8 food combinations to embrace (and 3 to avoid)

The Weirdest Food Combinations That Are Actually Good
The Weirdest Food Combinations That Are Actually Good

The Perfect Pair

Milk and cookies, wine and cheese, steak and eggs – sometimes, the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. (And, in the case of peanut butter and jelly, two spreads are better than one.) But there's more to food pairings than taste. In some cases, how you match up ingredients affects how their nutrients are absorbed – for better or worse. Here are eight examples of what nutrition pros suggest pairing – and separating – in order to reap the most nutritional bang for your buck:

Do: Tomatoes and Olive Oil

No need to jet to Italy to find an excuse to bite into a crusty slice (or three) of bruschetta, stir a bit of olive oil into tomato sauce or drizzle sliced fresh tomatoes with vinaigrette. The nutritional benefits of pairing tomatoes and olive oil are reason enough, says Joy Dubost, a registered dietitian in the District of Columbia. The fat in the oil promotes the absorption of lycopene, an antioxidant found in tomatoes, she says. Buon appetito!

Don't: Green Tea and Kale

Attention health nuts: Before blending kale into your green tea-based smoothie (go green or go home, right?), consider this: Findings from a recent study suggest sipping green tea with or after an iron-rich food (think dark leafy greens, red meat or even an iron supplement) can inhibit some of the antioxidant properties of green tea – particularly among people drinking the soothing stuff to ease irritable bowel syndrome flare-ups. In that case, it seems best to let green tea take center stage – and save that kale for dinner.

Do: Salmon and Spinach

About that kale you've set aside for dinner, how about pairing it (or some other leafy green like spinach) with salmon? Your body – not to mention your palate – will appreciate the combination of calcium and vitamin D, which work better in tandem, Dubost says. "Salmon is actually an excellent source of both calcium and vitamin D, and so pairing that with leafy greens ... will help with absorption of both nutrients," she says.

Don't: Latte and Almonds

Order a latte, consider your daily calcium intake complete, right? Not so fast. If you drink it while snacking on almonds – or really any plant seed, nut, legume or grain – the phytic acid in those plant foods can diminish the absorption of some nutrients, including calcium. However, unless you're seriously deficient in calcium, zinc or iron, it's probably not worth your worry, Dubost says. "We're not concerned about this because ... you'll be getting your calcium, iron and zinc from other sources," she says.

Do: (Iron-fortified) Cereal and Orange Juice

Rise and shine: A traditional breakfast of (iron-fortified) cereal washed down with orange juice will help start your day on the right nutritional foot, since the vitamin C in the OJ enhances your body's ability to absorb the iron in the cereal, says Sonya Angelone, a registered dietitian in San Francisco and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Getting sufficient iron is especially important for teens, she adds, since iron is key for growth and development, and for premenopausal women, who are often deficient in the mineral, since they lose it during their periods.

Do: Milk and Bananas

Speaking of breakfast, why not throw a sliced banana on that bowl of cereal? The fruit is high in inulin, a type of prebiotic that supports gut health and enhances the body's ability to absorb the milk's calcium, Dubost says. Invite inulin to dinner, too, in the form of onion or garlic, if you're aiming to absorb the calcium in, say, salmon. "Spice it up," she says.

Do: Omelet and Red Peppers

Craving something more savory? Throw some tomatoes or roasted red or yellow peppers in your omelet, Dubost suggests, since a recent study found that whole eggs help the body absorb the nutrients in those brightly-colored vegetables (carrots count, too). In this case, an egg white omelet won't cut it, she says. "[Eggs] have been demonized, but we can now have eggs on a daily basis," she says, noting changes in the latest iteration of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. "They are so nutrient-rich for 70 calories."

Do: Fruit and Nuts

Call vitamin C a polygamous nutrient – it doesn't only pair well with iron, but it's also a match with vitamin E. "They work to regenerate each other," Dubost says, noting that both vitamins C and D are antioxidants. Encourage them to work their magic by tossing nuts or seeds – good sources of vitamin E – on top of your vitamin C-rich fruit salad, she suggests.

Do: Salsa and Guacamole

Here's a type of double-dipping dietitians support: When you mix avocado-based guacamole with tomato salsa – or use a carrot stick as your dipper – you help the body take in a form of vitamin A found in tomatoes and carrots and convert it to its active form, one 2014 study suggests. Vitamin A is important for vision, the immune system and reproduction, as well as multiple body organs, according to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Fiesta-worthy? You bet. Ole!

Don't: Rhubarb Pie and Milk

A slice of pie and a glass of milk is an American classic, but if you're counting on the milk to supply your day's calcium intake, consider choosing a slice with a different filling. Rhubarb – as well as parsley, spinach and watercress – are relatively high in oxalic acid, a compound that can interfere with mineral absorption, Angelone says. "It can also lead to kidney stones if you get a lot of it," she adds.

Do: Ice Cream and Sunshine

Hear the ice cream truck? Dubost gives you permission to chase it down – provided you enjoy your cone in the sunshine. (Bonus points if you fill it with low-fat frozen yogurt.) The sun's vitamin D and the ice cream's calcium are better absorbed together, she says. So long as you take care to protect your skin most of the time, she says, "going outside and having that treat – you actually are doing your body good." Now that's a match made in heaven.