Human bodies require a complex formula of fuel from a variety of foods in order to function optimally. While the removal of anti-nutrients like sugar and chemicals can go a long way in improving your health, ensuring a sufficient supply of nourishing ingredients will take you even further. For example, with just a few simple additions and no extra time spent, a basic, healthy bowl of soup can be transformed into a nutrient-dense, protein-rich meal.
Through science and the wisdom of traditional food preparation techniques, we can unlock enzymes, minerals and proteins in foods that would otherwise be unavailable. Whether you cook from scratch or buy mostly prepared foods, you can dramatically upgrade the nutrition content of your meals with these simple cooking hacks.
Hack #1: Cook With Seaweed for Added Minerals
While a staple in Asian cuisine, Western diets have yet to adopt the nutritious habit of regular sea vegetable consumption. Seaweed contains high amounts of important minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium and especially iodine, which may be lacking in your diet if you use non-iodized, kosher or specialty salts.
The good news is you don’t need to live on the Pacific coast or even like the taste of seaweed in order to reap its nutritional benefits. A simple way to enjoy minerals and umami from sea vegetables is to add a piece of Kombu seaweed to the pot any time you are boiling or simmering liquid on the stove. Kombu seaweed is edible kelp and is sold in hard, dry sheets that can be stored in your pantry indefinitely. Every time you simmer liquid on your stove for soup, broth, rice, quinoa, or beans, add a piece of Kombu to the cooking liquid. The Kombu will soften and sometimes break apart during the cooking process, releasing nutrients into the liquid. Remove the Kombu pieces before serving.
Hack #2: Simmer Leftover Bones in Soups to Release Calcium
Next time you eat chicken wings or a bone-in rib eye, don’t throw away those bones! Bones are basically a storage container for important nutrients like the protein gelatin and most famously, calcium. One of the very best ways to get more calcium in your diet is through simmering chicken, beef, lamb or fish bones in an acidic liquid to make a broth. Since the 4-6 hours required to make homemade broth is hard to come by, you can do your best by simply adding leftover bones and two tablespoons of vinegar to cooking liquid any time you simmer soup.
To start, begin buying bone-in meats, collecting the bones at the end of your meal and storing them in a gallon-sized bag in your freezer. Don’t stress about using them up right away because, when frozen, the bones should last up to one year. Write the date on the outside of the bag to make sure they don’t expire and as you collect more bones, add them to the bag, being sure to store chicken, beef, lamb and fish bones separately. Any time you’re simmering liquid on the stove, even just for 10-20 minutes, add a bone or two along with two tablespoons of vinegar to provide the acid to draw out the minerals. This will impart nourishing minerals and proteins to an otherwise simple soup.
Hack #3: Soak Nuts Overnight to Activate Benefits
Nuts have long been touted as a “health food” and a handful of almonds does provide a nice pick-me-up if your blood sugar is running low. However, nuts are packed with far more nutrients then we realize, but those nutrients are blocked from being absorbed by a substance called phytic acid. Phytic acid plays the important role of inhibiting the enzymes that cause seeds to sprout until the seed is in a proper, moist growing environment. Many traditional cultures understood this process and would soak nuts and seeds in water to allow them to germinate, and then spread the nuts or seeds in the sun to dry before eating.
Today we can easily mimic this process by purchasing raw, unsalted nuts and seeds and soaking them for about 8 hours in lukewarm water with a pinch of salt. The nuts can then be dried in a 150 degree oven, dehydrator, or even spread out in the sun for about 8 hours or until completely dry. Nuts that have been soaked in water have been found to have a higher protein content than their unsoaked counterparts and more available minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc.
While this technique clearly takes much longer than impulsively buying a bag of nuts when you need a snack, the actual process is relatively work-free. Buy a bulk package of nuts and make a large enough batch to last you a couple of months. Sprinkle with salt or other spices and store almonds and other nuts in an airtight container in your pantry or fridge for a quick, protein-rich snack.
Hack #4: Cook With Chicken Broth Instead of Water
Think of broth like “upgraded water;” it provides hydration just like water, but also delivers valuable vitamins, minerals, electrolytes and proteins. Anytime you’re cooking soup or stew and the recipe calls for water, try substituting chicken broth instead and use broth any time you’re cooking grains like rice or quinoa.
Because you’re aiming for nutritional value rather than just flavor, you’ll get the most benefit from using a broth made from real chicken bones, rather than just “chicken flavor.” Chicken bone broth contains the protein gelatin, which, while not a complete protein, contains large amounts of the amino acids arginine and glycine. Acting as protein sparers, arginine and glycine allow the body to more fully utilize complete proteins when they are consumed which is especially beneficial for those who eat little animal protein.
That said, store-bought chicken broths and even vegetable broths still deliver valuable minerals and electrolytes when added to dishes. In any case, using broth instead of water will greatly enhance the flavor profile of your cooking.
Hack #5: Add Coconut Oil to Tea
There’s been so much buzz about the benefits of coconut oil recently, especially around the fats in the boil being a potential therapy for Alzheimer’s disease. Of course you can use coconut oil in cooking and baking, but why not use it to upgrade a simple habit, like an afternoon cup of tea or coffee?
Simply add a spoonful of virgin coconut oil to a hot cup of tea (which I prefer the flavor of over coffee) and stir to blend. Doing so will aid the absorption of fat soluble vitamins and provide you with a little extra energy and satiety.
Hack #6: Use Kraut Juice
Fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi are becoming increasingly popular in the United States (they’ve always been popular in other parts of the world) for their gut-healthy probiotic content. If you’ve adopted this habit, don’t just stop with the kraut. Reserve any leftover juice, which is also full of beneficial bacteria, to add some spice to condiments like salsa, ketchup, or mayonnaise, use in place of vinegar in a vinaigrette, or throw some chopped vegetables in the juice for a couple of days to soak up the flavor. Using the juice this way won’t actually ferment the vegetables, but you’ll still benefit from the juice’s probiotics.
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Drew Parisi is a Nutrition Consultant and founder of Parisi Nutrition. She loves helping people sift through contradicting health claims to put individuals back in control of their own health through online, seasonal cleanses. You can read more about cultivating a well-nourished body through whole foods on the Parisi Nutrition Blog and connect with her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.