It always seems like the more I learn the less I feel like I know.
Growing up, simply eating your vegetables was enough to make you bigger, stronger and practically indestructible. I never gave much thought to how things were cooked. For the most part, green meant healthy and filled with nutrients I needed.
However, the 90s were simpler times in the case off food. No one showed me pictures of their breakfast, lunch, dinner or weekly meal prep with detailed explanations about why their food is so much better than all other food. Mom pretty much decided what was healthy for me and I ate it without complaint. Honestly, I didn’t give much thought to food.
Imagine my surprise when adulthood, parenting and endless Googling taught me the importance of preparation. Who knew it’s better to steam your broccoli for more than taste?
It also made me think about the wasted potential of all those boiled vegetables I ate over the years. I was a little resentful about that.
With so many rules and opinions about cooking food, what are the best practices for preparing vegetables?
- Limit cooking time. For the most part, vegetables will retain more nutrients when they are exposed to heat for a shorter amount of time.
- Limit the amount of water exposure. In both preparation and cooking, soaking and cooking vegetables in water will leach out water-soluble vitamins. This is why boiling vegetables should almost always be your last choice if you want to maximize nutrient retention.
- If a vegetable’s skin is edible don’t peal it off. Many nutrients are concentrated in or just underneath the skin. It also protects vegetables during the cooking process to help retain nutrients.
- When cutting vegetables before cooking, make larger chunks. If you can minimize the surface area that’s exposed to heat, you’ll lose less nutrients.
- Space vegetables out. By cooking vegetables in a loose pile or single layer, you’re heating all of the food surfaces quickly and evenly. The quicker the vegetables cook, the more nutrients they contain.
Steaming: It’s a good way to limit vegetables exposure to heat and water. You can use the microwave or stove, but be sure to use a container that seals tightly to prevent steam from escaping
Roasting/baking: Most vegetable need a layer of oil to help their surfaces heat more quickly and keep them from drying out. Vegetables with thicker skin, such as potatoes or squash will retain moisture on their own. Vegetables with higher moisture levels are sometimes roasted to dehydrate them slightly, giving them a more intense flavor.
Grilling/broiling: This is a high-temperature method to cook vegetables quickly and preserve their flavor and texture. Like killing and broiling it requires a light coat of oil to prevent burning.
Cooking to enhance nutrients
Sure, cooking with heat can destroy nutrients in some vegetables, but for others it enhances their absorbability. For example, the beta carotene in carrots and the lycopene in tomatoes are more easily absorbed after being cooked. The process changes the structure of these nutrients’ molecules, which makes it easier for our bodies to absorb them.
To discover even more healthy ways to cook vegetables, check out the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health’s infographics.
Heart health tips
February is American Heart Month and there’s no better time to be a little more health conscious and work on improving your nutrition. Along with increasing the nutrients you take in, it’s also a good idea to reduce the amount of sodium in your diet. Here are five tips from the United States Department of Agriculture:
- Eat fresh foods. Most of the sodium Americans consume comes from processed foods. Fresh foods are generally lower in sodium.
- Prepare your own food. Putting yourself in control of food preparation allows you to limit the amount of salt in it.
- Eat fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in sodium and make a good substitute for other options at meal time.
- Train your taste buds. Reduce the amount of salt you use when you’re cooking little by little. By paying attention to the natural tastes of food, your taste for salt will lessen over time. You can also substitute spices, herbs, garlic, vinegar or lemon juice to season foods.
- Increase your potassium intake. Selecting foods with potassium can help lower your blood pressure. My favorite source of potassium is bananas, but potatoes, beet greens, tomato juice and sauce, sweet potatoes, beans (white, lima, kidney), yogurt, clams, halibut, orange juice and milk are also good sources.
- University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health
- The Ohio State University, College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences
- United States Department of Agriculture
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