It used to be that when thinking of what to have for dinner, I would think first about what protein, or what grain or bread product, to prepare. I know that for many Americans, the tendency is to think about what meat—as in, “What’s for dinner?” “Pork chops.” Or, “We’re having hamburgers for dinner.” But starting in college, when I lived for a couple of years in a vegetarian co-op, I began leaning away from meat as my primary protein source—a habit that’s continued to this day out of environmental and ethical concerns.
Recently, though, I’ve begun to realize that starting with what vegetable to have for dinner yields a better result. First of all, it allows me to use fresh produce closer to its peak of freshness and nutritional content. Studies like those referenced in this Chicago Tribune article show that produce can lose 30 percent of its nutrients just three days after harvest, so I want to avoid veggies sitting and getting weak as nutrient-conveyors in the back of the fridge. This also reduces the possibility of food waste, in the case that, by prioritizing other elements of the meal, I wouldn’t get to using that zucchini or lettuce before it rotted.
By giving center stage to the vegetables in the meal, it also means we are eating more of them, which is a healthy strategy overall to get those life-sustaining vitamins and minerals. The other elements of the meal, which for us tend to be grains and some kind of protein, tend to be things that are more shelf-stable, which we may have in our freezer or pantry already, so they can easily be added on to complement the vegetable from whatever is on hand.
By just shifting focus and bringing the vegetable front and center in my dinner considerations, it appears that meals have become healthier for us and the planet both. Now I just need to get going on that garden so we can source the veggies from right at home.