable recommendations of 1 Ĺ to two cups of fruit and 2 Ĺ to three cups of vegetables, at a minimum, a day. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

I sat at my desk eating chunked pineapple straight out of the can, reading about how much fruit and vegetables we should all be eating every day: 1 1/2 to two cups of fruit, 2 1/2 to three cups of vegetables, at a minimum, per the United States Department of Agriculture. But only a small portion of us are working that much into our daily diets.

Combined, itís roughly the size of a basketball, enough to fill a 2-liter soda bottle.

According to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 1 in 10 adults meet the federal fruit or vegetable recommendations, with 12 percent of Americans getting the recommended amount of fruit and 9 percent hitting the vegetable goals.

You already know that fruits and vegetables are good for you, but the CDC links a lack of these nutrients with chronic health issues. Fruits and vegetables can help reduce risks of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, some cancers and obesity.

There are all sorts of barriers to eating this much produce every day. Cost and access are the big ones, especially for young adults and people in poverty.

And thereís a perception that this kind of food is expensive. In some cases, thatís true. Have you ever tried to buy off-season cherries? And fruit cups are usually an upcharge at restaurants, whereas french fries are included.

But produce can be affordable. Five bananas cost roughly $2 to $3 at most grocery stores. A bag of spinach, about $3, can serve four people easily. My trusty can of pineapple contains at least one cup of fruit, and it cost 99 cents.

I wondered just how challenging it was to hit these goals, so I set out to track my fruit and vegetable intake for a week.

I was confident. There was likely not a day in 2017 where I did not eat at least two servings of fruit. Same-ish with vegetables, although I am often lazy when it comes to making them at home. Would I easily conquer these guidelines? Would I have to force myself to eat more green beans?

Before I started, I called up Nan Jensen, a registered dietitian with the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension.

Amounts of fruits and vegetables that people need to consume vary depending on age, calorie requirements, activity level and more, Jensen said. But generally, the numbers in the study are for a 2,000-calorie diet.

Itís important to eat a variety of items.

"We encourage people to go for the colors and aim for a rainbow," Jensen said. "Each color category of fruit and vegetable plays a specific role in disease prevention."

And even though the USDA lists 100 percent fruit juice on its list of acceptable fruit servings, Jensen said whole fruit and vegetables are always more desirable. Juice is fine in a pinch, but it lacks fiber and can pack extra calories and sugar.

How about smoothies? I blend my own at home and would be crushed to learn it was doing nothing for me, nutrition-wise.

"Smoothies are a great way to enjoy both fruits and vegetables," Jensen said. As long as youíre blending the entire fruit or veg, with skin and pulp, she said, youíre getting the nutrients.


And what about canned produce, another of my go-tos?

"It can also be a less expensive option for families when compared to fresh that is not in season," she said.

Canned goods can lose nutrients like vitamins B and C because of the water involved. But overall, Jensen said, the nutrients in canned produce are pretty stable because oxygen doesnít get in.

I felt armed with enough information to start my own experiment, tracking my fruit and vegetable intake for seven days and trying to hit those guidelines.

Hereís what went down


I begin with a plan and a twinkle in my eye. This will be fun! I set some loose ground rules: no juice, canned fruit is fine, try to eat at least three different kinds of vegetables per day.

I start the day with a smoothie that I already drink almost every weekday: 1 frozen banana, a handful (I measure it, and itís about 1/2 cup) of frozen strawberries or other fruit, 1 cup kefir, some protein powder and a small drizzle of honey. I am thrilled to discover this equals about half my recommended fruit servings for the day.

Lunch is at a restaurant, so hardly any veggies or fruit, but I have control over dinner: a turkey burger with sweet potato wedges, plus a salad on the side.

Fruit intake:

1 banana

1/2 cup strawberries

1 cup canned pineapple

1/2 cup grapes

Total: 3 cups

Vegetable intake:

1 cup baby carrots

1 cup butter lettuce

1/4 cup green peppers

1/2 cup sweet potatoes

Total: 2 3/4 cups



Things are already off to a less nutritious start. Florida is having a rare cold snap, and with almost-freezing temperatures hovering during my breakfast hours, I am less inclined to carry around a frozen fruit smoothie in my Tervis tumbler. I opt for oatmeal for breakfast instead, which sets me back significantly on the fruit front.

I make up for it by eating a 6-ounce container of blackberries at my desk for a snack, plus a banana. Itís vegetable soup for lunch, which gets my veggies going for the day, and a cup of raw baby carrots for another snack later on.

And yet, I am still only about halfway to my vegetable goal. For dinner, I throw 1/2 cup of peas onto my plate, but itís not enough to get me to my quota.

The thing I am realizing about my vegetable intake is that I mostly consume them with lunch or dinner. I never naturally opt for veggies at breakfast or after dinner, and today I just flat-out forgot to make vegetables a priority, so I fall a bit short.

Fruit intake:

3/4 cup blackberries

1 banana

1 cup grapes

Total: 2 3/4 cups

Vegetable intake:

1/2 cup tomatoes, onions and carrots in soup

1/2 cup raw baby carrots

1/2 cup peas

Total: 1 1/2 cups



No smoothie again, but I decide it may be a good idea to get into the omelet game, a breakfast that can be loaded up with veggies and also still taste good. I throw in some spinach and onion.

I briefly consider bringing a sliced red bell pepper to work, but I am really just not in that kind of mood, so I pack some raw baby carrots and vow to mix it up tomorrow. Lunch is leftover almond-crusted chicken with rice and a large scoop of peas, because I had them in the freezer. I need to force myself to eat them all.

Dinner is at a new ramen restaurant in town, where I eat ramen noodles, chicken and pretty much only starchy carbs and meat. The biggest source of vegetable at this meal is the pinch of scallions floating in my ramen bowl. Not a great day for nutrients.

Fruit intake:

1 banana

1 cup grapes

Total: 2 cups

Vegetable intake:

1/2 cup spinach

1/4 cup onion

1/2 cup peas

1 cup raw carrots

Total: 2 1/4 cups



I have to front-load my fruits today, because lunch and dinner will be at restaurants, and I know myself well enough to know I will not make the best choices. Itís the standard smoothie, plus an apple on the way out the door. Lunch is a bridal shower at Seasons 52 in Tampa, where the menu is somewhat set. This is good news for my goals, as we all get gigantic salads for the first course. Itís easily two full cups of greens, piled with veggies, so Iím feeling great about my vegetable achievements by 1 p.m.

Dinner also isnít bad, a chicken poke bowl that comes with at least a cup of field greens and other finely chopped veggies. But trying to get a lot of veggies (and especially fruit) into your system when youíre dining out is a real challenge.

Where Iím falling behind is on the fruits, so Iím very glad when the most alluring item on the dessert menu is bananas Foster. Hey, fruit glazed in caramel is still fruit, right?

Fruit intake:

1 1/4 cups banana

1/2 cup strawberries

Total: 1 3/4 cups

Vegetable intake:

2 cups field greens and other vegetables in salad

1/2 cup field greens and other vegetables in poke bowl

Total: 2 1/2 cups



I wake up with a sore throat, which is bad news for my fruit and vegetable quotas, because the only thing my body craves is salty carbs. Luckily, my go-to morning smoothie has the added bonus of being very cold, which feels good on my throat, so I am able to force it down.

I spend the afternoon on the couch bingeing Black Mirror, which I do and also DO NOT recommend. It takes me hours to recover from the dark sci-fi thriller about how weíre all addicted to our phones, during which I eat some chips and a can of mandarin oranges.

Lunch is ramen noodle leftovers. I attempt to eat a banana, but only get about halfway through. I nurse some hot tea for a while, before deciding I must have pizza for dinner. I make the dough from scratch to make myself feel better, and while this would have been a great opportunity to top the pizza with spinach or peppers or other veggies, the only thing I can count toward todayís vegetable intake is 1/2 cup of tomato sauce.

Fruit intake:

1 1/2 bananas

1/2 cup strawberries

1 cup mandarin oranges

Total: 3 cups

Vegetable intake:

1/2 cup tomato sauce

Total: 1/2 cup



On days when I go to the gym after work, I am hesitant to lunch on a bunch of vegetables because they never fill me up. I crave protein, and so I bring some almond-crusted chicken tenders. Today I also toss a salad with some yogurt-based ranch dressing, because goals. I snack on baby carrots and sliced cucumbers, which I bought to flavor my water and which I honestly do not find very appealing on their own at all. I should have saved some yogurt ranch.

Dinner is a wild rice casserole that contains onion, carrot and celery, so I figure itís about 1/2 cup of veggies in one serving. I also have some roasted Brussels sprouts that I made over the weekend but never ate, so I scoop a scant 1/2 cup of those on the plate. I donít finish all of them, because it is late and I am tired and I canít bring myself to eat any more vegetables.

Fruit intake:

1 banana

1/2 cup frozen mango

1 cup canned pineapple

1 clementine orange

Total: 3 cups

Vegetable intake:

1 cup butter lettuce

1/2 cup carrots

1/2 cup onions, celery and carrots in casserole

1/4 cup Brussels sprouts

Total: 2 1/4 cups



Today is a busy day, so I once again thank the smoothie gods for such nutrition on-the-go and slurp that down for breakfast. Lunch is also grab-and-go, but I manage to find a salad bar and load up my plate with a bed of kale, plus tomatoes, shredded carrots, a bunch of cheese and nuts and a hardboiled egg to make sure this plate of veggies also fills me up. I snack on a pear around 3 p.m. and down an orange juice. Feeling good about todayís goals.

Dinner is homemade falafel, because sometimes I get an insatiable craving for falafel. I pair it with roasted rainbow carrots, because what I am really learning from this challenge is that I deeply love carrots. It may be because they are so easy to buy and cook. My nighttime snack is a handful of grapes and some almonds, and I go to bed feeling fortified with nutrients.

Fruit intake:

1 banana

1/2 cup frozen mango

1/2 cup grapes

1 pear

Total: 3 cups

Vegetable intake:

1 cup kale

1 cup carrots

1/2 tomatoes

Total: 2 1/2 cups


WEEK IN REVIEW: Great on the fruit front, not as great on the vegetable side of things. That isnít surprising to me, as I constantly crave fruit and often have to make myself eat veggies. So this week reflects a lot of my natural tendencies. I could have tried harder to have more fresh veggies on hand to cook for dinner, and sometimes I do. But this is probably an accurate reflection of my average intake. Having fresh and canned fruit on hand for snacks greatly helped me reach those goals. Eating out multiple times during the week made all of this more challenging.


ē Prepack fruits and vegetables as snacks. Buy or identify in your current collection a leftover container that holds one cup. Use that to pack portable fruit/veggie snacks, so you know exactly how much youíre eating. (And make sure to eat all of the contents!)

ē Work fruits and vegetables into dishes that have a lot of other stuff going on, like soups, chili and casseroles. Omelets are your friend for the breakfast hours (or dinner!), as eggs and lots of cheese can mask the flavor of something you may not prefer as much, like mushrooms.

ē Smoothies are an easy way to down a lot of fruit in one sitting. But follow a couple of rules: Except for bananas, make sure you use all unpeeled fruit. (Ditching the peel results in a lot less nutrients, like fiber.) And stick with just fruit and some sort of liquid (like yogurt, kefir, any kind of milk, etc.) ó try to avoid a lot of added sweetener.

ē Jensen suggested roasting or grilling vegetables as a way to bring out flavor. Indeed, anything that can enhance the flavor of especially vegetables is worth your time. Think light dressings, lots of seasoning, a spritz of olive oil.

ē Another tip from Jensen: Use fruits as a topping on breakfast foods like cereals and pancakes. And make fruit bite-sized for kids to make it easier for little ones to eat.

ē Salads are an easy way to hit your vegetable goal, but you donít have to eat plain, boring greens. Load up on what you enjoy to make things more palatable. Be reasonable, but itís okay to opt for a creamy dressing or chunks of cheese or an indulgent topping. Just make sure to load up on least 1 1/2 to 2 cups of veggies ó that includes the greens.



Minimum daily recommended intake: 1 1/2 to 2 cups fruit

According to the USDA: "Any fruit or 100 percent fruit juice counts as part of the Fruit Group. Fruits may be fresh, canned, frozen, or dried, and may be whole, cut-up, or pureed."

For quick reference, the following items generally count as about 1 cup fruit.

1 small apple

4 ounces applesauce

1 large banana (about 8 inches)

1/8 of a medium cantaloupe

32 seedless grapes

1 medium grapefruit

1 medium pear

About 8 large strawberries

ľ cup dried fruit or 1 small box raisins


Minimum daily recommended intake: 2 1/2 to 3 cups

According to the USDA: "Any vegetable or 100 percent vegetable juice counts as a member of the Vegetable Group. Vegetables may be raw or cooked; fresh, frozen, canned, or dried/dehydrated; and may be whole, cut-up, or mashed."

Veggies are divided into a couple of different categories, based on their nutrient content. Jensen said itís important to consume a variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups: dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy and "other."

Dark green vegetables:

Raw leafy greens: spinach, romaine, watercress, dark green leafy lettuce, endive, escarole, kale, collards


Red and orange vegetables:



Red peppers


Sweet potato

Winter squash (acorn, butternut)

Beans and peas:

Dry beans and peas (such as black, garbanzo, kidney, pinto)

Starchy vegetables:

Corn, yellow or white

Green peas

White potatoes

Other vegetables:




Green peppers

Lettuce, iceberg or head



Summer squash or zucchini

Source: USDA



Contains 1 1/2 cups of fruit per serving.

1 banana

1/2 cup mango, cut into chunks and frozen (I buy mine frozen at the grocery store)

1 cup plain Greek yogurt or plain kefir

1/4 cup almond milk, or regular milk

1 teaspoon almond extract

1 teaspoon honey

1 scoop protein powder of your choice, optional

Water, if needed

Mix all ingredients in a blender until smooth. Add water by the tablespoon if smoothie is too thick.

Serves 1.

Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times


Contains about 1 cup vegetables per serving.

1 1/4 cups quinoa, rinsed and drained

1 3/4 cups water

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 cup butter or olive oil

2 large leeks, finely chopped

4 scallions, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup chopped chives

2 cups packed spinach

Handful of asparagus stalks, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, about 1 cup

1/4 cup flour

2 cups milk

1 cup vegetable broth

Black pepper

Tabasco sauce, optional

1 cup cheddar cheese, grated

3/4 cup ricotta cheese

1/2 cup peas, fresh or frozen

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 panko bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a casserole dish.

In a medium saucepan, combine the quinoa, water and 1/4 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until all of the liquid is absorbed. Begin checking for doneness at 15 minutes. It will be soft and fluffy. Fluff quinoa with a fork and set aside, covered.

In a large pot, melt the butter or add the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the leeks and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook until the begin to soften, about 7 minutes. Add the scallions, garlic and chives and cook for 2 more minutes. Add the spinach and asparagus, stirring and cooking until spinach is wilted. Add the flour and stir to combine. Add the milk and cook until mixture is thickened, then add broth and cook, stirring often, until thick.

Reduce heat to low. Season with some black pepper to taste, and Tabasco if desired. Add the cheddar, ricotta, peas and 1/4 cup Parmesan and stir to melt the cheese.

Stir in the quinoa, then pour the mixture into the baking dish, spreading it out evenly. Top it with panko and remaining Parmesan and bake until lightly browned on top, about 30 minutes.

Serves 4 to 6.

Source: Adapted from Molly Yeh


Contains about 1 1/2 cups vegetables per serving.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 pound chicken sausage, or ground chicken

4 cloves garlic, chopped

2 stalks celery, sliced

1 large onion, chopped

Kosher salt and black pepper

2 (15.5-ounce) cans cannellini beans, rinsed

1 bunch kale, thick stems discarded and leaves torn into 2-inch pieces (8 cups)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 cup shaved Parmesan

1 loaf country bread, warmed, optional, for serving

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat.

Add sausage or ground chicken and cook, breaking up meat, for about 7 minutes. Add the garlic, celery, onion, 1 Ĺ teaspoons salt and Ĺ teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender and meat is browned, about 4 to 6 minutes.

Add the beans, kale, rosemary, broth and 4 cups water. Cover and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat and simmer until kale is tender, 4 to 5 minutes.

Stir in the lemon juice and sprinkle with the shaved Parmesan before serving. Serve with the bread.

Serves 6.

Source: Adapted from Real Simple