Creative Vegetable Accounting

Our country has a rich tradition of creative accounting when it comes to tallying up our vegetable intake. Under the Reagan administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed schools to count certain condiments -- like pickle relish -- as a vegetable serving to help schools meet federal nutrition standards on skimpier budgets. (Those of you my age or older may even recall the media's ridicule of the ketchup-as-vegetable debate.) More recently in 2011, creative vegetable accounting was brought again into the limelight, when Congress voted to allowed schools to count pizza as a vegetable so long as a slice contained at least 1/4 cup of tomato paste -- despite objections from the USDA. French fries, too, remain a vegetable in the eyes of our country's school lunch program.

While I take issue with our government's particular application of creative vegetable accounting as it pertains to the nation's school lunch program, I must confess that I am known to engage in the practice of creative vegetable accounting myself. In my idiosyncratic approach to counting vegetables, as you'll see, what counts as a vegetable depends on who's doing the eating.

[Read: Best and Worst Fast Food Kids' Meals.]

Counting vegetables for kids:

When it comes to meal planning for young and school-aged kids, I tend to define veggies more loosely -- though certainly not as loosely as the federal government. Specifically, I include plant foods that others categorize in different food groups: such as beans (often considered a protein), sweet potatoes (often considered a starch) and avocados (often considered a fat, or even a fruit). When planning a balanced meal for my kids, therefore, I have no issues counting any of these foods as filling the role of "vegetable" -- and their plates may not always have three discreet components that others would immediately recognize as protein, starch and vegetable. For example, some common meals in our family's rotation include: split pea soup with a turkey or grilled cheese sandwich; baked sweet potato wedges with an omelet; or black bean tacos with avocado and cheese.

[Read: Unusual Uses for Avocados .]

Why the loosey goosey standards for kids? Consider for a moment why regular exposure to vegetables is so important for kids to begin with. For one, veggies are nutrient-dense foods that deliver important vitamins to the diet -- especially vitamins A and folate. They also contribute fiber for satiety and digestive health. Equally important, having veggies appear at most meals teaches kids the centrality of plant-based foods in all their forms to a healthful diet -- an important foundation for future eating habits. When I consider this bigger picture in terms of vegetables and children, the foods I include on the margins of the vegetable category indeed contribute to the goal -- in a way, I might add, that ketchup, relish or pizza do not.

Botanically speaking, avocados may be fruits, and they may have as much in common nutritionally with olive oil as they do with, say, a cucumber. But half an avocado delivers more fiber and folate than a cup of cooked green beans -- a bona-fide, card-carrying green vegetable. Similarly, sweet potatoes are certainly starchier than dark leafy greens or carrots, but they hold their own in terms of fiber and vitamin A: With just 30 calories more, half a medium sweet potato has the same amount of fiber and slightly more vitamin A than half a cup of cooked spinach. Since children are generally more active and still growing, they can afford the extra calories from an avocado, sweet potato or bowl of lentil soup in lieu of, say, green beans or spinach every so often for the sake of variety. And frankly, many children find these less-bitter pseudo-veggies quite palatable, which can help earn these nutrient-dense foods a permanent place in a child's plant Pantheon when exposed to them regularly.

[Read: Kids Eat the Darnedest Things .]

Counting vegetables for weight conscious and blood-sugar monitoring adults:

But just as I am looser with what qualifies as a veggie for our youngest citizens, I am stingier when it comes to adults -- particularly so for my patients trying to lose weight and those with Type 2 diabetes. For this crowd, I've relocated corn, peas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash and acorn squash into the starch family, alongside their metabolic second cousins bread, rice and pasta.

This bit of creative accounting is based on the fact that starchier vegetables behave more like bread than, say, lettuce, as they are metabolized. Due to their relatively higher carbohydrate content, they cause a glycemic response (increase in blood sugar) and calorie contribution that more closely resembles traditional "carbs" than non-starchy vegetables such as peppers, spinach, asparagus or broccoli. Of note, not all squash are considered starchy. In fact, spaghetti squash, zucchini and yellow summer squash can be considered non-starchy vegetables based on their nutritional profiles.

Since these starchy veggies do tend to have more vitamins and fiber than your standard pile of spaghetti or dinner roll, treating them as replacements for standard-issue starches tends to improve the nutritional quality of a meal. And when you don't get vegetable credits for a starchy vegetable, its possible you'll get into the habit of adding an additional, non-starchy vegetable to the plate for balance. For example: If once upon a time, a typical dinner was chicken, baked potato (as starch) and peas (as veggie), a revised meal based on creative accounting would be chicken, peas (as starch) and some steamed broccoli (as veggie). Assuming you swapped in 1 cup of the broccoli for one small, unbuttered baked potato, the revised meal comes in 100 calories lighter, all from carbohydrate. The calorie savings may be higher if you're in the habit of seasoning your potato with butter or sour cream. Diabolical!

[Read: How Do We Get Kids to Like Healthy Foods?]

Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian whose NYC-based clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog,, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.