March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.Did you know that how you store, prepare and cook foods can affect not only safety, but also flavor and nutrition? In fact, nutrients in some foods are lost by overcooking or simply allowing the foods to soak in water for too long. With just a few tips on food preparation and cooking techniques, you can maximize the nutrient quality and flavors of your favorite foods.
Preparing Foods with Nutrition, Flavor and Safety in Mind
Properly handling and preparing food is key to food safety and can also affect the quality of foods.
- Wash all fresh fruits and vegetables with cool tap water. Be sure to wash clean thick-skinned vegetables and fruits such as melons or squash using a soft brush and water. Avoid soaking fruits and vegetables as you wash because some vitamins dissolve in water.
- Leave edible skins on vegetables and fruits — for example, on carrots, potatoes or pears — and trim away as little skin as possible. Most vitamins and minerals are found in the outer leaves, skin and areas just below the skin, not in the center. Peels also are natural barriers that help protect against nutrient loss. Just clean them properly first.
- Cut vegetables that need to be cooked longer into larger pieces. With fewer surfaces exposed, fewer vitamins are lost. While cutting and preparing produce, avoid cross-contamination by using a separate cutting board and utensils for raw meat, poultry and seafood.
- Skip the urge to rinse grains, such as rice, before cooking because nutrients may wash down the drain.
Cooking for Nutrition, Flavor and Safety
How food is cooked can enhance or destroy flavor. Get the most out of your food:
- Overcooking meat can affect flavor. Avoid overcooking by using a food thermometer to determine when meat has reached a safe minimum internal temperature without overcooking.
- Don't overcook vegetables, either. Short cooking times help vegetables keep their bright color and flavor. Strong-flavored vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts and turnips, can become even stronger when overcooked.
- Cook vegetables or fruits in a small amount of water — or better yet, steam them in a vegetable steamer, covered pot or a microwave oven. Steaming retains nutrients because vegetables usually don’t come in contact with cooking liquids.
- Quickly cook (until just tender-crisp) vegetables such as asparagus, green beans, broccoli and snow peas. Some nutrients, such as B vitamins and vitamin C, are destroyed easily by heat. The shorter the cooking time, the more nutrients are retained.
- Microwaving is also a great option because it is so fast that heat-sensitive nutrients aren't subjected to heat for long. Also, microwaving doesn't require added fat. There's a flavor advantage, too: Unless overcooked, vegetables retain the color and tender-crisp qualities that make them appealing.
- For beets and red cabbage, add a little lemon juice or vinegar to the cooking water. This helps retain their bright-red color. Don't add baking soda. Although the alkali in baking soda keeps vegetables looking greener, it also destroys vitamin C and can make them mushy due to cellulose breakdown. Tip: Adding acid (lemon juice) to green vegetables while cooking turns them olive green; add juice or sauce after cooking.
- Canning is cooking, so canned vegetables don’t need to be cooked again. They would lose flavor and nutrients. Just reheat canned vegetables on the stovetop or in the microwave oven.
Poor storage destroys flavor and quality, while storing food correctly — including the correct container, location, temperature and time — helps keep their safety, quality, nutrients and flavor longer.