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How to best prepare, serve, and store your veggies so you can get the most nutritious bang from your broccoli.

Most of us are confused and overwhelmed by all of the tips and information out there about how to cook and care for vegetables. Is it healthier to eat your tomatoes raw, or enjoy them in a slow-cooked sauce? Should you refrigerate leafy greens?

Unless you're Popeye, you're probably not going to bulk up overnight by eating a can of spinach, no matter how it's prepared. But there are plenty of health benefits that you'll enjoy from careful care and preparation of your veggies.

The most striking benefit of plant foods is their disease-fighting potential, says Amy Joy Lanou, PhD, a nutritionist and the nutritional director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "Across the board, fruits and vegetables are beneficial for reducing chronic disease risk," she says. That's why we asked Lanou and nutritionist Christine Filardo to give us the scoop on proper veggie handling, so something insignificant doesn't come between you, your health, and your veggies. Here's a little food for thought.

To Cook or Not to Cook

There's plenty of conflicting information about whether vegetables and fruits are better enjoyed cooked or raw, and that's because there is no single answer. Some active nutrients in vegetables and fruits are more readily available when cooked, others are more prevalent when foods are eaten raw, says Lanou. For example, lycopene, an antioxidant, which may help prevent against prostate cancer, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses, is more prevalent in cooked forms of tomatoes -- even ketchup.

On the flip side, many of the nutrients from vegetables can get leached during cooking. The key is to watch out for cooking vegetables too long, and with too much water, says Filardo. If you cook vegetables gently -- and without a great deal of water -- you will help protect the water-soluble vitamins. Filardo recommends blanching your veggies, which is when you quickly cook vegetables in boiling water, and remove them when they're still very crisp, to help preserve the color and nutrients. The same principle applies if you're going to steam or microwave vegetables.

Not all water is bad, however; it's only when you aren't consuming the liquids that the nutrients are leached into. That's the great thing about soup, says Lanou. "You consume the water-soluble vitamins that go into the broth," she says. For the most part, it's the leaching that causes the problem, not the heat.

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