More people than ever before are looking for ways to improve their healthy lifestyles — and vegetables can certainly play a key role. With so many healthy choices available in our markets, and so many ways of preparing them, there’s lots of variety to keep things interesting. As Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association says, “I think nutritionists would agree that any way you cook vegetables is fine, as long as you eat plenty of them.”
Except for deep frying, which no one recommends as a healthy option, there are different cooking methods that work best to retain nutrients in specific vegetables. In some cases, cooking actually increases the antioxidant content in the process. Some vegetables are less ‘sensitive’ to the process than others, like artichokes, beets, and onions, which tend to retain more of their nutritive value in cooking. And in fact, carrots and celery, when cooked, even increase their antioxidant values.
To get the best end result, no matter what cooking method you use, always choose fresh vegetables when possible — or frozen, if necessary, packed with as few additional ingredients as possible. Studies show that cooking vegetables can make it easier to absorb their nutrients, by ‘tenderizing’ the tough outer layers, to aid in digestibility. Your recipes or personal preference will help you choose from the following methods:
In general, boiling is thought to be the method that most impacts the nutrition content of cooked vegetables, as many vitamins and minerals are lost to the cooking water, especially water soluble vitamins like Vitamin C, Vitamin B1, and folate. Studies have shown that overall, boiling or pressure cooking led to a 14% loss of antioxidants, and peas, cauliflower, and zucchini are even more susceptible, with more than 50% of their antioxidants lost in the cooking process. ‘Quick cook’ methods, often known as blanching, use less time in the water, and help retain vegetable crispness, so the impact isn’t as great.
Sauteeing / Stir-frying
Both methods use a hot, lightly oiled pan, or in the case of stir fry, a wok. Both offer a quick cook of the vegetables and retain the vitamins, minerals, taste and color. Healthy oils can even increase the value of the vegetables’ phytonutrients, since many are fat soluble, and are better absorbed when combined with a dietary fat. Since high heat is used in both, it’s important to use a suitable oil that won’t burn, stirring constantly to cook evenly. Good options for this method include asparagus, baby artichokes, snow peas, onions, mushrooms and sweet peppers.
In a 400 degree oven, the vegetables will cook quickly, and hold their nutrient value and flavor. A drizzle of oil on a baking pan with an even layer of vegetables means they will cook uniformly. This method is also great for any extra spice or seasonings you’d like to add, as they aren’t diluted with water or oils. It makes a meal even easier if you’re doing a roast or chicken in the oven as well, as it keeps things simple, and the kitchen smells great during the process!
Often thought of as the ‘healthiest’ cooking method, steaming keeps cooking time and the amount of liquid used to a minimum. As a result, you can help ensure retention of the nutrients, and keep the colors and textures of the vegetables intact. There’s also no need for oils or added ingredients, so it’s a great way to retain the unique flavor of the vegetables, especially if you’re mixing several types. The best choices for the steaming method include broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, green beans and leafy greens.
The summer barbecue is no longer for meats only — grilling vegetables is a great way to add flavor and retain their texture. Larger vegetables like corn, peppers, zucchini, artichoke halves, cauliflower ‘steaks’, or potatoes can be handled individually with tongs, and smaller or more tender vegetables like asparagus, brussels sprouts, tomatoes or onions can be layered in a grilling basket for a colorful and delicious mixture. The grilling takes only a few minutes and can be a very healthy addition to whatever else may be on the grill.
Though there are differing schools of thought on the safety of microwave cooking in general, when it comes to nutrient values of vegetables, microwaving is actually a viable choice. Dr. Michael Greger, speaking as an expert in vegan nutrition, says that microwave cooking retains 97.3% of the vegetables’ antioxidant value. Because there is generally very little water used, and shorter cooking times, there is less potential for nutrient loss.
In each of the methods referenced, cutting foods into smaller pieces can help ensure uniformity and minimize the overall cooking time. In a busy household, choosing the right cooking method can make vegetables the perfect answer to: “What’s for dinner?”
Jaret, P. Best Way to Cook Vegetables. (n.d) retrieved January 25, 2017, from Web MD Web Site: http://www.webmd.com/diet/healthy-kitchen-11/best-cook-vegetables
McClees, H. Best Way to Cook Your Veggies for the Most Nutrition. (n.d) retrieved January 25, 2017, from One Green Planet Web Site: http://www.onegreenplanet.org/natural-health/best-ways-to-cook-your-veggies-for-the-most-nutrition/
LaMotte, S. The Healthiest Ways to Cook Veggies and Boost Nutrition. (n.d) retrieved January 25, 2017, from CNN Web Site: http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/05/health/healthy-vegetable-cooking/index.html