If you grew up with slimy Brussels sprouts, mushy broccoli that smelled of sulfur, or the same peas and cubes of carrot week after week, you may have learned to eat vegetables because they’re good for you, not because you enjoy them. The fact is, how veggies are prepared can ensure they are both nutritious and delicious!
Nutritional Impact. Raw or cooked, vegetables are nutritional powerhouses, rich in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber. Dietary patterns high in vegetables (and fruits) have been associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. Yet 90 percent of U.S. adults don’t eat the recommended two to three cups of vegetables a day.
There is a huge array of veggie options to choose from and consuming a variety of vegetables is the best way to ensure you are exposed to a wide range of nutrients.
To Cook or Not to Cook. Eat your veggies however you enjoy them most! Raw vegetables provide more of some nutrients than their cooked counterparts, but less of others.
“Cooking helps break open the cell walls to release some nutrients and phytochemicals,” explains Diane L. McKay, PhD, assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. For example, the availability of lycopene in tomatoes and other carotenoids in veggies like carrots, spinach, broccoli, mushrooms, zucchini, cabbage, and peppers will be higher when these vegetables are cooked.
In contrast, heat sensitive nutrients can break down as the temperature rises and water soluble nutrients can leach out into cooking liquid. “Shorter cooking time, lower heat, and less water can help limit nutrient loss,” says McKay. Keep in mind that, although there may be some losses in cooking, plenty of nutrients still make it to your plate.
Here are some nutritious ways to enjoy delicious veggies throughout your day:
Uncooked: “A great way to eat vegetables is raw,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, professor at the Friedman School and executive editor of Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter. “Salads are an obvious choice, whether the classic base of leafy greens or a mixture of chopped fresh items. Raw veggies are also a great nibble if you are overcome with hunger while preparing dinner or at any time of day. Keeping them visible and ready to eat can mean the difference between consuming or not.”
Cooked with Moist Heat: Steaming and microwaving are better choices than old-fashioned boiling. Keep veggies covered to shorten cooking time and conserve even more nutrients. These methods also keep veggies crisp and brightly colored. Let the natural flavor shine through, or toss with herbs and spices before serving. (See our August 2021 Special Report, Flavor!, for more ideas.)
Cooked with Dry Heat: Roasting, sautéing, stir-frying, grilling, and broiling are also excellent options for preparing veggies. Roasting at high heat allows the sugars naturally present in the vegetables to caramelize, intensifying their sweetness and changing flavor and texture.
The oil used in sautéing and roasting facilitates the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients—vitamins A, D, E, and K and some bioactive compounds. (Eating raw veggies with a plant-oil based dressing or other source of healthy fats, like some nuts, fish, or avocado, will do the same.)
“Unless the preparation method is extreme, cooked vegetables remain an excellent source of many essential nutrients,” says Lichtenstein. “Whether raw or cooked, however, smothering vegetables in cream sauce or adding butter, salt, or bacon should be avoided. Consuming vegetables in a minimally modified form, relying on herbs, spices, and perhaps some acid like citrus or vinegar to complement their natural flavors is the best approach.”