About those five serves of veg a day you’re not eating

Knowing what we should be doing doesn’t always make doing it easier.

Rhiannon Stent is a full-time student dietitian in her final year at the University of Newcastle. The 26-year-old, who works part-time at Woolworths, is also renting, which leaves little money left over for food.

Newcastle-based Rhiannon Stent is studying nutrition and dietetics, so knows the importance of healthy eating, but she is struggling to afford fruit and vegetables, due to their soaring prices. Credit:Janie Barrett

“It’s really hard because I know what I should be eating, but in terms of actually being able to afford it …” she trails off. “It hurts when you get to the end of the checkout … It’s only two bags, and it’s almost my whole paycheque.”

Last week, when we wrote about the latest ABS statistics on diet, which revealed only 6.1 per cent of Australian adults and 8.5 per cent of children eat the recommended two serves of fruit and five serves of veg (less for children younger than eight), many of you had a question: How?

How on earth do the few who manage to meet the recommendations do it? How do they afford it and how, practically speaking, do they get those serves in? What does a serve even look like? And how does anyone manage to get their kids to eat that much veg every day?

For students like Stent, it can be particularly challenging to meet the guidelines, and she admits to rationing food and going without certain foods “all the time”.

Still, she tries to find ways to eat well, by buying frozen vegetables, sticking to what’s on special and even growing her own herbs and vegetables to minimise costs, although, she says, “it’s not going too well”.

A typical day for Stent includes yoghurt and granola for breakfast, a free piece of fruit from her lunchroom when she’s at work as well as a biscuit or muesli bar, rice and tuna or plain pasta for lunch and another piece of fruit in the afternoon along with “whatever else” she can find. Dinner is often meat and frozen vegetables.

“At the end of the day I’m like ‘Oh man, I’m definitely not eating enough [vegetables]’,” she admits, “but five serves is a lot, and it’s expensive.”

Felicia Lau is a general practitioner with three young children.

Melbourne-based Felicia Law with her children Elsa, Jesse and Alysandra.Credit:Simon Schulter

“There’s got to be a balance when you’re a working mum,” says the 39-year-old from Melbourne’s Knox. “I’m not going to beat myself up if today I’m one veggie short, or today I didn’t have any fruit. I don’t get too stressed out. I think it’s a more general principle.”

Tara Di Versi, the president of Dietitians Australia, agrees. She explains that one cup of vegetables – about the size of an adult’s fist – equates to about two serves and a standard carrot or zucchini is one to two serves. But she adds that there is no need to stress about perfect serving sizes or to be exacting about getting five in every day.

“It’s being mindful of what’s on your plate,” she says. “As a general rule, if half your plate is vegetables or salad, or you’re having a side salad or vegetables, you’re probably doing OK.”

Lau has several strategies for incorporating vegetables generally. The family juices vegetables before they go off, and grow some of their own, “though I’m not sure that’s necessarily more affordable”, she admits.

Bulk-buying food from markets and then splitting the costs with her extended family is another cost-saving exercise, and involving her kids in cooking engages them in the process, meaning they are more likely to eat it, she says: “We don’t push the veggies, we don’t make a big deal about it.”

“As a general rule, if half your plate is vegetables or salad, or you’re having a side salad or vegetables, you’re probably doing OK.”

For breakfast, her two, five and seven-year old children typically eat cereal or yoghurt and granola. Lunch is usually a sandwich, a piece of fruit, a treat, and carrots, celery or cucumber sticks Lau has pre-cut at the beginning of the week. Dinner might be laksa, vegetable pancakes or pasta.

For Lucinda Hancock, the CEO of Nutrition Australia and also a mum of three, the two main challenges in her family – the price of fresh food and food waste – are also those many others are facing.

New research by The Fruit & Vegetable Consortium, co-led by Nutrition Australia and AUSVEG, found 72 per cent of people surveyed said affordability is the main reason they are not eating enough vegetables, and 44 per cent said the short shelf life was a barrier to buying vegetables.

“Times are tough at the moment for everyone,” acknowledges Hancock, who is overseeing a number of initiatives to improve Australians’ fruit and vegetable consumption.

Hancock’s kids tend to start the day with toast or cereal plus a piece of fruit, while she and her husband prefer eggs with greens or toast. Lunch for the kids is a salad wrap, fruit, vegetable sticks and yoghurt or cheese, while the adults might have leftovers and dinner is often bolognaise, fried rice or meals bulked out with frozen vegetables, tinned beans, lentils or legumes.

“If our veggies are soft or old, we’ll throw them into a frittata, casserole or soup,” she says. Uneaten vegetable sticks from the kids’ lunchboxes end up as afternoon snacks or in dinner. “We’re not throwing away as much produce, but also we’re able to save on our overall grocery spend, which is important to us.”

Finding ways to be resourceful to maximise our intake and minimise our spend is important but only part of the solution, says Di Versi, a mum of one “fussy” eater.

“We need to move away from blaming the individual,” she says. “A lot of people know how to eat, but they look at the price of certain vegetables and go ‘I just cannot stretch to that within my budget’.”

During the federal election, Dietitians Australia conducted a campaign calling for a National Nutrition Policy, which Australia hasn’t had since 1992, to look at how to make fresh foods more accessible and affordable for everyone. While they continue to lobby for that, she says any additional serves of fruits and vegetables we get in our diet, even if we don’t always meet the guidelines, make a difference to our physical and mental health.

“Don’t be disheartened,” she says. “Just do the best you can.”

Five tips for increasing your vegetable intake

  • Make your own “bag salad” by grating broccoli and cauliflower stalks, using beetroot leaves rather than throwing them out.
  • Swap vegetable ingredients in a recipe for what’s on special or in season. “Different things go just as well,” Di Versi says.
  • Look at how to preserve rather than throw out – eg. blanch, cool and then freeze – or grate older vegetables into your bolognaise.
  • Think about how you store your fruit and vegetables: washing and storing in containers or in water can preserve fresh foods longer.
  • Use resources like Nutrition Australia; No Money, No Time; Sustainable Table and Dietitians Australia.

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