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Why smart cooks use frozen vegetables

By Hilary Meyer, February 26, 2010 - 11:41am

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Why smart cooks use frozen vegetables

We’re officially midwinter and I miss the produce bins at the grocery store during midsummer that overflow with fruits and vegetables at the peak of ripeness. Right now the produce section looks more like a compost pile than anything else. If I have to put one more anemic tomato in my grocery cart, I think I’ll scream.

I can’t just stop eating fruits and vegetables for the winter, so I’ve turned to frozen for the time being. But when it comes to fresh vs. frozen, are we giving up nutrition for convenience? As it turns out, maybe not (especially when it comes to “out of season” produce).

Frozen vegetables may be even more healthful than some of the fresh produce sold in supermarkets. Why? Fruits and vegetables chosen for freezing tend to be processed at their peak ripeness when they are most nutrient-packed. While the first step of freezing vegetables—blanching them in hot water or steam to kill bacteria and arrest the action of food-degrading enzymes—causes some water-soluble nutrients like vitamin C and the B vitamins to break down or leach out, the subsequent flash-freeze locks the vegetables in a relatively nutrient-rich state.

On the other hand, fresh fruits and vegetables shipped around the country are typically picked before they are ripe, which gives them less time to develop a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals. Outward signs of ripening may still occur, but these vegetables will never have the same nutritive value as if they had been allowed to fully ripen on the vine. In addition, during shipping fresh fruits and vegetables are exposed to lots of heat and light, which degrade some nutrients, especially delicate vitamins like C and the B vitamin thiamin.

Another benefit of frozen vegetables? They can be the secret to an ultra-quick dinner: most of them come already chopped, cutting down on prep time. Plus they taste great when they’re all sauced up and cooked. When buying frozen produce, choose packages marked with a USDA “U.S. Fancy” shield, which designates produce of the best size, shape and color; vegetables of this standard also tend to be more nutrient-rich than the lower grades “U.S. No. 1” or “U.S. No. 2.” Eat them soon after purchase: over many months, nutrients in frozen vegetables do inevitably degrade. Finally, steam or microwave rather than boil your produce to minimize the loss of water-soluble vitamins. So while I’m still reminiscing about the summer, for now you can find me in the freezer section.

Here are a few recipes that make the most of healthful frozen fruits and vegetables:

Ravioli with Bell Pepper Sauce Freezer staples—frozen bell peppers with onions and individually quick-frozen spinach—give a simple tomato-based pasta sauce complexity and a big boost of nutrients.

Minestrone with Endive & Pepperoni Considering that this minestrone soup incorporates mostly frozen vegetables, it is remarkably savory and aromatic. Look for frozen soup or stew vegetables with potatoes, carrots, celery and onion in the mix to give the soup the best flavor. Although pepperoni isn’t traditionally part of minestrone soup, you’ll find it’s a great shortcut to add spicy, complex flavor.

Tortellini Primavera
This creamy tortellini and vegetable pasta is a real crowd pleaser. To make it even quicker, use frozen chopped vegetables instead of fresh. Serve with: A green salad and whole-grain baguette.

What fruits and vegetables do you buy frozen? Tell us what you think below.

TAGS: Hilary Meyer, Food Blog, Budget meals, Dinner, Family meals, Nutrition, Quick meals

Hilary Meyer
EatingWell Associate Food Editor Hilary Meyer spends much of her time in the EatingWell Test Kitchen, testing and developing healthy recipes. She is a graduate of New England Culinary Institute.

Hilary asks: What fruits and vegetables do you buy frozen?

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