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The Best Way to Cook Vegetables to Preserve Nutrients

by Rebekah Richards

Vegetables are an excellent source of fiber and nutrients and are naturally cholesterol-free and low in fat and calories. Cooking vegetables softens them so they are easier to eat, but the heat and water used in cooking can reduce their nutritional content. If you need to cook the vegetables, retain the most nutrition for your family by cooking them quickly in a small amount of liquid, and cut them after cooking. Season them to add kid-appeal, so your little ones will want to eat them.

How Cooking Affects Nutrient Levels

Some vitamins and minerals dissolve in water, so cooking vegetables in too much water leaches nutrients. Heat also softens cellulose and pectins, the fibers that give vegetables their shape and texture, and it destroys nutrients such as vitamin C. Overcooking can damage the pigments that give vegetables color, such as the chlorophyll in green vegetables, carotenoids in yellow and orange vegetables, anthocyanins in red vegetables and flavones in white vegetables.

Cooking Methods

Microwaving, steaming and stir-frying are effective ways to preserve nutrients when cooking vegetables. These methods limit liquids and cook quickly. Vegetables should be tender-crisp, not soft and mushy. You can pan-cook vegetables with a small amount of oil, bake vegetables in the oven or boil vegetables in a small amount of water. Use leftover water in soup, gravy or other dishes to avoid wasting nutrients. Grilling and broiling also preserve nutrients. Exposure to light and air cause vegetables to lose nutrients over time, so buy fresh, in-season vegetables and eat them quickly. Toss cooked vegetables with fat-free creamy salad dressing for a rich flavor that doesn't pile on calories.

Canned and Frozen Vegetables

If you can't find or afford fresh produce, cook with canned or frozen veggies. Canned and frozen vegetables have similar levels of nutrients as fresh, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Food Processors Association. Some canned vegetables in the study had higher levels of nutrients than fresh supermarket produce. However, canned vegetables typically have compromised taste, texture and color, and frozen vegetables may be more expensive. Canned vegetables work best in soups, casseroles and other dishes, while frozen vegetables are delicious steamed, microwaved, stir-fried or baked. Season vegetables with a sprinkle of dry salad dressing and dip mix to give them a zesty flavor boost.

Eating More Vegetables

If you don't get enough vegetables in your diet, you're not alone. Help your family eat more veggies by keeping ready-to-eat vegetables, such as baby carrots and cut celery, in the front of your refrigerator. Keep a bottle of flavorful, creamy salad dressing next to the veggies for quick-dipping. Add vegetables to your favorite dishes; for example, add zucchini or squash to a stir-fry, put spinach on a sandwich or in lasagna, or grate carrots into meat loaf. In addition, serve a variety of vegetables prepared in different ways to prevent boredom and to provide your family a range of nutrients. Don't force kids to eat vegetables; instead, set a positive example by eating them every day, and offer them to kids regularly.

About the Author

Rebekah Richards is a professional writer with work published in the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution," "Brandeis University Law Journal" and online at tolerance.org. She graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis University with bachelor's degrees in creative writing, English/American literature and international studies. Richards earned a master's degree at Carnegie Mellon University.

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