For healthful meals, hold the salt, avoid most fat and mix up your menu. (iStockphoto/iStockphoto)

To eat healthfully, the way you prepare food can be just as important as what you buy, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, a nutrition expert and the author of “Read It Before You Eat It.” For example, cooking some foods makes their nutrients more available, such as lycopene in tomatoes and carotene in carrots.

But some common cooking habits can be unhealthful, according to Taub-Dix and other experts. Salting water to make it boil faster when preparing pasta not only doesn’t work, it also adds unnecessary sodium. And rinsing chicken before roasting it can spread pathogenic bacteria in your kitchen sink. Following are 10 cooking mistakes to avoid, and some smart steps to take instead.

Mistreating your vegetables. Boiling and overcooking certain vegetables robs them of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Instead, try steaming them. Studies show that this preserves more nutrients in vegetables than boiling, stir-frying or even blanching them.

Salting food before tasting. Just one teaspoon of table salt has about 2,300 milligrams of sodium, the generally recommended daily limit. For people who are 51 or older, for African Americans and for those who have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease, the recommended maximum is 1,500 milligrams a day. To cut down on sodium, remove the salt shaker from your table and try to train yourself to be satisfied with less. Cut back on ready-to-eat processed foods and high-
sodium condiments such as barbecue sauce, ketchup and soy sauce.

Not rinsing canned vegetables. You can cut down on sodium in canned vegetables and legumes such as black beans and chickpeas by rinsing them in water. That helps lower their sodium content by about 10 percent or more, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Failing to remove fat from ground beef. If you pan-fry burgers instead of broiling or grilling them, be sure to pour off the fat. Or try making burger patties in a broiling pan, which has slits or holes to let the excess fat drain away from the meat.

Pan-frying instead of oven-frying. Food soaks up oil as it fries. How much depends on the food, the temperature of the oil and whether the food is coated. Research shows that vegetables such as potatoes suck up more fat during frying than meat does. Try switching to “oven frying,” which uses little oil but still delivers a “fried” crunch. First, coat the food in something crispy that also adds nutrients and contains fewer calories, such as whole-wheat panko crumbs. Then spritz the food with cooking spray or a drizzle of oil, and bake.

Baking with white flour only. The milling process that produces white flour not only removes fiber but also saps the flour of iron and several B vitamins. When baking, try replacing some white flour with fiber-rich whole-grain flour.

Preparing fat-free veggie salads. Using fat-free dressing or a squeeze of lemon on a salad saves some calories but also may prevent your body from absorbing all of the nutrients in the vegetables. That’s because some nutrients are fat-soluble, which means our bodies don’t absorb them as well without a bit of fat in the meal. For example, the carotenoids in carrots, which the body converts to Vitamin A, go mostly unabsorbed and unused without any accompanying fat. Researchers at Purdue University found that adding 11 / 2 tablespoons of canola oil to a salad can boost the body’s absorption of carotenoids.

Mishandling olive oil. Of all the types of olive oil, extra-virgin should contain the most phenols, which are natural, health-promoting plant chemicals with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticlotting properties. Heat, air and light can affect olive oil’s flavor and possibly its nutrients, so be sure to buy extra-virgin olive oil in a small, dark-colored bottle, and keep it tightly capped and stored in a kitchen cabinet away from the stove and sunny countertops.

Overcooking fresh garlic. Garlic has been linked to a reduced risk of certain cancers and heart disease. But if you cook it too long, you might miss out on some of its benefits. So keep cooking times as brief as possible, and crush or chop garlic rather than using whole cloves, which tend to lose their health benefits faster in cooking.

Sticking to the same menu. Preparing the same type of meal over and over, or otherwise limiting the food you eat, restricts your nutrient intake. Research has linked a varied diet to better overall health and a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease. You can find ideas at, a Web site run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Copyright 2013. Consumers Union of United States Inc.