If you eat lots of fruits and veggies you’re doing good for yourself.
But you can pack more nutritional punch by preparing these earthy edibles in particular ways.
“The best cooking method is the one that makes vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients in plant foods more bioavailable,” says Janis Jibrin, MS, RD, adjunct professor of nutrition at American University and a nutrition counselor in Washington, DC.
That means cooking some things and not cooking others—and some cooking styles are best for certain fruits and veggies. Figuring it all out can be confusing. Here are a few guidelines.
Know your prep basics
– Leave edible skins on fruits and vegetables. If you must peel, remove just a thin layer. The skin and right below it have more vitamins and minerals than the center. The skin is also a natural barrier against nutrient loss if you’re cooking.
– If you need to cut a vegetable or fruit to cook it, create big pieces. Fewer vitamins will be lost because fewer surfaces are exposed, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Know your cooking basics
– Use the least amount of water possible. That means microwaving works well because you can do it without water. Steaming vegetables, which uses only a little water, is good too. Boiling is not as good. The more water you use, the more the vitamins will leach into it (so save the water for soup or drink it).
– Do it for the shortest time possible. For most vegetables, a light steam of 1-3 minutes is ideal, Jibrin says. This helps preserve vitamins. Heat easily destroys some B vitamins and vitamin C (which is also very sensitive to light and the most likely vitamin to be lost in cooking).
– Most minerals won’t be affected much (though potassium can leach into water).
– Sautéing is better than cooking with water when it comes to lycopene and beta-carotene. These carotenoids are fat-loving (lipophilic), so you’ll absorb more of them that way.
Put it together
Let’s see how these science-based suggestions translate when you’re staring at your grocery loot.
This juicy fruit gets its red color from lycopene, which protects against cancer and heart disease. Cooking increases lycopene levels. It also ups “total antioxidant activity,” according to Cornell University. Antioxidants protect your cells and tissues.
Jibrin suggests lightly sautéing tomatoes with olive oil (which helps with lycopene absorption).
Beta-carotene makes these crunchy roots orange (along with butternut squash and other plants in this color-zone). Your body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A, which is critical for vision and helps your immune system. You’ll get more of it when you cook carrots a little.
Like tomatoes, Jibrin suggests lightly sautéing carrots with olive oil. Or add some fat.
“Studies show you can double and triple the carotenoid levels by using a full-fat salad dressing compared to a fat-free one,” Jibrin says. Or eat an avocado with them—one study showed it would enhance carotenoid absorption six-fold and convert more beta-carotene to vitamin A in the body, she notes.
Dark Leafy Greens
Vitamin K, great for bone and blood health, makes kale and its sister plants, like Swiss chard and spinach, stand out.
“Either a full-fat salad dressing or a light sauté will help you absorb more of it,” Jibrin says.
This tiny furry fruit has lots of vitamin C. Eat it raw right after you peel it to get the most bang for your buck.
Don’t stop here. Discover which vitamins your faves have, and then refer back to the basics.
That said, don’t be shy about chowing on fruits and veggies however you like—the best method is also one that’s “conducive to liking and eating,” Jibrin says.
You’ll get nutrients no matter what, along with dietary fiber, which helps keep your heart healthy. Plus, it’s better to fill your belly with cauliflower, regardless of how it’s prepared, than a sugary donut.
Connect with journalist and wellness writer Mitra Malek at mitramalek.com.