Whether you’re learning how to cook healthily, or just learning how to cook period, it’s always nice to have some help. When we think of what’s important to a delicious meal, we think flavor, texture, and presentation, but how often do we consider the nutrition on our finished plate? When you start eating for optimal nutrition, everything looks different. Everything from how your food was grown, transported, and stored to preparation and cook time affects how many nutrients it will retain for your body’s use. In an ideal world we could all wander through fields eating fresh, sun warmed berries off the bush, well at least in our ideal world! As that’s not always possible, here are our WildFit food preparation hints for ensuring that you are maximizing the nutrition of every meal.
Of course the first option that comes to mind is to not cook the food at all. The principle behind the raw food movement is to not heat the produce above 118°F to maintain the vitamins, minerals, enzymes and proteins. Nutrients are sensitive to light, heat and pressure. The longer they are exposed to these elements at high intensity, the less nutrients they retain, especially if water is involved. By preparing raw foods like salads, vegetable dips, smoothies, cold soups, powerballs with nut butters and activated (soaked and sprouted) seeds, vegan desserts and even some raw fish ceviche, you are adhering to these principles.
However, raw food preparation also involves a lot of cutting, chopping, shredding, peeling, dehydrating, blending and juicing. Once the skin of a fruit or vegetable is broken, oxygen is allowed in and the nutrients begin to break down. This process is called oxidation and you can see it happening as the damaged spot turns brown. On the other hand, these processes also break down the fiber within the plant, making it easier for your body to absorb the nutrients within the food. The rule of thumb is that if a food has been juiced, consume it within 12 hours, and if blended or shredded, consume within 24 hours. Freezing can also slow the degradation, as is the case in fruit sorbet or raw chocolate cake. That being said, prepped dehydrated veggie falafels and sprouted hummus would still contain much more nutrition than a typical takeaway meal, so raw is definitely the best way to get your plant nutrition in most cases.
Just as when we chop, slice, mince or dice we break down the cell walls of our food, cooking does it too. Warmth, moisture, darkness and time are the elements of both cooking and digestion, so cooking can be thought of as pre-digestion. In some cases, as with steaming, the heat from the water below transfers to the food above through steam which breaks down the starchy fibers, cellulose and certain chemical components of the food.
There is a distinct difference between the boiled dinners of my maritime childhood and a light steaming. When we boil food, we submerge it in a lot of water, and as the fibers and cell walls are broken down the nutrients are released into the water. This is fine if you are making a soup or broth and planning to consume the water, but not so great if you are planning to pull the wilted, discoloured vegetables out of it and toss it aside.
Steaming for short periods enhances the flavours of vegetables, softens them, and makes them more palatable. In carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and collard greens an increase in nutrients like carotenoids, glucosinolates, sulforaphane, folate, phytochemicals the total antioxidant capacity is observed after steaming. This is why Eric’s vegetable scaring tactic has become so popular in the WildFit world.
We know that water pulls nutrients out of our food, but generally it is only the water soluble nutrients like vitamin C, and B vitamins. Vitamins A, D, E and K that dissolve into fat are less affected by cooking, in fact, adding a bit of oil to the pan while cooking them can actually pull the nutrients out, making them more available. For this reason, a flash in a hot saucepan, wok or skillet is the best way to cook spinach, cabbage, kale and other leafy greens. These greens are also high in calcium, but when raw they contain calcium binding oxalic acid which binds to calcium, preventing absorption. When these greens are cooked, the acid is broken down and more calcium is absorbed.
Sauteing is also a great way to cook meat so that it is browned while preserving its texture, moisture, and flavor. High temperatures help to inactivate the bacteria and microorganisms that can harm you, but the near constant movement also keeps the tissue from burning. Many meat eaters love the charred look and blackened taste of meat, as we would have first cooked it over fire. Unfortunately, grilling, broiling and other methods that cook meat at high temperatures can lead to the creation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) a type of nitrogen-containing compound that are known carcinogens and mutagens. This doesn’t mean that BBQ is off the menu, it just means that methods like sauteing and roasting ought to be in higher rotation.
By placing either meat or veggies in the oven at a relatively high temperature for a longer time, you are decreasing the nutritional value of the food in some ways, but increasing it in others. Roasting is usually done dry with a bit of oil, and the heat transforms the food from the outside in, allowing it to hold on to more of its juices than through stovetop methods that let off steam. This slow, caramelization of food brings out it’s sweetness, which makes it more appealing. If you are new to eating lots of veggies, or you have sensitive digestion, this may be the best method for you right now. There are still lots of minerals, vitamins and fiber, yet they taste really nice and are easy to digest. Some vegetables, like tomatoes, provide much higher levels of lycopene when roasted, which has cardiovascular benefits. As with sauteing/stir frying, just make sure to keep oils to a minimum and to never heat past the smoking point of the oil (around 410°F for most cooking oils) as burnt oil also has some negative health effects.
Last but not least we will talk about slow cooking, because at the end of the day eating any vegetables are better than none. Slow cooking is a convenient way to cook a meal, and the lower temperature, combined with the steam proof top to hold in liquids and flavour ensures it will also be tasty and nutritious. Like other cooking methods, the heat breaks down the tough fibers and cellulose of veggies, releasing more nutrients into the cooking juices. This is also a great way to get tender, flavorful meat that is not charred.
Slow cooked soups and stews are one of the best ways to prep a meal, especially as we head into fall. They take only a few minutes to prepare, and you can come home to a warm, fragrant and delicious meal that is ready right away!
The most important thing to remember is that variety is key. Not only the variety of produce you are using in your cooking, but the cooking methods you are using as well. As you can see, there are many benefits involved in the different styles of cooking, and variety is important not only for our health, but making sure our taste buds don’t get bored! Of course, what best determines the nutrition of your food is the source, so always buy local, organic and wild caught food or grow your own whenever possible.
Do you have more questions about cooking methods or have some great tips to share with the community? Post them below, we’d love to hear from you.