Count your veggies every day for healthy eating

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It's recommended according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to eat 2 cups of vegetables every day, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. You may need to eat more or less, depending on your calorie level. This amount may seem like a lot, but remember that vegetables are very nutritious. They're rich in fiber and nutrients while being low in fats, sugars and total calories. In addition, vegetables are cholesterol free.

Eating a diet rich in vegetables and fruits as part of an overall healthy diet may reduce your risk for stroke, coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, kidney stones and bone loss.

What counts as a cup? 1 cup of raw or cooked vegetables, 1 cup of vegetable juice or 2 cups of raw, leafy greens are considered a 1-cup equivalent. For example, 1 cup of cooked spinach counts as 1 cup of vegetables, while 2 cups of raw spinach are equivalent to 1 cup of vegetables. Other one-cup equivalents are: three spears of broccoli (raw or cooked) about 5 inches long, two medium carrots or about 12 baby carrots (raw or cooked), one large ear of cooked corn (8 to 9 inches long), one large bell pepper raw or cooked (3 inches) or one large raw tomato (3 inches).

Deeply colored vegetables and fruits contain the most vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. This includes all dark green, deep red, purple and bright orange or yellow plant foods. Eat more dark-green veggies, such as broccoli, spinach and greens. Include more orange vegetables, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, in your diet, as well as legumes (dry beans and peas).

To keep meals and snacks interesting, vary your veggie choices. Favor the dark or vividly colored vegetables, but continue to eat and enjoy the lighter-colored vegetables to add variety to your diet.

Storing vegetables: When stored in the right temperature and humidity, most fresh vegetables retain top quality only for a few days. Green, leafy vegetables quickly wilt and change flavor as water evaporates from tissues. Other vegetables - corn, beans and peas - lose sweetness within a short time as sugar converts to starch.

Most fresh, green vegetables keep well and stay crisp if put in covered containers or plastic bags and stored in the refrigerator. If you wash lettuce, celery and other leafy vegetables before storing, drain thoroughly because too much moisture can cause decay. Always sort your vegetables before storing. Discard or use at once any bruised or soft vegetables; do not store them with firm vegetables.

Cooking vegetables: To ensure the best flavor, color, texture and food value in vegetables, cook them only until they are tender. Vegetables cooked whole in skins retain most of their nutritive value. To shorten cooking time, cut, slice, dice or coarsely shred vegetables.

The amount of water used in cooking is important - the less water, the more nutrients retained in the cooked vegetables.

Pressure cooking: When cooking vegetables under pressure, follow the directions that came with your cooker (don't be afraid to use the pressure cooker), but learn to adjust cooking time to suit the quality of vegetables being cooked. Very young, tender vegetables may require a shorter cooking time than is recommended. Even 1 or 2 minutes of extra cooking can cause undesirable color, changes in texture and loss of nutrients.

Sauteed Zucchini, Tomatoes and Mushrooms

Ingredients

4 slices smoked bacon, diced

cup olive oil

2 cups zucchini, cut in half lengthwise, then cut into inch slices

1 pound button mushrooms

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups canned whole tomatoes, crushed and undrained

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

2 tablespoons cornstarch

cup water

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

In a large heated skillet, cook the bacon over medium-high heat until crisp. Drain on paper towels, and set aside. Discard the bacon drippings, and heat the oil in the same pan over medium-high heat. Cook the zucchini for 3 to 4 minutes. Do not brown. Remove from the pan, and set aside. Add the mushrooms and garlic and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and their juice and the basil, and continue to cook for 3 minutes.

Mix the cornstarch with the water, and pour into the pan. Cook and stir until mixture thickens, 3 to 4 minutes. Return the bacon and zucchini to the pan, stir, and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer 2 to 3 minutes. Serve at once.