The Fresher, the Better
Time is the most important factor when it comes to the nutrient breakdown of fruits and vegetables. You can slow down the process of nutrient depletion by your storage methods, but getting produce fresh to begin with is very important. Try finding markets that sell locally grown produce. "Farmers' markets are great, because usually you get produce the day after it was harvested," says Lanou. The sooner you eat a fruit or vegetable after it's picked, the better.
If the vegetable stays on the plant until it's ripe, it will have more nutrients in it than if it's picked early and allowed to ripen off the vine, says Lanou. It will often taste better as well, she says. "For example, sweet corn is super sweet the day it's picked, but a week later it tastes kind of like a potato, because the sugar has broken down." The same thing happens with other nutrients that you can't detect with taste.
You need to take proper care when it comes to cooking and serving your veggies. Here are some tips:
- Keep your cool. Don't keep vegetables in very hot environments -- like your car -- for a long time. Remember that certain vegetables should get stored on your counter, while others should get refrigerated. Onions, potatoes, and other root vegetables do better in cool, dry places, and the refrigerator is too wet for them. Most fruits -- including tomatoes -- are best kept on the counter and consumed once ripe. Most greens, mushrooms, and almost all other produce should get refrigerated.
- Take a breath. Some vegetables do a little better with air, says Lanou. Try storing mushrooms in a paper bag, instead of a plastic one. If the mushrooms came in a plastic or cellophane container, use a fork to poke some air holes in the lid.
- Go for frozen. Frozen vegetables are often just as healthy as fresh veggies, especially if the fresh ones have been collecting dust for a few days in your fridge. Filardo says frozen vegetables are still nutritious, because they often come right out of the field, and are blanched and frozen immediately.
- Dress it up. Use a little fat or salad dressing on your vegetables. Filardo says a little fat will improve the uptake of lycopene. "But that doesn't give people the license to put huge amounts of salad dressings on their foods."
- Try precooking. Blanch veggies before you pop them in the fridge, and you will save time. "It will also help kill some of the enzymes that can cause deterioration," says Filardo. Just don't overdue the reheating.
- Slow down. Take more time to chew and enjoy your vegetables. Filardo says the more you chew, the more you will break down vegetables, and that will result in better absorption of nutrients from the gut. "Sometimes people stuff things into their mouths without paying attention, and you can eat a lot that way," she says. "If you slow down, and savor the taste of foods, you are likely to eat less." You are also allowing more time for the message to get from your stomach to your brain that you're full.
- Spice things up. "People tend to eat the same fruits and vegetables over and over again. Every fruit and vegetable has a unique footprint -- a unique assortment of nutrients and phytochemicals," says Filardo. Variety will increase your enjoyment of fruits and vegetables, while also giving you more nutrients. She suggests that you use color as a guide when planning your meals. Instead of worrying about getting specific vitamins, for example, worry about getting your oranges, greens, and reds. It will also make for a more appetizing plate.