There's nothing wrong with eating a fresh, raw salad for a light lunch or as a side with dinner. Uncooked greens tout tremendous benefits, from providing fiber and iron to fighting free radical damage from antioxidant content.
Yet, there are certain times where you should get cooking. Besides, digging into a warming, hearty stir fry or veggie pasta dish after a long week screams comfort.
And, when you're actually getting more health benefits from the cooking process, itself, it's a no-brainer as to how to prepare your next meal. Here, dietitians share their top foods that should get tossed in a wok or baked in an oven for an easy, weeknight dish that packs in tons of nutrients.
"Red pepper contains beta-carotene, a source of vitamin A, which is more easily absorbed by the body when cooked," says Kelly R. Jones MS, RD, CSSD, LDN.
What's more, beyond red peppers' fantastic taste, its vitamin A content supports eye health, immune function, reproductive health and acts as an antioxidant, she adds.
Asparagus might make your pee smell, but it's definitely a nutritious staple that goes well in any veggie dish.
"Since asparagus is so rich in fiber, one of it's benefits, it also means some nutrients may not be absorbed and pass through our small intestines with the fiber. By cooking it, our body does less work to break down the fiber and get to the nutrients to absorb them," says Jones.
"Lycopene, a red pigment found mainly in tomatoes, but also in watermelon, certain peppers, guava, and papaya, is linked to a lower risk of cancer and heart attacks, and it may actually be more a more powerful antioxidant than vitamin C," says Robert Glatter, MD, Asst Professor of Emergency Medicine, Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health.
What's more, it turns out that cooking boosts lycopene content, as heat actually breaks down the cell wall, allowing the body to better absorb vitamins and nutrients, he explains.
"Research has shown that cooking carrots enhances beta-carotene absorption," says Glatter. Here's why this antioxidant is so important: Beta-carotene, a carotenoid responsible for that yellow-orange hue, is ultimately converted into vitamin A, which can improve vision, bone development and the immune system, he explains.
Plus, carrots are great for cutting calories and boosting nutritional value in more comfort foods, like lasagnas, mac n' cheese, mashed potatoes, and more.
And, the same goes for pumpkin. "Pumpkin isn't something most people would eat raw, which is fine since the cooking process increases the body's ability to absorb carotenoids," says Jones. (For a fun indulgence, try these pumpkin chocolate chip muffins.)
"Raw mushrooms are challenging for the body to breakdown, making it hard to get the nutrients they contain. The cooking process starts the breakdown for us, making it easier for our digestive enzymes to extract all of the nutrients," says Jones.
And, "while there are a large variety of mushrooms, they will all provide some potassium, iron, and copper, and many also contain the important antioxidant mineral selenium," she adds.
A raw spinach salad makes for a tasty lunch, and there's nothing bad about eating more vegetables in the day, but you might want to cook your leafy greens, too.
As for cooking technique, steaming might be your best bet, or cooking at lower temperatures.
"The best way to cook vegetables for nutrient retention is to steam them. But don't over-steam, as you still want your veggies to have some texture," says Jones.
What's more, "Vitamin C is heat-sensitive meaning cooking at too high of a temperature or for too long can damage the nutrient. And, beware of boiling, too. Nutrients like folate can leach out into the cooking liquid and will not end up on your plate," she adds.