Jane Says: Preparing Food Ahead of Time Doesn’t Destroy Nutrition
“I need your opinion on my food prep. I posted my food picture on FB one day, and I got so many comments saying that I am doing the wrong thing. Husband and I work, we have 3 kids, and our nanny comes in to care for the two younger ones. So, every morning I prepare food and store them in containers and leave them in the refrigerator. Nanny will give my kids fruits that I cut in the morning twice a day. She heats up the food I prepared for my kids. So apparently, my advance prepping of food, and reheating for lunch and dinner—it’s all bad. Zero nutrients left. Same with the cut fruits; apparently, I’m just feeding my kids fructose, as all the vitamins would have been oxidized. I try so hard to stay away from processed food. I can’t expect my nanny to sauté something on the spot too; my two boys are pretty young. Is what I’m doing really feeding my kids ‘zero nutrient food’? The way I cook my veggies—blanched in boiling water for a couple of minutes, removed into a pot of ice water to stop the cooking process, then lightly seasoned with raw garlic, soy sauce, and sesame oil.”
What you choose to feed your children is one of the most personal, important decisions you ever have to make. It is especially fraught in this day and age, when everyone tries to be vigilant about how to spend hard-earned food dollars.
And then there are the other parents—and even folks who don’t have kids—who go around endlessly sharing not just their opinions on the subject, but their core beliefs as to why you are wrong, wrong, wrong, and how your kids will suffer for it. Their behavior is rude and cruel, and they should knock it off.
And, anyway, Angie, what your Facebook critics are telling you is so last century. You need some new friends, ones who should look for “zero-nutrient food” in a supermarket potato-chip-and-dip aisle, not in a home kitchen where whole foods such as fruits and vegetables are prepared ahead and/or reheated.
Nutrient retention in fresh-cut fruit
According to an important study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in May 2006, researchers were surprised to discover that fresh-cut fruit such as mangoes, pineapples, kiwifruits, strawberries, watermelon, and cantaloupe do not lose most of their nutrients—including antioxidants vitamin C, carotenoids, and phenols—when stored in clear plastic clamshell containers and refrigerated for a few days. They were compared to the same fruits, left whole, stored for the same duration but sliced or diced on the day of sampling.
“In general, fresh-cut fruits visually spoil before any significant nutrient loss occurs,” wrote the researchers, who didn’t add any chemicals to prevent the fruit from oxidizing or losing its visual appeal. Here’s the rundown of how much vitamin C, for instance, each type of fresh-cut fruit lost in six days:
Mango, strawberry, and watermelon: less than 5%
And although the total content of carotenoids (antioxidants related to vitamin A) decreased in cantaloupe cubes and peeled kiwifruit slices during refrigerator storage for up to nine days, it actually increased in mango and watermelon cubes in response to light exposure.
And that brings me to an exciting discovery published just a couple of weeks ago in the journal Current Biology. A team of scientists at Rice University and the University of California at Davis has found that, for some days after harvest, cabbage, lettuce, spinach, zucchini, carrots, sweet potatoes, and blueberries continue to respond to circadian rhythms (day-night cycles of light), allowing them to alter levels of certain phytochemicals that protect them from being eaten by insects and other herbivores. Those same chemical compounds have anti-cancer effects when eaten by humans. It will be fascinating to see what the consequences are for everyone who stores produce, including growers, shippers, and sellers—whether at the farmers market or the grocery store.
Preparing food ahead of time—a few helpful techniques, tips, and strategies
Every smart, organized home cook knows that meals—or components of meals—made ahead of time are like money in the bank. And children who grow up eating delicious home-cooked food—even if it’s prepared in advance and reheated by a caregiver—are far more likely to cook for themselves when they are adults. A happy and grateful assortment of roommates, boyfriends, girlfriends, and spouses will have you to thank.
Blanching is one way to keep vegetables flavorful and crisp; you simply bring a pot of water to a boil and cook the vegetables—green beans, for instance—for a minute or so. But water-soluble vitamins (B complex and C) do leach into the cooking water and eventually go down the drain. To help protect those nutrients, avoid using too much water or cooking the vegetables too long. It also helps to repurpose the cooking water, so use it to make soup, rice, or pasta. You can even use it instead of oil to sauté broccoli rabe or broccoli after blanching. And remember, B and C vitamins are found in lots of foods. If your family eats a varied diet that includes both cooked and raw fruits and vegetables, they’ll receive plenty of both. Here's a handy list of food sources of water-soluble vitamins.
Steaming vegetables in a rack placed over simmering water is another way to go. Because the vegetables aren’t actually submerged in the water, they retain more water-soluble vitamins. You can reuse the cooking water from steamed vegetables as well.
Roasting vegetables couldn’t be simpler—simply toss the vegetables with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper and pop them in the oven at 375 to 400°. The high heat will caramelize (brown) them, turning them crisp around the edges and sweet. Many a child who says he or she hates vegetables has fallen hard for roasted carrots or slices of sweet potato.
Microwaving cooks vegetables faster than other forms of cooking and with very little added fat or water, so they generally retain more nutrients than they usually do. Using the microwave oven to reheat foods is also easy and quick. If you’re leery of microwaves in principle, a column I wrote earlier this year separates fact from fiction.
Planning ahead frees you from preparing a day’s worth of meals from scratch every single morning. Those roasted sweet potatoes that kids love? Roast six or eight or them at once and you’ll have them for the week. If Sunday night is roast chicken night, roast two birds; the leftovers can be eaten hot, cold, or made into a pot-pie or hash. Cook extra rice, pasta, couscous, dried beans, or grains to stretch meals later in the week; just make sure to let them cool uncovered before refrigerating them in an airtight container. Cooked grains and beans freeze beautifully, by the way, and you can add them, unthawed, to simmering stews or soups.