10 Ways to Cook a Lot Healthier

It's easy to make what's good for you taste great, too

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When it comes to cooking healthfully, a lot of focus goes into choosing good ingredients loaded with the nutrients you and your family need. But the truth is, the way you prepare food can be just as important as what you buy.

Certain cooking techniques will help maximize your food’s nutrition, while others will minimize the intake of less healthy elements like added sodium and unhealthy fat. We’ve compiled a list of 10 healthy cooking tips that will help bring out the goodness in your food.

1. Treat Your Vegetables Right

Boiling and overcooking certain vegetables robs them of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Instead, try steaming them. That preserves more nutrients in vegetables than boiling, stir-frying, or even blanching. Use a steamer basket and a timer. Check spinach and other fast-cooking greens after 5 minutes of steaming, diced or shredded veggie pieces after 10 minutes, and denser vegetables, such as whole carrots or potatoes, after 20 minutes. You can also steam vegetables in a microwave using just 1 to 3 tablespoons of water to preserve nutrients.

2. Taste Before You Salt

Just one teaspoon of table salt has about 2,300 milligrams of sodium, the maximum amount you should have in a day. For people who are 51 or older, and African-Americans or those who have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, the recommended maximum is 1,500 milligrams a day. To cut down on sodium, remove the salt shaker from your table and take heart—some research has shown that your taste buds will adjust over time.

More Cooking Tips

Also cut back on ready-to-eat processed foods and high-sodium condiments, such as barbecue sauce, ketchup, and soy sauce. Instead, reach for more healthful flavor enhancers, says a Consumer Reports nutritionist, Ellen Klosz, such as a squirt of lemon or lime juice on vegetables, a splash of balsamic vinegar in stews, or a sprinkling of oregano or cumin on meat, poultry, and seafood.

3. Rinse Your Vegetables

You can cut down on sodium in canned vegetables and legumes such as black beans and chickpeas by rinsing them in water. That helps lower their sodium content by up to 40 percent. But rinsing can also remove some of the vitamin C from some canned vegetables, such as peas. Using no- or low-sodium canned foods is an even easier way to keep your sodium intake in check. Or stick with fresh or unseasoned frozen veggies.

4. Don’t Rinse Your Meat

While salmonella and other bacterial scares may tempt you to give your raw meat a quick rinse, it’s not recommended. For one thing, water won’t remove many dangerous pathogens in the first place. For another, running water over raw poultry and other meat may also contaminate your sink and other kitchen surfaces with bacteria. If you’re worried about foodborne illness, the best measure to take is cooking your meat thoroughly and testing it with a meat thermometer—at least 145° F for steaks, roasts, chops, and fish; 160° F for ground beef or pork; and 165° F for poultry.

5. Lose the Fat From Ground Beef

If you pan-fry burgers instead of broiling or grilling them, be sure to pour off the fat. "Or try making burger patties in a broiling pan," says Klosz. "It has slits or holes to let the excess fat drain away from the meat." If you’re going to use cooked ground beef in a casserole or for pasta sauce, consider first blotting it with paper towels or rinsing it under hot tap water in a colander and then draining it for 5 minutes. An Iowa State University study found that this technique removed half the fat left after cooking but didn’t substantially reduce the protein, iron, zinc, or vitamin B levels in the meat.

6. Fry in the Oven, Not the Pan

Food soaks up oil as it fries. How much depends on the food, the temperature of the oil, and whether the food is coated. Research shows that vegetables such as potatoes suck up more fat during frying than meat does. Try switching to “oven frying,” which uses little oil but still delivers a “fried” crunch. First, coat the food in something crispy that also adds nutrients and contains fewer calories, such as whole-wheat panko crumbs or a mix of crushed bran flakes and corn flakes. Then spritz the food with cooking spray or a drizzle of oil, and bake.

7. Put Some Good Fat in Your Salad

Using fat-free dressing or a just a squeeze of lemon on a salad saves some calories but also may prevent your body from absorbing all of the nutrients in the vegetables. "That’s because some nutrients are fat soluble," says Klosz, "and our bodies don’t absorb them as well without a bit of fat in the meal." For example, the carotenoids in carrots, which the body converts to vitamin A, go mostly unabsorbed and unused without any accompanying fat. Researchers at Purdue University found that adding 1½ tablespoons of canola oil to a salad can boost the body’s absorption of carotenoids.

8. Don't Overcook Fresh Garlic

Garlic has been linked to a reduced risk of certain cancers and heart disease. But if you cook it too long, you might miss out on some of its benefits. So keep cooking times as brief as possible, and crush or chop garlic rather than using the whole cloves, which tend to lose their health benefits faster in cooking.

Also, chopping, slicing, or smashing garlic triggers an enzyme reaction that increases its healthful compounds. Heat prevents this reaction, so let garlic sit on the cutting board for at least 10 minutes before cooking. To get the maximum nutritional advantage, add raw garlic to homemade salad dressings, pesto, or hummus.

9. Treat Your Olive Oil Right

Of all the types of olive oil, extra-virgin should contain the most phenols, that is, natural health-promoting plant chemicals with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-clotting properties. Heat, air, and light can affect olive oil’s flavor and possibly its nutrients, so be sure to buy extra-virgin olive oil in a small, dark-colored bottle, and keep it tightly capped and stored in a kitchen cabinet away from the stove and sunny countertops.

10. Mix Up the Menu

"Preparing the same type of meal over and over, or otherwise limiting the food you eat, restricts your nutrient intake," Klosz says. Research has linked a varied diet to better overall health and a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease. You can find ideas for a wide range of breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus tailored to your gender, age, body size, and activity level, and even keep track of what you’ve eaten, at ChooseMyPlate.gov, a website run by the Department of Agriculture.

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