The ROYGBIV guide to eating the rainbow

Adding more variety to your diet sounds intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be scary. It just involves learning to see your meals in a full spectrum of color.

By now, we’ve all heard that one of the rules of a healthy diet is to eat a variety of foods, but it’s really easy to get stuck in a dietary rut where we eat the same things over and over out of habit. And, more often than not, the foods that are most convenient or habitual are not very nutrient dense – at least not the way we are used to eating them. But changing our eating patterns is a challenge, and it’s even harder when the advice is so vague. Eat more variety of what, exactly? And how?

One of the best pieces of advice I got (from my awesome health coach over at Krew Wellness) was to think of your plate like a canvas, and try to get as many colors of the rainbow on there as possible. Thus, Eat The Rainbow became a mantra for me as I was selecting ingredients for all of my meals. That single change in mindset made a huge difference, and was simple enough to enable me to gradually change years of mealtime habits.

I believe it’s a useful framework for anyone that wants to start eating a more diverse, healthy diet. So, in the spirit of the colorful rainbow mnemonic I learned as I kid, I present to you the ROYGBIV Guide To Eating The Rainbow, with a series of tips to correspond to each letter:

REPLACE a “white food” with a color instead

Especially in western culture, our meals tend to be full of “colorless” foods, known as White Foods on the Eat The Rainbow spectrum. Many of our favorite comfort foods fall into this category, like buns, noodles, rice, potatoes, rolls, white meat, mayonnaise, cream, salt, milk… it’s easy to see how you can make an entire meal using only white ingredients!

You don’t have to give up on your white foods completely, of course, but add some variety by replacing a colorless ingredient with a color: maybe sautéed peppers instead of fries, or sweet potato noodles instead of plain pasta, or an open faced chicken sandwich on a bed of greens instead of a bun? By picking just one white ingredient per meal to replace, you’ve already added three new colors into your day!

OPEN your mind to new flavor combinations

It’s pretty much universally agreed that rainbows are awesome, and yet outside of a Pride Parade or My Little Pony convention, you don’t see a whole lot of us decorating with them or wearing them. Similar to our tastes in interior decoration or clothing, our food tastes tend to favor a “safe” white/neutral palette with one or two “pops of color.” Learning to paint with lots of colors, whether on a wall, in an outfit, or on your plate requires an open mind and a willingness to experiment with flavors that you wouldn’t normally associate with each other.

This is where my design background has come in handy for me! Much like doing research for a client when we’re doing market analysis or brand development, I learn about flavor combinations by analyzing what is already out there. I start by browsing lots of different recipes for the same food. Some traditional, some modified (such as vegan, whole30, or dairy-free), and some with a similar base ingredient but approached from an entirely different cultural background. 

As I read, I make note of what is the same (what are the unifying elements that make a food feel like one thing vs another) and what is different (the places each recipe took liberties with ingredients). Then I can use that as a springboard for my own experimentation. Plus, the more I learn about flavors, the more I can start combining them in interesting ways (heck yeah we can add cayenne powder to the cinnamon apples)!

YES, spices count as colors

One fun way to add color to an otherwise bland dish is to learn how to cook with different spices. Many of us are familiar with the kitchen staples like salt, pepper, and garlic, but have you tried cooking with Turmeric, Paprika, or Dill (which, in fact, make for a very delicious sautéed cauliflower dish when combined)? Adding new spices to your normal meals is not only a fun way to turn something plain into something colorful, but leads to further experimentation down the road, especially as you learn about the flavor profiles of different combinations.

GIVE yourself permission to be weird

Following the “get comfortable being uncomfortable” principle, part of adopting an Eat The Rainbow mentality is branching out beyond how we traditionally think of meals. Vegetables for breakfast? Eggs with dinner? Breakfast without starchy carbs? Meals cooked in a single skillet or pot, or meals eaten as individual ingredients?  Not every dish is going to be Pinterest or Instagram worthy, and not every meal is going to fit our traditional definitions of what that meal is “supposed” to be.

Sometimes dinner is a quick egg and vegetable scramble with salsa and a side of sweet potato chips. Sometimes lunch is several pieces of lunchmeat wrapped around cheese plus raw snow peas, dressing to dip them in, and a handful of grapes. Sometimes breakfast is your leftover chicken from the evening before accompanied by fruit and yogurt.

The fancy recipes and complex new flavor combinations can be fun (and worth snapping a few photos for the ol’ social media accounts), but Eating The Rainbow doesn’t always have to be beautiful. Sometimes, to make it practical, it has to get a little weird.

BUY frozen fruits and vegetables if you’re worried about time or waste

We don’t all have the time or inclination to deal with fresh fruits and vegetables. If you don’t particularly enjoy eating them raw, then you have to account for cooking time, and that means chopping, dicing, spiraling, and processing beforehand. Some people deal with that by meal-prepping once or twice a week, and if that’s your jam – great! But many people don’t have the ability to do that, whether that’s because of an unpredictable schedule, a lack of free time, or even difficulty accessing fresh produce where they live. 

Frozen fruits and vegetables are a great alternative, and might even be a better choice in some cases (you get way more spinach in a frozen bag than a fresh one, for example). Plus, they’re already “processed” and on hand, so all you need to do is grab one and toss it into whatever you were already cooking to make it a little more colorful, without any extra time or effort needed.

INTRODUCE a new ingredient (or one you formerly disliked)

As a kid, I hated cauliflower and brussels sprouts. For the longest time, I was completely averse to trying them again, swearing up and down that it was just something I couldn’t stand. That is, until my friend convinced me to try to some of her baked spicy barbecue cauliflower, which was… amazing! Crispy, sweet, and savory all at once. Turns out, the way a food is cooked makes a huge difference in how palatable it is – weird, right?

Suddenly, I was opened up to a whole new world of deliciousness that I was previously missing. The same thing happened with brussels sprouts, and now that I’ve enjoyed them well-prepared by both restaurants and friends, I can’t wait to have more.  That’s not to say it is always going to be a major transformation from hate to love. I still don’t like olives, fresh cucumber, or most fish. It’s ok if you don’t like everything! Even still, I’ll give them a try in certain circumstances. There might be one that changes my mind!

VISIT unique eating establishments when you’re out, too

Sure, we all have our favorite spots that appeal to our tastebuds (or to our budgets – eating out is expensive!) But if you’re presented with the opportunity, why not try somewhere new? Maybe a restaurant that just opened which features locally sourced ingredients, or an established neighborhood eatery you’ve never tried, or perhaps the independent corner market that serves unique, freshly made cultural staples at a great price?

I’ve learned about all sorts of interesting foods just from keeping a running list of highly rated cafes, bars, markets, and restaurants (sorted by price point, of course – there are just as many great foodie finds in the $ range as the $$$-$$$$ range), and picking new ones any time I have a chance to go out or find myself in a different neighborhood. Plus, you often get a chance to support another independent business owner and put money back into the neighborhood – win-win!

Need some ideas for where to start?

Here’s a starter list of of some great rainbow fruits, vegetables, starches, and spices for you to consider including in your next meal:

  • Red foods: peppers, apples, tomatoes, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, pomegranate, cherries, watermelon, red cabbage, grapefruit, red onion, radish, rhubarb, blood orange, Paprika, Cayenne, Saffron, chili powder
  • Orange foods: peppers, orange, pumpkin, cantaloupe, sweet potato, carrots, apricot, butternut squash, mango, papaya
  • Yellow foods: peppers, bananas, pineapple, onions, lemon, starfruit, asian pears, spaghetti squash, corn, golden beets, Turmeric, Curry Powder, ginger, mustard powder, cumin, garlic
  • Green foods: peppers, spinach, bok choy, artichokes, kale, lime, avocado, kiwi, green beans, green tea, cucumber, brussels sprouts, green olives, apples, broccoli, grapes, celery, snow peas, asparagus, collard greens, okra, pears, Oregano, Chives, Rosemary, Sage, Cilantro, Parsley, Thyme, Basil, Dill…
  • Blue/Indigo/Violet Foods: Blueberries, blue cheese, Purple sweet potatoes, blackberries, eggplant, purple carrots, grapes, beets

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