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If your goal is to eat a healthier diet – one that’s packed with nutrient- and antioxidant-rich whole foods – consider adding more home-cooked meals to your menu.

Research has found that people who frequently eat home-cooked meals have a higher intake of fruit and vegetables, healthier cholesterol and blood sugar levels and a lower risk of being overweight.

Depending on how you cook and prep your foods, though, you may be unknowingly undermining your diet.

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Certain cooking habits can deplete the nutritional value of your favourite meals and others may even jeopardize your health. If the following kitchen habits are part of your routine, it’s time to break them.

Rinsing chicken before cooking

Washing raw meat or poultry won’t make it clean or free of bacteria. Doing so can actually increase the risk of food poisoning by scattering bacteria to the sink, the countertop and other ready-to-eat foods.

The only way to kill bacteria that may be present on the surface of raw meat is by cooking to proper temperatures. If you want to remove some of the juices, pat meat dry with a paper towel.

Heating oil until it smokes

If you see wisps of smoke rising from the skillet, you’ve overheated your cooking oil. Heating an oil past its smoke point, the temperature at which it starts to burn and smoke, does more than impart a burnt flavour to your food.

When oils are overheated, beneficial nutrients and phytochemicals are lost and harmful free radicals are formed. Your cooking oil is hot when its surface glistens and shimmers or it flows smoothly like water in the pan.

Not letting chopped garlic sit

Sulfur compounds in garlic are thought to reduce the risk of certain cancers by preventing damage to DNA in cells. But if after chopping or crushing garlic, you add it immediately to the sauté pan, you’re not getting all of its beneficial phytochemicals.

An enzyme in raw garlic that’s needed to generate its anti-cancer compounds is inactivated by heat. Research has found that letting chopped garlic stand for 10 minutes before cooking preserves its protective effect against DNA damage.

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Grilling meat to well-done

Whether your steak is cooked medium-rare or well-done, the nutrient content is the same. Well-done meat, however, will contain more potential carcinogens called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) than meat that’s cooked for a shorter time.

HCAs are formed when meat is grilled, fried or broiled at high temperatures. HCAs have been linked to cancer in lab animals and colon polyps in people.

To minimize the formation of HCAs, keep portions small to reduce grilling time. For a large cut that requires a longer cooking time, partially precook it in the microwave, drain the juices, and then finish on the grill.

Another tip: Marinate meat for 10 minutes before grilling. Ingredients such as vinegar, lemon juice, herbs and spices help reduce HCA formation.

Overcooking broccoli (and cauliflower)

It’s true that boiling vegetables causes a significant amount of water-soluble nutrients – vitamin C, folate, thiamin (B1) – to be leached away.

Overcooking cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, can also strip them of their cancer-fighting potential.

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These vegetables contain compounds that, with the help of an enzyme called myrosinase, are converted to anti-cancer phytochemicals called isothiocyanates. Heating cruciferous vegetables inactivates the enzyme and reduces the formation of isothiocyanates.

Steam cruciferous vegetables or stir-fry them briefly until tender, but crisp.

Ditching the good stuff

When you remove the peel or toss away stems and green tops, you’re losing valuable fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Beet greens – packed with calcium, potassium and lutein (an antioxidant that keeps our eyes healthy) – can be sautéed and enjoyed as a side dish. Broccoli stalks, equally as nutritious as the crown, are a good source of prebiotic fibres. Use them in soups and stir-fries.

Leave edible peels on fruits and vegetables to maximize your nutrient intake; always wash produce before cooking and eating. Or, refrigerate or freeze edible peels for later use in a homemade soup broth.

Before juicing a lemon, lime or orange, wash it and then zest it. Citrus zest, an excellent source of anti-inflammatory flavonoids, can be added to smoothies, vinaigrette dressings, marinades or muffin and pancake batters. Can’t use the zest right away? Freeze it for later use.

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Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.

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