20 Meal Prep Hacks That Can Reap Some Serious Nutrition Benefits

If you've been preparing healthy meals the same old way for years, read on. It might be time to make some small—and in some cases—large—food-prep tweaks.

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Kick start meal prep

mushroomsElizaveta Korobkova/ShutterstockLet's say you've always prepped mushrooms by boiling them. That can yield delicious results (love that umami flavor? You can find it in these tasty treats also) but it might not be the best way to preserve their nutrients. A recent study that found that grilling or microwaving mushrooms packs the biggest health punch. We reached out to several experts to find out the best ways to prep 20 foods to maximize their nutrients. Read on for some interesting info and some surprises, too.

See the power in sweet potatoes

sweetpotatoesAnna Hoychuk/ShutterstockIf you love sweet potatoes, it might be tempting to boil them. Skip it and steam, microwave, or bake them instead to help retain more of the anthocyanins, compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory powers, says Christy Brissette, RD, a dietitian in Toronto. (Check out the differences between yams and sweet potatoes and other commonly mixed up foods here.) Bonus: Steaming also helps reduce the glycemic index of your sweet potatoes. "This means you'll get a slower release of sugar into your bloodstream which can help you stay full longer," she says. Tip #1: Don't peel 'em. Instead, simply remove blemishes and cook sweet potatoes with the skin on as the skin is loaded with extra fiber and potassium, nutrients that are important for heart health. Tip #2: Serve with a teaspoon of heart-healthy fat such as olive oil or avocado oil. "Having about five grams of fat with your sweet potato will help you absorb more of the beta carotene, a nutrient that provides eye health and antioxidant benefits," Brissette says.

Go raw with cauliflower and broccoli

cauliflowerJaroslaw Pawlak/ShutterstockIt's tempting to pop yummy cauliflower rice and broccoli tops into a stir-fry. Instead, try eating these veggies raw. "You'll be creating more isothiocyanates, phytochemicals that may help prevent and fight cancer," Brissette says. "The precursor to this compound is easily destroyed by heat, so there could be less potential cancer-fighting power when you cook them." Here are some other superfoods you can add to your diet.

Stay ripe with that avocado

avocadoMarian Weyo/ShutterstockThere's nothing like a perfectly ripe avocado and the rich, creamy texture and nutty flavor that adds so much to so many dishes. "However, the window from perfectly ripe to rotten is pretty small so to capitalize on their nutrients, including high levels of monounsaturated fats—the heart-healthy kinds—use them as soon as they ripen," says Rachel Begun, RDN, a registered dietitian in Los Angeles. (And when they're ready, try them in one of these delicious avocado recipes.) "Eating them at peak ripeness means you'll best reap the benefits of avocados, nutrient powerhouse, an excellent source of vitamins C, E, B6, folate and K as well as fiber and potassium." Tip: If you want a hard avocado to ripen more quickly, place it in a paper bag on the kitchen counter for a few days. Don't refrigerate!

Give spinach some heat

spinachNatali Zakharova/ShutterstockFun fact: Cooked spinach is higher in iron, calcium, and magnesium than raw spinach. (Learn about the rest of spinach's awesome health benefits.) The reason? Heat helps to release these minerals from compounds they are bound to so your body can absorb them better. When cooking spinach, use gentle heat, suggests Brissette. "That will keep the more delicate vitamins intact," she says. Tip: Steam, microwave, or use other methods that use lower heat to heat your spinach and never submerge your spinach in water.

Go whole with your veggies

broccoliFtania/ShutterstockThe best way to preserve nutrients in your foods is to eat the entire thing, says Ilana Muhlstein, RDN, a registered dietitian in Los Angeles. "People frequently cut the broccoli florets off the stalk and discard the rest," she says. "The broccoli stalk is like eating pure fiber, essential for keeping you full, regular, and heart healthy." Tip: Consider shredding broccoli stalks raw into a salad or soup.

Embrace the power of cooked tomatoes

tomatoesRobyn Mackenzie/ShutterstockWhile there's nothing like a summer treat—a platter of fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil, for example—cooked tomatoes pack a bigger health benefit. "Heating tomatoes increases the lycopene, a powerful antioxidant in tomatoes, that's available for the body to absorb," says Lindsey Janeiro, a registered dietitian in Sarasota, Florida. In fact, a recent study showed that when tomatoes were cooked for 30 minutes, their lycopene content increased by more than 164 percent. These summer foods also pack a healthy punch. 

Fruits deserve to be grilled

grilledfruitVal Thoermer/ShutterstockTry grilling a fruit like pineapple or watermelon to enhance flavors without dramatically impacting nutrition. "It doesn't take much time (just 30 seconds per side for watermelon) to add flavor," says Janeiro. Tip: Be careful not to overcook. Grilling fruit for too long can lead to a moisture loss, including the water-soluble vitamins found in the juice.

Get fish savvy

musclesKondor83/ShutterstockWhile nearly all methods of cooking fish will retain nutrients, says Diane Henderiks, a registered dietitian in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, if you make a soup or stew you will be consuming any nutrients that seep into the liquid. "Shorter cooking times retain the most nutrients and most fish is cooked quickly." (Can't handle fish? Here are seven other ways to get healthy omega-3 fats.) Tip: Crudo or ceviche is a another way to retain the nutrients in fish because no heat is added, Henderiks adds.

Use moist heat for fish

fishDean Drobot/ShutterstockWhile the quality of the fish you're eating will dictate the amount of omega-3s (especially in salmon), using moist heat for a short duration won't impact the heart-healthy omega-3s in it, Janeiro says. Tip: To best do this at home, quickly steam, braise or sear fish.
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