As the cost of living crisis deepens, experienced dietitian Jo Travers explains how to get more fruit and veg in your shopping basket without sending your grocery bill sky high.
Along with 10pm bedtimes, carrying a fully charged phone and staying off Twitter, eating your ‘five a day’ is one of those habits that makes you feel like you’ve finally got your shit together. After all, eating fruit and veg has a huge evidence basis for reducing the risk of many types of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, stroke and diabetes. Plus, it’s delicious.
Next year marks the 20-year anniversary of the NHS’s campaign to get us all eating more plants, but in 2019 NHS Digital reported that not even a third of adults manage to hit their five a day.
As the cost of living crisis intensifies this year, analytics company Kantar estimates that the average UK grocery bill will rise by £454 a year – with the price of fruit up 6.9%, fruit juice 9.1% and the humble potato by 9.4% in the last 12 months.
What is a portion of one of your five a day?
For the most part, the NHS advises you to eat five 80g-portions every day – which is usually about a handful of fruit or veg. Fruit juice (150ml) and dried fruit (30g) both also count… but no matter how much consume, they each only count as one portion (because of the sugar content).
The same goes for beans and pulses (80g). They don’t have the same number of vitamins that fruit and veg do, but they’re still a good source of fibre. And that’s incredibly important, given the role that fibre plays in gut health (which in turn impacts our mood and emotions, sleep and skin).
But not all plants are made equal. Potatoes and plantain don’t count towards the target because, as starchy carbs, they don’t have the same nutritional value as other fruit and veg. Sweet potatoes, however, do make the cut. That doesn’t mean white potatoes aren’t rich in certain minerals (the skins, in particular, are loaded with iron and vitamin B3), or that plantain isn’t a delicious source of fibre and energy – both can play a key role in your daily diet. If we’re talking purely about this five-a-day goal, however, think of starchy carbs as being akin to things like rice or quinoa.
If you really want to elevate your gut health, some experts recommend plumping for 30 plants a week – and potatoes and plantain definitely count towards that target.
Jo Travers is a nutritionist in London who works with a range of clients (including those with small budgets). She tells Stylist that when it comes to eating more plants, there are solutions to fit all wallet sizes. Whatever the budget and whatever the diet, eating more fruit and veg is a goal for almost all her clients.
Fill your freezer with frozen veg
The freezer section has been through a revolution in the last 10 years, Travers says, with lots of fruit and veg now cryogenically frozen at lightning speed, thanks to liquid nitrogen.
“It’s a really, really quick way of freezing things,” she explains, “preserving the cell structure. If you used frozen broccoli 10 years ago, when you cooked it, it would be like mush. But now, because they freeze it cryogenically (which is more like being frozen using really small ice crystals), defrosting doesn’t damage the structure.”
How to get more frozen plants into your diet
You can get the first of your five a day by adding frozen berries to overnight oats, she suggests.
“They’re not the cheapest thing at around £2 a bag, but it’s still so much cheaper than buying fresh. They’re also better because the freezing process preserves the nutrients better. You also don’t have to worry about them going off, and that’s really useful.”
When to choose fresh over the freezer
That said, sometimes fresh is still better. Broccoli is a good example of produce that’s worth buying from the fresh produce ailse.
“I actually personally don’t use frozen broccoli because I haven’t got a lot of space in my freezer,” Travers admits. “Fresh broccoli is actually really quite cheap and it keeps in the fridge for ages. My real estate in the freezer is quite precious, so I use it for things which are really useful.”
A top tip for keeping broccoli fresher for longer is to chop off the very end of the stalk before sticking the whole thing in a cup of water in your fridge. Like a plant, it’ll stay hydrated and fresher for longer.
Start the day with a juice, and snack on dried fruit
Although they’re high in sugar, Travers says both dried fruits and juice can be really handy. She doesn’t advocate for drinking a whole carton of orange juice, but one cup is packed with vitamin C and energy – making it the perfect pick-me-up.
“Dried fruit is a brilliant addition to things like porridge and muesli or for a snack – they are cheap and keep for ages,” she says. Certain things like Medjool dates may be high in sugar but they’re also fibre bombs, so they’re perfect for satisfying a sweet sooth or energy crash.
Travers explains that fruit juice can be similarly useful. “It contains lots of really useful vitamins and minerals, but if you have a lot of it, the sugar sort of outweighs the benefits.”
Embrace the basic, everyday plants that make a lot of difference
Despite the price rises, some vegetables have stayed low – particularly basics like onions and carrots. If you can avoid getting bored of cheap veg, that’s half the battle.
“It’s always good to get a variety of things into your diet, but things like carrots and onions and white cabbage are dirt cheap, and you can do loads of stuff with them,” Travers explains. “All of those things can go into a stir-fry, a coleslaw, a curry or a bolognese sauce. Basic ingredients can be made into diverse dishes just by adding spices and different flavourings.”
Even more basic, try adding cheap plants into your plain rice by mixing in finely chopped carrots finely, frozen peas or softened onions and garlic. Chuck a banana into your frozen fruit smoothie, or keep a stash of gooey dates (which last for months) in your work drawer ready for that 3pm slump.
For more nutrition tips, visit the Strong Women Training Club.