Can you count how many different vegetables we threw into this stir-fry? Photo / Sonya Holm
I eat food advice for breakfast. It’s scoffed, simmered and sprinkled with seaweed.
I hunt ingredients good for my brain, heart and gut.
But with an overabundance of expert advice, the universal question of “what’s for dinner” has never felt more fraught.
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From the steaming broth of mixed messages emerges Professor Tim Spector, with a simple suggestion to nudge your way to good health with 20 simple diet changes.
With a generous dollop of confirmation bias, I’m happy to follow some suggestions: drink red wine, eat dark chocolate, cook with extra virgin olive oil and eat expensive artisan cheese.
But hold the haloumi, because first up Spector says government advice to eat five fruits or vegetables daily is outdated.
He says we should abandon eating five a day which he presumes (accurately in my case) are often the same five, and instead aim for 30 different plants each week.
Intrigued, I decided to put the advice to the test. How easy is eating 30 different plants a week?
He describes it as a small incremental change to improve health, but to start with I wasn’t even sure I could name 30.
I strongarmed Megan Norris, a friend who teaches food and nutrition to high school students, to test whether eating 30 different vegetables a week is simple.
First up, like any game of Monopoly or Last Card, there was serious negotiation around the rules.
Disallowed were herbs, spices and nuts – which Spector includes – partly over pedantry with “serving sizes” but also because I misread his article.
I found meal planning more complicated, now resembling vegetable sudoku: trying to think of 30 different varieties and then how to eat them.
I chose vegetable-heavy dishes like soups, stews, ratatouille and stir-fry, but my favourite discovery was barbecue jackfruit pizza.
Reaching the magic number meant cooking seven days a week, not reheating leftovers and missing our Friday fish ‘n chips.
At the beginning, Norris found herself panic-purchasing choko and a tin of bamboo shoots “without even a plan to use them”.
Quiche was her first dish, and with her approach to using more vegetables than usual, she reached an impressive six.
“The way it looked reminded me of when you tell a little kid to make a really colourful picture and they keep blending until it’s all brown,” Norris says.
Norris cooks for a family of four, with one opting out. My household is down to two, so I handled no complaints about mushrooms or panic over pumpkin.
Reaching the magic number required adding vegetables to my lunches – a Mediterranean mix with a splodge of sauerkraut.
However, my husband ate different veggie-free lunches, so I was the lone household hero eating 30 different plants.
Except that I didn’t.
Despite my precision planning, we went out Saturday night, and rather than risk a belly full of fibre in a public place, we ate toasties and chips for tea.
Had the test allowed fruit, which Spector does – another harsh rule I came to regret – my meagre kiwifruit, orange and pineapple would have squeezed me over the line.
Norris succeeded, although was the only one in her family to do so. “I got to 30 – no one else came close.”
It’s not a week Norris wants to repeat. “The best bit was trying local produce that I hadn’t been using.”
I found eating 30 different plants unachievable. But surprisingly, I did enjoy eating a much wider range than usual and I felt better for it.
For me it’s best as a prompt. A reminder to eat a variety of foods and not just Vegemite toast for lunch.
It revealed recipes I’d forgotten or never tried and left me with a freezer full of food.
Bring on leftovers week!
Sonya Holm is a freelance journalist based in Palmerston North.