New Year's Day is notable for resolutions. If a healthier diet is on your list, just choosing the right foods isn't enough; how you prepare your meals can be just as important as what you put in your shopping cart, according to Bonnie Taub-Dix, a nutrition expert and author of "Read It Before You Eat It" (Plume, 2010).
For example, cooking certain foods makes their nutrients more available, like the lycopene in tomatoes and the carotene in carrots. In other cases, common cooking practices can diminish the nutritional quality of your food or add unnecessary fat and sodium. That's true even for some habits you might think are good ones.
Here are six tips for getting the most nutrients from your meals, adapted from an article in the January issue of Consumer Reports on Health, our monthly health newsletter.
1. Keep nutrients in your veggies. Boiling and overcooking certain fresh vegetables robs them of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Instead, steam them. Studies show that this cooking method preserves more nutrients in vegetables than boiling, stir-frying, or even blanching them. Spinach and other fast-cooking greens can be steamed in as little as 5 minutes; denser vegetables, such as whole carrots or potatoes, will probably need at least 20 minutes. You can also steam vegetables in the microwave, using just 1 to 3 tablespoons of water to preserve nutrients.
2. Don't oversalt. Just one teaspoon of table salt has about 2,300 milligrams of sodium, the generally recommended daily limit. Older people, African-Americans, and people with certain health conditions should get no more than 1,500 mg. 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. Reach instead for healthier flavor enhancers—a squirt of lemon or lime juice, a splash of balsamic vinegar, or a sprinkling of oregano or cumin, for example. Reduce the sodium in canned veggies by rinsing them in water before preparation, or, even easier, choose no- or low-sodium canned foods. You can test your sodium smarts with our quiz.
3. Remove the fat from ground beef. If you pan-fry burgers, be sure to pour off the fat. Or make 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. It might sound gross, but an Iowa State University study found that this technique removed half the fat left after cooking without substantially reducing protein, iron, zinc, or B vitamin levels.
4. Switch to oven-frying. Compared with pan-frying, this method uses a lot less oil but still delivers a "fried" crunch. To do it, 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. Learn which fats are healthiest to cook with.
5. Put some oil on that salad. Using fat-free dressing or a squeeze of lemon juice on a salad saves calories but also might 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. Researchers at Purdue University found that adding 1½ tablespoons of canola oil to a salad can boost the body's absorption of carotenoids, antioxidants in carrots that the body converts to vitamin A. Without any accompanying fat, carotenoids go mostly unabsorbed and unused. Another healthful choice is olive oil. See our buying advice on olive oil and (for subscribers) Ratings of 23 extra-virgin varieties.
6. Add variety. Preparing the same type of meal over and over, even if it's a healthful one, limits 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 at ChooseMyPlate.gov.