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Tips for healthy cooking

Want more nutrients in your food? Here are some simple steps to try.

Published: March 2013

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When it comes to eating healthfully, the way you prepare food can be just as important as what you buy. For example, salting water to make it boil faster when preparing pasta not only doesn’t work, but also adds unnecessary sodium. And rinsing chicken before roasting it can spread dangerous bacteria in your kitchen sink. Here are 10 cooking tips that help bring out the goodness in your food.

1. Treat your vegetables right.

Boiling and overcooking many vegetables rob 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 the 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 generally recommended daily limit. 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 try to train yourself to be satisfied with less. 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, 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. Read more about a heart-healthy diet.

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 about 10 percent or more, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 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.

4. 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, which has slits or holes to let the excess fat drain away from the meat. If you’re going to use cooked meat 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 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 meat.

5. 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.

6. Use whole grains.

The milling process that produces white flour not only removes fiber but also robs the flour of iron and several B vitamins. When baking, try replacing some white flour with fiber-rich whole-grain flour. Baked goods made with whole-grain flour are denser than those made with white flour. So start by substituting whole-grain flour for just a quarter of the amount of white flour in a recipe, and work up from there. Whole-wheat pastry flour is finely milled and lower in gluten than all-purpose flour, lending a more tender texture to cakes, pie crusts, pancakes, and muffins. And look for milder-tasting white whole-wheat flour, which gives you the benefits of whole-grain but looks like white flour.

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, 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. Read more about good and bad fats.

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. To get the maximum nutritional advantage, add raw garlic to homemade salad dressings, pesto, or hummus.

9. Be kind to olive oil.

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 anticlotting 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. Read about our top-rated olive oils.

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. 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Editor's Note:

This article first appeared in the monthly newsletter Consumer Reports on Health. 



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