Lots of people have bought into the idea that fresh is always best when it comes to fruits and vegetables. But don’t be so quick to dismiss those cans and frozen bags, dietitians say.
“We live by them and swear by them,” say registered dietitians Tammy Lakatos Shames and Lyssie Lakatos, the authors of The Nutrition Twins’ Veggie Cure. “Frozen and some canned foods are often just as healthy as fresh, if not healthier.”
In a review published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that fruits and vegetables are generally about 90 percent water and start dehydrating and losing nutrients immediately after they’re harvested. For example, spinach loses 75 percent of its vitamin C (ascorbic acid) within seven days. With each day that passes as they sit on trucks, fresh fruits and vegetables are – as gross as it might sound — decomposing.
“Fresh” Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
But technological advances in the food biz mean that harvested produce can now be flash-frozen and processed on-site, says Wesley Delbridge, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “You can’t get fresher than that,” he says.
In addition to the nutritive benefits of frozen fruits and veggies, having a supply of them on hand solves one of the most common problems: Fresh produce that never makes it out of the crisper drawer until it’s rotten and needs to be thrown away.
But all of this doesn’t mean you should ditch fresh fruits and vegetables entirely, of course. Fresh, local produce helps keep your diet varied: Fruits and vegetables have different phytonutrients, or compounds, that help support your immune system and other key body processes. So it’s a good idea to eat a wide variety to expose yourself to as many of them as possible.
The convenience of frozen and canned food can help you get that variety, too. And according to the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, you may need all the help you can get: A review found that 75 percent of people don’t eat the recommended servings of fruit, and 87 percent ate below recommended amounts of vegetables per day.
One last nag/reminder before we get to the list: Eating more fruits and vegetables is a key part of a balanced diet and with all the options available — fresh, frozen, canned, pre-sliced, pre-cooked, etc. — there’s really no reason you can’t get your recommended servings in.
Fantastic Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
Out of season, they can be crazy expensive, so frozen berries are great to have on hand year round — just make sure they don’t have any added sugars. Throw them in a shake, a batch of blender muffins, or a yogurt parfait.
In addition to being delicious, this tropical fruit has a ton of vitamins C, A, K, E, and folate, Lakatos says. But getting the most out of a fresh mango isn’t easy, and many people lose a lot of the fruit trying to cut it. Plus, mangoes are expensive, they’re often sold underripe, and they tend to spoil quickly.
So you can skip the fresh for frozen: In addition to smoothies, mango is a great topping for yogurt or chia pudding, and adds a good dose of vitamins to a quick black bean burrito with avocado and salsa.
Frozen cauliflower is a great staple to have on hand, Delbridge says. Cauliflower is an incredibly versatile veggie, so there’s no end to the dishes you can add it to.
Cauliflower is tasty roasted on its own, or add it to any soup to make it creamier. It’s also a delicious, super-low calorie rice alternative. You can buy cauliflower rice at most grocery stores, or make your own — just cut up a head into small pieces and toss them into a food processor until it resembles rice. Trying to cut down on carbs? Bake up a couple of slices of cauliflower “bread.”
“Frozen kale is genius,” Lakatos Shames says. “People get intimidated by kale because of how carefully you need to clean it and the time it takes to stem and chop, so it’s so much easier to buy it frozen.” Reap the benefits of kale’s vitamins A, C, K, calcium, and potassium by tossing chopped kale into simmering tomato sauce, into smoothies, or just sauté it for a three-minute side dish with some salt, pepper, and a bit of lemon juice.
Broccoli’s impressive nutrient content makes it a no-brainer addition to any freezer, says Lakatos Shames. It’s packed with vitamins A, C, K, and folate, plus potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Another bonus? Its versatility: You can toss it into pasta dishes, stir-fries, casseroles, turn it into healthy broccoli tots, or simply roast it with garlic.
Whole butternut squash can be a pain in the butt to cut and peel, so frozen and cubed, it’s a godsend. It’s also a great source of fiber, vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene, an antioxidant that the body converts to vitamin A, Lakatos says. You can roast them for an easy side dish or cook up a big batch of spicy squash soup.
Another stellar source of beta-carotene, frozen sweet bell peppers give a super easy vitamin A jolt when you sauté them and add them to quesadillas, stir-fries, and swap them in for chips for a unique spin on nachos. Buy them in different colors to reap all of their phytonutrient glory.
“The first time we tried frozen chopped onions, we were like, ‘Oh my God, why didn’t we try these sooner?'” Lakatos Shames says. Skip the most common and tedious step (and the crying) of cooking by tossing frozen onions into your dishes. “Stir-fries are an easy and great way for people to get an array of nutrients into their meals,” she says.
Canned Fruits and Vegetables
They’re big and tough, so most people steer clear of cutting into whole pumpkins unless they’re making jack-o’-lanterns. But as luck would have it, you don’t need to to get pumpkins’ health benefits.
“One half-cup of canned pumpkin (pure pureed pumpkin, not pumpkin pie filling) contains only 40 calories, 4 grams of fiber and has close to 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A,” says Lakatos. “It’s great for boosting nutrients in a ton of dishes.” Canned pumpkin added to pancake batter makes them fluffier and it’s also delicious stirred into oatmeal, she says. Try this pumpkin pie with a whole-wheat crust or gluten-free pumpkin donuts.
Because they’re preserved with heat, canned tomatoes contain four times the lycopene — a major antioxidant — that fresh tomatoes do, Lakatos says. In addition, easy-to-use canned tomatoes contain lutein, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and potassium. Look for tomatoes (and other canned goods) in bisphenol A (BPA)-free cans if you’re concerned about exposure to this chemical.
“Canned beans are one of the most under-rated foods of all time,” Delbridge says. ‘They’re really almost a superfood: They’re great in savory and sweet dishes, help you feel full, and help balance out insulin levels.” Canned beans — such as navy, kidney, black, white, and pinto — are also convenient, versatile, and a low-calorie source of protein, fiber, and phytonutrients, he adds.
“Look for beans that are low-sodium or have no salt added,” Lakatos says. “You can get around 30 percent of the sodium off by rinsing them before you use them,” she adds.
Tips to Make the Most of Frozen Fruits and Veggies
Frozen fruits and veggies can vary in terms of taste depending on the brand, so experiment with different kinds before deciding you hate a particular frozen vegetable or fruit, say Lakatos and Lakatos-Shames.
– Make sure your freezer isn’t too cold, which can make frozen veggies taste terrible.
– If you don’t plan to use an entire package, store the rest in an airtight container to prevent freezer burn. Mark the date on it and toss it after nine months to a year.
– Defrosting then throwing foods back into the freezer can affect their taste and texture, so use them or lose them!