With the rise of “gluten free” foods and popular diets that exclude grains completely, it’s causing us to wonder – will avoiding grains lead to good health?
Silicon Valley, CA
With the rise of “gluten free” foods and popular diets that exclude grains completely, it’s causing us to wonder – will avoiding grains lead to good health?
I get questions all the time about which convenient, snack-type foods I recommend. While I’m always happy to share my favorites, it’s obviously not possible for me to review every product or know what you have access to in your local stores. So…I’m sharing with you the six things I look at on nutrition labels to determine whether or not a food provides good nutritional value.
Now, most of my recommendations for a nutritious diet include foods that don’t have nutrition labels at all – things like vegetables, fruit, meat, eggs, whole grains, and so forth. But we all have at least an occasional need for convenient, packaged items and need to know how to decipher the information on the back of the box. Here’s what to pay attention to next time you’re at the grocery store.
This is the first place I look when I’m analyzing a food label. Really, the ingredients should tell us almost everything we need to know when deciding whether or not to buy a product. Unfortunately, many of the ingredient names are unfamiliar to us and we need to rely on some of the other facts to make a decision. Ideally, the ingredient list won’t be very long (5-10 items or less) and you can recognize everything on the list. Imagine that you were going to make this item at home – is this how you would make it? Any packaged foods are going to have added preservatives and stabilizers to make them shelf-stable, so there will likely be at least one or two things you’re not sure about. The most important things to avoid are: high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, MSG, aspartame, added sugars, and artificial sweeteners.
If you recognized added sweeteners on the ingredient list, it’s probably best to avoid the product. If you’re not sure if a product contains added sugars, look at the sugar value. Sugars are part of the overall carbohydrate count of a food. Grams of sugar can come from added sweeteners, fruit, fruit juice, dairy, and carbohydrate foods like beans and grains. It’s best to choose items with very low sugar values (ideally under 5 grams of sugar per serving), but the value on the nutrition label sometimes doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, a fruit-heavy product will likely have a higher sugar value even if there is no added sweetener. Some companies are tricky in that they reduce the serving size of an item so that it appears to contain zero grams of sugar. If a food contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving, it can be listed as containing 0 grams of sugar. Pay attention to the serving size to see if it’s realistic for you to follow. For example, if there are 4 servings per container, but you plan to eat the whole bag, it’s possible you’re eating up to 2 grams of sugar. The best way to understand sugars is to know how to recognize them in the ingredients. There are TONS of names for sugar, and other than looking for anything ending in -ose, here are some names of added sweeteners:
agave nectar – barbados sugar – barley malt – beet sugar – blackstrap molasses – brown rice syrup – brown sugar – buttered syrup – cane juice crystals – cane sugar – caramel – carob syrup – castor sugar – confectioner’s sugar – corn syrup – corn syrup solids – crystalline fructose
date sugar – demerara sugar – dextran – dextrose – diastatic malt – diatase – ethyl maltol – evaporated cane juice – florida crystals – fructose – fruit juice – fruit juice concentrate – galactose – glucose – glucose solids – golden sugar – golden syrup – grape sugar
high fructose corn syrup – honey – icing sugar – invert sugar – lactose – malt syrup – maltose – maple syrup – molasses – muscovado sugar – organic raw sugar – panocha – raw sugar – refiner’s syrup – rice syrup – sorghum syrup – sucrose – sugar – treacle – turbinado sugar – yellow sugar
I’m actually a fan of salt, but too much sodium can certainly be a problem because it can impair kidney function, lead to high blood pressure, and increase risk of osteoporosis and stomach cancer. The majority of our sodium intake comes from packaged foods, rather than from food we make ourselves at home because salt acts as a preservative, making packaged foods more shelf-stable. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that individuals consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, and that certain groups limit their intake to 1,500 mg per day. At these values, it’s wise to aim for less than 500 mg of sodium at each meal. When you analyze the sodium content of your food item, be sure to consider the sodium content of your entire meal or snack – it may need to contain less than 500 mg in order to keep you under the recommended limit.
Fats are an important part of a balanced diet, so it’s not necessarily beneficial to look for foods with low fat content. The trick here is to pay attention to the types of fats the food contains. Aim to avoid trans fats completely. You’ll see these listed in the ingredients as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. The nutrition facts section calls out trans fats as well – how helpful! But again, food companies can be sneaky. The FDA allows companies to list 0 grams on the label even if it contains up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Like in the sugar example, if you plan to eat 4 servings of an item, you could be consuming up to 2 grams of trans fat, which has been found harmful even at low levels. The FDA is working to remove trans fats from the food supply completely, but until that happens, be aware that cookies and crackers are the most likely to still contain oils with trans fats. Fat is important for satiety, brain health, nutrient absorption, and so many other things! If your food contains less than 3 grams of fat, it’s considered a low-fat food and it would be wise to add some nourishing fats to your meal or snack like avocado, nuts, seeds, coconut, oils, or whole dairy.
A balanced diet contains some protein, which can help curb sugar cravings and fuel your brain on a busy workday. If you’re looking to balance each meal and snack, aim for about 7-14 grams of protein per snack and 21-28 grams of protein per meal. If your food item doesn’t contain enough protein, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should skip it – it just means that you might want to add something to it to make a complete meal or snack.
As I mentioned in some of the points above, it’s important to note the recommended serving size as you’re analyzing each part of the nutrition label. Compare the serving size to your intended portion size to calculate the actual amount of nutrients you will consume. It’s not necessary to limit yourself to the serving size listed unless the multiplied nutrient amounts will put you over your desired intake.
As I’m sure you noticed, there’s a lot I left out of my analysis, i.e. calories, cholesterol, vitamins, etc. These facts can provide good information, but they’re not the first things I look at when analyzing a product. Ultimately, my goal is to help you discern a nutritious food on your own – so let me know in the comments what additional questions you have about nutrition labels and ingredients for me to address in another post!
I’ve had some great conversations with my clients since my last post on How to Enjoy Cooking. They’ve brought up some barriers to cooking that weren’t addressed in Part 1 and I’m excited to share them here with you. Overall, it seems that many people don’t feel capable in the kitchen and either question their cooking skills or their ability to put together a balanced and nutritious meal. These feelings keep us from enjoying ourselves and from being proud of what we create. The truth is, it doesn’t take an extensive education in order to whip up an Instagrammable meal. You’d be surprised by how far you can get with a sharp knife, an organized process, and a colorful garnish.
Make it a social activity
Identifying more strongly with introversion, I’ve never considered cooking to be a lonely experience. However, many of my more extraverted clients associate the kitchen with boredom or isolation. If this is you, consider making cooking a social activity: schedule a weekly “cooking date” with a friend where you batch cook together for the week ahead, have a family member pull up a stool at the counter while you cook, or Skype a friend that loves to chat. If there’s no one around to keep you company, listen to an audiobook, podcast, or even watch a TV show (one that won’t distract you too much from the task at hand) to keep your mind stimulated.
Own a sharp knife and know how to use it
You don’t need a lot of fancy tools to be a good cook, but a sharp knife is essential. Trying to chop with a dull knife can slow the process and make you feel inept. A sharp knife does wonders for your confidence in the kitchen and makes the chopping process go much faster. The right knife will be unique to you, so if you’re in the market for a new tool, visit a cooking store that demos knives to find one with just the right grip and weight for your hand. Bonus points if you take a knife skills class at your local cooking school to learn to chop like a pro.
Try new recipes, or don’t
This one’s up to you. Some people thrive on change and would love to be able to cook a new dish every night of the week. If this is you, follow cooking blogs, pin recipes on Pinterest, and subscribe to cooking magazines in order to maintain a steady stream of inspiration. Instead of relying on leftovers, cook an extra serving of protein or grain one day so you can repurpose it in a new recipe the next and cut down on your cooking time.
On the other end of the spectrum, some people feel overwhelmed by so many new ideas and need permission to stick with some old standbys. Neither tendency is right or wrong, but it’s important to know if this issue is stressing you out and keeping you from cooking at all.
Practice mise en place
I’ve written more extensively on this here, and I think it’s important enough to repeat again. The practice of preparing all your ingredients before beginning to cook anything is the key to a smooth, stress-free process and will teach you how to become a better cook over time. If you’re a visual learner, the habit of laying out all your ingredients and tools will help you recognize patterns and techniques that you’ll be able to replicate in the future without having to refer to a recipe.
Pay attention to presentation
We eat first with our eyes, so how the food appears on the plate can be just as important as getting the spices right. A study done by Charles Spence at Oxford University found that thoughtful presentation meant diners found the food more flavorful. But you don’t need a closet full of food styling props in order to create an appealing dish. Here are some simple techniques to pretty your plate:
Have you found any creative ways to overcome your barriers to cooking? I’d love for you to share below or tag your social media post with #parisinutrition!
It’s an age-old cooking technique, but lately bone broth has received renewed interest among the health-conscious.
Broths and stocks are commonly used in cooking as a base for soups, reductions, sauces, for braising vegetables and meats, or simply enjoyed as a restorative drink. Traditional cultures have always placed special emphasis on the utilization of the whole animal, and the use of bones to make stock still influence today’s food culture. In eighteenth century France, travelers staying at inns would be treated to bowls of warm broth called restoratifs. This tradition has become what we now know as a restaurant – a place to restore one’s health and wellness.
What is Bone Broth?
Bone broth is made by boiling poultry, beef, or fish bones; often with some aromatics like onion, celery, and carrots for anywhere from 24-48 hours until the bones break down. As the bones become soft, they begin to release nutrients like collagen and calcium phosphate into the liquid.
Many people use the terms broth, stock, and bone broth interchangeably, and in cooking they can often be substituted for one another. However, broth, stock, and bone broth are all prepared differently and have different nutritional profiles.
The broths you’ll find at the grocery store are made from meat rather than bone and are often enhanced with chicken or meat flavoring. They contain little to no collagen, and thus, zero protein content. If you read the ingredients, you’ll find that they often contain sugar, artificial flavoring, coloring, and copious amounts of salt to preserve freshness.
Depending on the type of bones used and cooking length, bone broth typically contains six or more grams of protein per cup. This is mainly from the collagen released from the bones. This type of gelatin protein contains high levels of the amino acids glycine and proline, which are not very commonly found in other proteins, and they are especially lacking in plant proteins.
Due to its high water content, bone broth is very hydrating and is also a source of minerals like calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
How to Use Bone Broth
Broth isn’t just for soups – in fact, a good quality bone broth is so satisfying that many people are enjoying it plain, as evidenced by Brodo’s take-out window in the East Village, where New Yorkers can pick up a cup of steaming broth for their daily commute. Here are a few other ways to include nourishing bone broth in your diet:
Bone broth will stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to one week, or in the freezer for up to six months. Consider freezing bone broth in ice cube trays or one-cup containers to quickly add to your dishes without having to defrost a large portion.
If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me “I wish I loved to cook like you,” I would be able to afford a personal chef.
The truth is, I don’t love to cook. I do, however, love to eat good food so I’ve had to develop an appreciation for the art, if only for my own sanity. I believe cooking at home to be more sustainable for my own health, the welfare of our environment, and my budget. Not only that, but the process of preparing a meal allows me to connect with my food both mentally and physically and has become a very calming and valuable mental exercise.
It’s taken me a while to get to this point and I still have a long way to go. There are plenty of days when I don’t feel up to making dinner for one reason or another and I allow myself plenty of grace to go out to dinner or rely on someone else for the meal prep. Instead of feeling guilty when I end up skipping a home-cooked meal in favor of an easy restaurant meal, I simply unwind my feelings about cooking that day and try to discover what was blocking me from stepping into the kitchen. Once I’ve identified the problem, I’ll try to make a plan to avoid that situation in the future.
Through this process, I’ve found that I do kind of enjoy cooking. It’s the planning, shopping, and cleaning that I don’t like. Once I’m in the kitchen with a knife in my hand, I can relax, appreciate the smells, and meditate on the process of transforming ingredients into a nourishing meal. In order to get here, I’ve put a few protocols in place that have helped remove some of my barriers to cooking.
Keep your kitchen and counters clean
I’ll admit; this is my biggest barrier to enjoying the cooking process. If I have to wash out a pan before I can use it, or if the dirty dishes have piled up on my limited counter space, I will avoid entering my kitchen at all costs.
The good news about this obstacle is that it doesn’t actually have to do with cooking – it has to do with cleaning. Maybe I don’t hate cooking after all! The obvious solution to this problem is to discipline yourself to wash the dishes after every meal so you’ll always be starting with a clean workspace. Easier said than done.
Here are some practices I (try to) employ to keep my kitchen clean:
Wash and chop produce ahead of time
This oft-recommended practice sounds so boring, but it’s so worth it! I’ve never felt more proficient in the kitchen than when I’m cooking something and I say: “a little _________ would be really good in this dish…I have some of that in my fridge! It’s already washed and chopped!” and then I throw it in with the other ingredients and smugly celebrate my creativity and competence.
It’s great if you can wash and chop your produce as soon as you arrive home from the market, before putting it away, but it’s not always possible. A good strategy is to at least try to immediately prep any produce that doesn’t have a specific role in your meal plan for the week, i.e. carrots or celery that you plan to snack on or that bell pepper that looked pretty, but you don’t know how you’ll use it. This way these foods will be available when you’re hankering for a snack or you discover a need for that random ingredient in the middle of cooking.
Any produce that you purchased for a specific recipe can be washed and chopped as you prepare for that meal. The trick here is to prep the entire amount that you purchased instead of just the amount required for the recipe. This way the remaining produce is easily available as a quick addition to future meals. Nothing will go to waste.
Keep your fridge clean
In the same vein as keeping your counters clean, a clean fridge filled with only fresh foods will keep your stress levels down. Having to search through an over-crowded fridge only to find that the lettuce you were planning to use has gone bad will add to your cooking frustration and reduce the likelihood of you wanting to cook again in the future.
I’ve found that cleaning out my fridge once per week keeps everything in check and makes cooking a breeze. The best time to clean the fridge is right before grocery shopping. Simply take a few minutes to sort through each shelf and drawer to get rid of any expired items and add items to your grocery list that you need to purchase.
Make a meal plan
As a nutritionist you may think I have no problem coming up with wonderfully nourishing meals to make for myself every night. In reality, after talking about food all day, the last thing I want to do is spend time trying to figure out what to eat. When I already have a plan in place, I actually look forward to going home and stepping into my kitchen.
A meal plan can be as detailed or as simple as you’d like, but I’d encourage you to keep it simple if you want to begin to feel more confident and less stressed in the kitchen. Here are the basic steps I follow when making a plan:
Create a grocery shopping routine
There’s little I hate more than finishing a long day of work and realizing I have to stop at the grocery store on my way home in order to make dinner. On the flip side, knowing that my fridge at home is already full of everything I need for dinner (and it’s washed and chopped!) makes me so happy I almost don’t mind the rush hour traffic.
The trick to keeping your fridge stocked is to make grocery shopping a routine. Choose a day and time of the week that you will use for grocery shopping. Depending on your circumstances, you may need to shop more or less often, but I try to make a big shop once per week with on other quick run to the market. I typically do my big shop on Sundays. I’ll hit up the farmers market to find the best deals on seasonal produce and pastured eggs, and then I’ll head to the grocery store to round out my purchases with everything else I’ll need for the week. My goal is to live off these items for the entire week, but I’ll inevitably need to run to the store one more time to pick up a couple of items that I’ve run out of or additional ingredients for a recipe I’m craving. This can easily be done during a lunch break or at a more convenient store on my way home.
This week, I encourage you to assess your feelings around cooking. If, at the end of the day, you don’t feel like cooking dinner, stop to think and pinpoint exactly what part of the process is stopping you. Is it that you don’t have any food at home and having to stop at the grocery store is too much effort? Is it that you have a pile of dirty dishes in the sink that need to be washed before you can start on dinner? Or maybe the meal that you were planning to prepare no longer sounds appetizing to you or would take too long to prepare. Whatever the case, use that information to brainstorm ways to prevent this from stopping you again.
I would love it if you would share your sticking points in the comments below so I can address them in part 2!
Free range, cage-free, vegetarian-fed… egg cartons are plastered with a limitless supply of equally-positive sounding labels. They all sound good, and eggs are just eggs, right? So you grab the cheapest carton and head to the checkout.
As of January 1st, California has rolled out a new law requiring eggs to come from chickens that have enough room to fully extend their limbs and turn around freely. Eggs that meet this requirement will be stamped CA SEFS Compliant, which stands for California Shell Egg Food Safety Compliant.
The purpose of this law is to allow chickens to be raised in as close to their natural environment as possible, both for the welfare of the animals as well as the nutritional value of the eggs produced.
The uproar by egg producers and decrease in egg production due to this new law has caused many people to ask the question: how are eggs currently being produced and what exactly is a chicken’s natural environment?
Here’s a simple guide to egg carton terminology:
Color: The color of an egg shell is simply a factor of the hen’s breed. White, brown, or rainbow shells have no correlation with the nutritional value of the egg or quality of the hen’s living conditions. Choose your favorite color and enjoy!
All Natural/Farm Fresh/Hormone Free/No Antibiotics: None of these terms give us any meaningful information about the quality of egg production. All eggs are “natural”, come from a “farm”, and egg-laying hens are never given hormones and rarely given antibiotics. This would be akin to labeling broccoli “dairy free”. Of course broccoli is dairy free, and calling it so does not make it any better than another farmer’s broccoli. Calling out the universal qualities of supermarket eggs does not make one more worthy of purchase over another.
Vegetarian-Fed: This means that the birds’ feed does not include any animal byproducts and is probably a mixture of corn, soybeans, and amino acids. “No animal byproducts” sounds positive, but chickens are naturally omnivores, foraging for insects outdoors which provide them with protein. Vegetarian-fed eggs likely come from chickens with little or no access to the outdoors.
Cage-Free: Chickens raised in cage-free environments stay indoors, but they are not kept in cages and have unlimited access to food and water. Because the density of these spaces is not regulated, it’s possible that these chickens are packed very tightly but many industry groups voluntarily guarantee at least one square foot of space per bird.
Many animal welfare experts believe cage-free birds are better off than their caged counterparts as they are allowed to exhibit more natural behaviors like walking around and spreading their wings. Cage-free birds tend to be healthier (more feathers, stronger bones), but actually have a higher mortality rate due to pecking by other birds.
Free Range: Free range is similar to cage-free, but hens have access to the outdoors. There are no regulations on how much time the birds spend outside and, in reality, many birds may not go outside at all. Eggs that are “Certified Humane”, however, come from hens that have spent up to 6 hours per day outdoors in at least 2 square feet of space. Free range eggs have been found to have slightly higher Omega-3 fatty acids due to the hens’ ability to forage for insects outdoors.
Organic: Organic eggs come from chickens that are uncaged, have access to the outdoors, and are not fed anything grown with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Organic birds can be raised in a variety of living conditions, from very crowded to very spacious. To help determine an egg producer’s sustainability, The Cornucopia Institute has created an organic egg scorecard ranking eggs sold in the United States.
Omega-3: When eggs are produced in a natural environment, they have higher levels of Omega-3s than their conventionally raised counterparts. To mimic this, egg producers supplement the hens’ feed with flaxseed, algae, or fish oil.
Pastured: Pastured eggs come the closest to replicating a hen’s natural lifestyle. Birds spend most of their time outdoors, with plenty of space, and access to a barn. They are able to eat a diet of insects, worms, and grass which is often supplemented with vegetarian feed. Hens raised on pasture will have varying amounts of space and many egg cartons will list the amount of space available to each bird. These eggs may or may not be organic.
Studies have found pasture raised eggs to contain lower levels of cholesterol and saturated fat than their conventionally raised counterparts as well as higher levels of vitamins A, E, and Omega-3 (1, 2).
Carton labels aside, you can tell a good, fresh egg by cracking it open and taking a look. Hens with a diverse, rich diet and active lifestyle will produce eggs with bright orange yolks. These yolks will be well-rounded and clearly raised above the white. In addition, take a look at the middle albumen, which is the thick part of the egg white surrounding the yolk. The outer albumen is thin, watery, and will spread out while the middle albumen should be raised and stay fairly tight around the yolk in high quality eggs.
HEALTHY HOLIDAY STRATEGIES SURVIVAL GUIDE
I’m usually the first to support indulging in a celebratory meal when the occasion is appropriate, but the back-to-back events and sugary gifts during the Holiday season make it difficult for even the most well intentioned eaters to stick to a balanced and healthy lifestyle.
To help you stay on track, I’ve compiled a guide full of my most valuable tips for maneuvering holiday parties and maintaining balance all season long so you can ring in the New Year feeling light, energized, and guilt free.
This 8-page guide outlines everything you’ll need to know to get through the Holiday season including:
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “you are what you eat,” but I’d like to take the sentiment one step further to claim you are what you absorb.
Digestion is the complex process by which your body reduces the food you eat into individual nutrients in order to build tissue, supply energy, and destroy pathogens (among other things). Your ability to process food and eliminate wastes is the single most important determinant of good health.
Luckily, our bodies provide us with physical cues when systems are out of balance. Obvious signs of digestive distress include gas, bloating, cramping, constipation, and diarrhea. However, freedom from these symptoms doesn’t necessarily signify good digestion. It’s quite possible that while you don’t suffer from acute digestive distress, you still may not be absorbing available nutrition from the food you eat.
The checklist below outlines what you experience when your digestive system is working smoothly.
Even with good digestion you will most likely experience some of these things occasionally, but it’s the regular or chronic occurrence of these symptoms that may indicate an imbalance. One of the most important things we can do for our health is to learn to listen to these sometimes subtle cues and use them to determine which foods make us feel nourished and which foods make us feel drained. A particular diet may not be suitable for all people, and it may not even be suitable for an individual for his or her entire life.
When you learn to listen to your body, it will tell you what to eat.
Want to look deeper into your own digestive fire? Check out Restore, A Summer Digestive Wellness Tune-Up!
I remember pulling out the drawers in the kitchen as a child in order to use them to climb up onto the counter so I could access the pantry cupboard. There I would sit, pondering the satiating value of crackers vs. pretzels, probably settling on whichever package appealed to me more visually because that how I (still) make most decisions.
I realize my pantry today looks very different from the pantry I remember as a child and may look very different than (or perhaps very similar to) yours. Unfortunately for my 6-year-old self, my pantry is no longer filled with quick fixes for my hunger pangs. For that, I would have more luck searching in the fridge. Rather, it is more of a treasure trove, filled with raw ingredients collected from both near and far, allowing me to both elevate the flavor of and add density to my meals.
Because the pantry is full of kitchen staples that last a long time, it can be quite valuable on those days when you don’t have time to get to the store. Between a well-stocked pantry and freezer, you should be able to survive a few days with an empty refrigerator.
Spices and Dried Herbs: I’m a fan of using spices and herbs liberally. They add so much flavor to foods without having to overdo it with cheese, butter, or salt (not that those foods are necessarily bad). Many spices and herbs contain high amounts of powerful antioxidants and phytonutrients that have been shown to support a healthy body. While fresh herbs add more flavor, dried herbs are nice to have on hand when fresh isn’t available. Just like fruits and vegetables, choose organic spices and herbs that have not been irradiated (choose organic). Spices and herbs do go bad, so write the date of purchase on the bottle and replenish as needed. Two of my favorite spices are cayenne pepper and turmeric.
Honey: Local, raw, organic honey is a wonderful, nutrient-dense way to add sweetness to dishes. Though it contains large amounts of sugar, honey also contains valuable vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that provide benefit to the body. Many people find that consuming local honey helps alleviate seasonal allergy symptoms. Look for raw, or unpasteurized honey as the pasteurization process destroys beneficial enzymes.
Vinegars and Oils: Having a variety of oils and vinegars in your pantry will take your cooking to the next level. Oils like olive, sesame, and macadamia are great for cold salads while grapeseed, peanut, and coconut oil are ideal for high heat cooking and baking. Don’t be afraid to experiment with vinegars. Rotating balsamic, sherry, champagne, apple cider, and rice vinegar in your salad dressing is an easy way to keep meals from getting boring. Oils and vinegars last a long time (especially when kept in a dark place) so don’t be afraid to stock up.
Whole, Intact Grains: Grains like quinoa, rice, and oats are useful to have on hand as they store well and provide bulk to your meals. Quinoa and oats are best soaked overnight before they are used, so they still require a little planning in advance before including them in your meal. Intact grains are far better at supporting stable blood sugar levels than processed grains, like those found in crackers, breads, and pastas. When you take the time to make a grain, make extra and store leftovers in your fridge to add to meals during the week.
Fresh Fruits and Vegetables: Alliums like onions, garlic, and shallots are must-haves for any cook’s kitchen. These vegetables have a long shelf life and can add a lot of flavor to meals even when you haven’t been to the grocery store. Many other fruits and vegetables should be kept unrefrigerated, either in the pantry or on the counter in order to ripen properly and maintain their full flavor. You can find produce storage recommendations in each month’s seasonal food guides.
Dried Beans: Beans and lentils are a wonderful way to add bulk and fiber to your meals. While canned beans are easy, many cans contain a chemical called BPA which has been shown to disrupt the endocrine system and may lead to certain cancers. Dried beans are quite easy to work with, simply soak in water overnight to soften, then heat as desired. Add a piece of kombu seaweed to the cooking liquid to neutralize the gas-causing compounds in beans and impart nourishing minerals into your dish. To make your efforts worth it, prepare a large batch of beans and freeze the extra for a quick meal another day.
Coconut Milk: A wonderful addition to smoothies, desserts, soups, cereals, and lattes, coconut milk is a useful product to have on hand. Look for traditional, full-fat coconut milk, which is often found in the ethnic foods section of the grocery store. Avoid the brands that come in cartons, often found in the milk alternatives section, as these are homogenized and contain unwanted ingredients and preservatives. Look for brands with BPA-free cans like Native Forest. (You can learn more about the benefits of coconut here.)
Tomato Sauce and Canned Tomatoes: Living with an Italian, we do a lot of tomato sauce. Tomatoes add heartiness to dishes that broth can’t. While I commend those who can their own tomatoes, store-bought brands are more realistic for those of us without gardens bursting with tomatoes. Many brands are now supplying tomato sauce in glass jars or cardboard cartons instead of BPA-lined cans. Find an organic, BPA-free brand and stock up.
Ghee: Common in Indian cuisine, ghee is clarified butter. In the clarification process, the milk proteins and sugars are removed, making it suitable for even those sensitive to casein and lactose. While ghee is often stored in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, I like to keep mine in the pantry so it remains soft and spreadable. Ghee is delicious when spread on bread and pancakes and is a perfect choice for high-heat cooking.
Coconut Oil: Another highly stable cooking fat, coconut oil is solid at room temperature and liquid when heated. It is ideal for sautéing, frying, and baking. It can also be used as a spread for toast, or delicious as a simple spoonful added to a cup of tea. (You can learn more about the benefits of coconut here.)
Salt and Pepper: I’m sure most of you already have these two in your kitchen as they are called for in pretty much every recipe. In the case of taste, quality matters. You don’t need to be afraid of adding salt to your dishes is you’re using the right kind and freshly ground black pepper elevates your meal to the next level. When you buy a pepper grinder, look for one that allows you to adjust the size of the cracked pepper flakes – don’t be afraid to get advanced like this and find your preferred pepper-flake-size. Attending to the smallest details during cooking connects us more intimately with our food and heightens our senses. (You can learn more about my favorite brands of salt here.)
Maple Syrup: Another whole-food sweetener, maple syrup is a great substitution for sugar in baking recipes or to sweeten a dressing or sauce. If you ever have the opportunity to travel to a syrup-producing area, pick up a few bottles of local, raw maple syrup. While “Light” or “Grade A” syrup is most popular, choose “Grade B” or “Very Dark” syrup as it has a higher concentration of nutrients and a more intense flavor.
Extra Provisions: If you have enough room in your pantry, stock up on all those flavor-rich goodies that don’t need to be refrigerated until they’re opened. I love keeping extra jars of capers, sun dried tomatoes, anchovies, Dijon mustard, roasted peppers, and olives in my cupboard so I can easily dress up a rather sparse meal. A simple chicken breast can turn into a gourmet meal with the addition of lemon, parsley (from your freezer!), and capers.
Protein Powder: While I fully support a whole-foods based diet, sometimes protein powder saves the day. A high-quality protein powder combined with frozen fruits or vegetables from the freezer can provide a quick meal when there’s nothing else available. You can also add protein powder to yogurt or oatmeal to provide a little protein boost. Not all protein powders are created equal, so look for one made from non-denatured whey or pea protein and is free of sugar, artificial sweeteners, allergens, or other additives. (You can find my favorite brand here.)
What else is in your pantry?
Want more kitchen essentials? Read about my freezer tips here.
I’ve come to realize that, for a busy woman like myself, the heart of the Well-Nourished Kitchen is really in the freezer. While it does take time and planning to regularly produce nutrient-dense meals, you can make up for lost time by taking full advantage of your freezer.
When you’ve gone through all the trouble of simmering stock on your stove for the past 12 hours (or 2, if you’re impatient), you gain that time back by storing 1-cup servings in your freezer for quick use in the future. Your enjoyment of certain types of produce isn’t relegated to its growing season anymore. You can freeze berries, chopped fruits, and vegetables and enjoy them all year long. You want a peach smoothie in January? Why not? When you’ve had a busy week and don’t have time to get to the market, you can still enjoy the home-cooked meal that you, in a moment of sheer brilliance, stashed away in your freezer weeks ago.
Dismiss your notions about pre-packaged, freezer-to-microwave foods and fill your valuable freezer space with nutrient-rich ingredients and home-cooked meals. While frozen TV dinners are easy, they are expensive and full of sodium, sugar, and lacking in life-giving nutrition. When you feel inspired and energized to cook a meal from scratch, simply double the recipe and freeze half for that day in the (near) future that you just don’t have the time or energy to tackle dinner.
Here are my freezer essentials:
Homemade Stocks and Broths: After you’ve allowed your stock to settle and skimmed off the fat, store it immediately in the freezer in 1-cup servings. While I have the best intentions of using my stock right away, I often find myself wasting the portion in the fridge because I let it sit too long. Freeze stock in plastic freezer bags and write the date, type of stock, and amount on the bag with a marker. Lay them flat on a shelf in the freezer so they maintain an easily stackable shape. These defrost in a pinch and are the perfect addition to soups, grains, and braised vegetables and meats. Most broths and stocks will stay fresh in your freezer for up to 1 year.
Bones: Bones are a valuable resource in the well-nourished kitchen, but sometimes you don’t have the quantity (or the time) to make broth right away. Save the bone scraps from the carcass of a chicken or turkey, the leg or shoulder from a lamb, the bones from stack or ribs, and the ham bone. Keep a large freezer bag for each type of meat, and add bones to the appropriate bag whenever you have them. When the bag is full, it’s time to make broth. These will keep in your fridge for up to 1 year so be sure to mark the date of the first bones you add on the outside of the bag.
Meat, Poultry, & Seafood: When you find a good source of sustainably-raised meat, don’t be afraid to stock up! These proteins will stay fresh up to 3 months in your freezer, as long as you store them correctly. The most important thing is to protect them from exposure to the air. Wrap meats very tightly in either plastic wrap or freezer paper, pressing the wrapping right up against the surface of the meat. Wrap with aluminum foil and place in a freezer bag. The vacuum-sealed plastic bags some meats come in are fine too. The best way to defrost meats is to place them in the fridge a day or two before you plan to eat them. This takes a little advanced planning, but it’s easier than going to the grocery store! I recommend always keeping a pound or two of ground beef, bison, turkey, or lam in your freezer for a quick meal.
Frozen Fruits & Vegetables: Frozen fruits and vegetables are the perfect, quick, nutrient-rich addition to smoothies, soups, and stews. When fruits and vegetables are frozen, they retain their nutrients and will keep for about 6 months. It’s fine to buy pre-frozen, organic produce from the store, but it’s cheaper to purchase fresh produce during its season and to wash, chop, and freeze it yourself.
Herbs: If you’re like me, you’re constantly throwing out old herbs you find in the back of your fridge after using 1 tablespoon in a recipe. While fresh herbs add vitality to a dish, frozen herbs reduce waste and allow you to cook up delicious meals without having to go to the grocery store. My favorite method of freezing herbs is to freeze 1 Tbsp. servings (washed and chopped) with water in ice cube trays, then transfer to a plastic bag once frozen. They’ll keep this way for 6 months.
Nuts & Seeds: Though nuts are most commonly stored at room temperature, nuts actually contain very fragile oils and remain fresher if kept cool. Store nuts in the refrigerator for daily use for up to 3 months and keep your stock of extra nuts in the freezer for up to 1 year.
Pre-Made Dishes: This is the real time saver, folks. Any time you make a dish that stores well, double the recipe and freeze it for a later date. Be sure to freeze it in single or family-sized servings so it’s easy to defrost. My favorite freezer items are bolognese and other sauces, soups, and stews. I also store single-serving bags of pesto in the freezer to add quick flavor to eggs, chicken, and spaghetti squash.
Frozen Purees: I learned this trick from the “flavor cubes” in Charlie Ayers’ cookbook, Food 2.0. The idea is that you puree a mixture of bold flavors and freeze them in ice cube trays to add a quick burst of flavor to soups, sauces, casseroles, or meats. My favorite combination is tomato, garlic, basil, and red wine vinegar – add to a pan with a little oil and heat up a piece of chicken or fish for a quick meal!
Am I missing anything?