Be honest with yourself. When is the last time you took stock of your fridge, pantry and freezer? If you answer six months (or longer) then the time is now.
Create a culture of health starting at home. Toss the junk, stock up on clean foods and keep it organized and the healthy choice becomes the easy choice. “A disorganized kitchen increases stress and decreases productivity, which stands in the way of making and sharing healthy meals,” says Lauren Silverman, professional organizer and owner of MOREganized in the Chicago area. Here 12 nutrition experts and professional organizers have weighed in with their best tips to help you clean up your (kitchen) act for better health in 16 easy steps.
Step 1. Out With the Old
Christa O’Leary, author of “Home in Harmony: Designing an Inspired Life,” says, “Focus on what you can get rid of first. This will lighten the load of what needs to be organized, which will lessen the psychological burden of the task.” First, toss anything that’s six or more months past its labeled best-by date. Next, it’s time to review labels and set aside anything with refined grains or that has saturated fat or sodium over 10 percent of the Daily Value. You’ll also want to look at foods with added sugars so review the ingredients list. At this point, take a few minutes to give those cupboards a good cleaning with a vinegar-water mix.
Step 2. Replenish Healthy Essentials
The healthiest pantries have one thing in common: simple staples with simple ingredients. Jill Weisenberger, M.S., RD, gives us her list of pantry must-haves: Canned or prepackaged beans; quick-cooking whole grains like farro, wheat berries and quinoa; canned or boxed tomatoes for their versatility; pouched tuna and salmon; packaged fruit in natural juices; and vegetable juice. It’s also a good idea to have low-sodium canned vegetables and soup stock on hand for quick and easy meals. If you need to replenish herbs, spices, oils and vinegars, choose the smallest size to cut down on waste. Baked items usually equal refined grains, so if you like to bake consider upgrading to almond flour (store it in the fridge or freezer).
Step 3. Get the Junk Out
It’s time to review that separate pile of “other” foods from the pantry cleanout (from Step 1). This group will probably include your sweet and salty snacks, beverages, breakfast cereals and other convenience foods. Take note of which convenience foods you eat the most, then seek out healthier versions when it comes time to restock. In the meantime, get rid of sodas, salty snacks (with more than 10 percent of the Daily Value for sodium or saturated fat), meal helpers with more than 600 milligrams of sodium, sweets in general and cereals with added sugars listed in the first half of the ingredients.
Step 4. Stock Healthy Convenience
Cleaning up your diet doesn’t mean giving up convenience foods. Instead of sugar-laden breakfast cereal, look for a whole-grain cereal that provides at least three grams of fiber and little to no added sugar. Love crunchy, salty snacks? Kate Geagan, M.S., RD, says, “Don’t take up room in your pantry with chips and crackers. Swap them for air-popped popcorn you pop yourself.” Nuts, seeds, seasoned seaweed snacks and dried edamame are also healthier choices. Love sweet snacks? Rene Ficek, RD, lead nutrition expert at Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating, advises people to “keep a bowl of fruit within view at all times.”
Step 5. Organize It“
To best organize the pantry, categorize your foods by how you cook. This might be by cuisine (Italian, Indian, grilling) or by product type (canned fruits, cereal grains, sauces),” says Amy Trager, certified professional organizer in Chicago. For the healthy pantry, you may want to organize by healthy fats (e.g., oils, nuts, seeds), healthy proteins (e.g., seafood, beans) and healthy carbs (e.g., whole grains, dried/canned fruit) to guarantee you have the building blocks for a balanced meal on hand.
Step 6. Contain and Label It
When you’re ready to invest in new food containers, self-proclaimed “clear-container queen” Angelica Holiday, owner of Organize Rescue, says, “I recommend transferring all dried foodstuffs to clear containers with labels facing front with use-by dates showing.” You don’t even need fancy labels or pens -- masking tape and a Sharpie are all you need to be a labeling superstar.
Step 7. Clear the Condiment Clutter
Do you know what to toss? Start with anything that’s long past its best-by date. Once opened, pickles and olives need to go after a couple of weeks; toss mayonnaise and salad dressings after a couple of months; jams, jellies and chili sauces last about six months; and mustard lasts a year. When in doubt, throw it out. Once you’ve thinned the crowd of condiments, it’s time to be a label sleuth again and say goodbye to anything with refined grains, added sugars in the first half of the ingredients list (limit added sugars as much as possible) or that has saturated fat or sodium over 10 percent of the Daily Value.
Step 8. Only the Best Sides Will Do
Condiments are notorious for spiking the salt (e.g., teriyaki sauce, salad dressing) and sugar (e.g., barbecue and marinara sauce) of many a meal. They also add a ton of flavor, so it’s a good thing healthy condiments are available in stores or are easy enough to make at home. Best picks? Go for mustard is a no-brainer, as long as you keep an eye on the sodium. Salsa is another great low-calorie option -- it adds a burst of fresh flavor along with vitamins and minerals. Dips like yogurt-and-cucumber-based tzatziki offer Mediterranean flavors and good nutrients like protein and potassium.
Step 8. Only the Best Sides Will Do (Continued)
For healthy swaps, instead of sugary, processed ketchup, look for a low-sugar option or make it at home with vinegar, tomatoes, onion powder and just enough salt to taste. Instead of jams and jellies full of added sugars and fillers, look for whole-fruit preserves that are nothing but fruit for a naturally sweet spread. For salad dressings, it’s really best (and so easy) to make a fresh vinaigrette at home because of all the additives in store-bought dressings.
Step 9. Toss the Junk
It’s time to clean out the bulk of the refrigerator, which is one of the most straightforward parts of spring-cleaning your at-home food environment. Simply go shelf by shelf and drawer by drawer tossing out anything that shows mold, looks slimy, has become too soft or too hard, smells funny or is simply something the origin of which you can’t even remember. With fewer foods to cull, go ahead and throw out the foods you know are not good for your health. As a reminder, that’s most likely anything with added sugars, refined grains or is high in saturated fat or sodium (for meal-size products, saturated fat should be limited to no more than five grams, and sodium should be capped at 600 milligrams).
Step 10. Fill With Healthy Basics
A healthy fridge is one that is stocked with plants, especially vegetables and fruit, some low-fat dairy, eggs and seafood. For produce, buy organic, local seasonal fruits and vegetables for environmental reasons, but also because that’s when they’re at peak quality and most affordable. Pasture-raised eggs are an easy everyday protein food, and their dietary cholesterol is no longer a target for restriction. Healthy grass-fed dairy basics include milk (or unsweetened milk alternatives), yogurts without a lot of added sugar and low-fat cottage cheese. To add flavor to meals without a salt or sugar overload, be sure to stock onions, garlic, lemons and fresh herbs like rosemary and sage, which should all last at least a couple of weeks.
Step 11. Give It Order
When it comes to organizing the refrigerator for health, make healthy options easy to find. “The foods at eye level are the first you are going to see -- therefore you have a higher chance of selecting that option,” says Kate Geagan, M.S., RD. Another smart tip is to group foods that go together for meals. For example, Jill Weisenberger, M.S., RD, suggests gathering “all of your lunch-making foods in an open basket in the refrigerator. It’s easier to grab the container, make a sandwich and put the whole thing back than to hunt for the turkey, cheese, washed lettuce and mustard in different places.”
Step 12. Cut the Clutter
The freezer can turn into neglected tundra. It’s time to clear out “food that’s been in your freezer since the beginning of time or is unidentifiable, ultraprocessed food,” says Abby Langer, RD, of Abby Langer Nutrition. That includes foods overcome by freezer burn, processed meats like bacon and hot dogs and frozen meals loaded with artificial ingredients or that have more than 600 milligrams of sodium, added sugars in the first half of the ingredient list, more than five grams of saturated fat or less than three grams of fiber or seven grams of protein. Langer adds that it’s also time to toss “foods that you can’t stop eating -- like ice cream.”
Step 13. Healthy Freezer Foods
While frozen foods don’t last forever, they do last a long time, so keep the freezer full of healthy options so that a healthy meal is always possible. This includes frozen fruits, vegetables, lean meats, seafood, whole grains, nuts and even a couple of carefully chosen frozen meals. With frozen meals, be selective and look for at least three grams of fiber, seven grams of protein and natural ingredients while keeping added sugars as low as possible, sodium below 600 milligrams, saturated fat below five grams and fewer than 500 calories. Lastly, if you love frozen treats but just tossed yours out, a better-for-you alternative is Life Ice all-natural bite-size ices, which have built-in portion control and clean ingredients.
Step 14. Label, Date and Organize
Since it’s particularly easy to lose track of foods in the freezer due to longer storage times, labeling and dating foods as they go in is essential, especially for unpackaged foods like leftover soup or raw salmon, which can last two to three months, or raw chicken breasts, which lasts nine months. Rene Ficek, RD, says, “Freezer bins are essential for a well-organized freezer. Keep all meat together in one bin (and be sure to date it) and frozen fruits and vegetables together in another bin.”
Step 15. Set Up for Success
Now that you are fully stocked with healthful kitchen staples, make sure you have all the right tools to store and organize them. Sarah Giller Nelson, Miami professional organizer and owner of Less is More Organizing Services, is a big fan of the permanent marker. “A Sharpie can be your best defense against food poisoning. Keep a Sharpie in the junk drawer. When you open a jar or a container, use the Sharpie to write the open date on the lid. You can also date and note special reheating instructions on plastic bags of leftovers as you put them in the freezer.”
Step 16. Again -- Organize
You may want a good set of clear-glass containers for the refrigerator, air-tight plastic or glass containers for the pantry, dry-erase markers for marking glass, tinfoil, parchment paper, plastic bags and plastic wrap. You can also customize your refrigerator to work best for your needs. “Essentially, there are aftermarket refrigerator-grade shelves, bins, can dispensers and stackers, just as there are for regular cabinets and pantries,” shares Lauren A. Williams, professional organizer with Casual Uncluttering in Woodinville, Washington. She adds, “The beauty of these products is that you can get just what you need to customize your storage.” Williams suggested several outlets for finding products: organize.com, organizeit.com, Amazon, Ikea and Target.
Maintaining Healthy at Home
Now that your kitchen is stocked for a fresh start, don’t forget to maintain your healthy home environment. “Regularly remove everything from your pantry, wipe down all of the shelves, reorganize items and purge anything that is expired or stale,” offers Lori Gersh, owner of Leave It 2 Lori professional organizing services in Los Angeles. Every once in a while, make a point of creating meals that use up pantry, fridge and freezer items. And last but not least, regularly stock great-tasting healthful foods you enjoy and feel good about eating.
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