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How To Get Started Eating Healthy: Foods To Avoid

by | Apr 22, 2009
Junk Food

Junk Food

What truly liberated me from worrying about food all the time was shifting my thoughts and fears away from things I couldn’t or shouldn’t eat and instead focusing on delicious foods–foods I love–that also make me healthy. Changing my relationship with food in this way turned it from something that caused me anxiety to something that brought me pleasure.

One unexpected benefit of choosing healthy, tasty foods over bland diet foods was that many of my old cravings for sugary, unhealthy fare disappeared. While I have not found a clear scientific explanation for this, it stands to reason that a nourished body would be less prone to strong feelings of need toward certain foods. I was amazed how powerful it can be to focus on health instead of dieting. These days, really unhealthy foods barely even tempt me.

(This post is the final post of the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Part one is Stock Your Pantry, part two is Essential Groceries, part three is Seasonal Shopping, part four is Stock Your Freezer and part five is Balanced Meals. Get future posts by signing up for email or RSS updates–always free of cost and spam.)

Upgrading your healthstyle will go far in helping you overcome your cravings, but as I much as I would love to tell you that you can eat any foods you want in any quantities you want, we all know this is not true. While you are focusing on eating more of the foods you love there are also foods that are generally worth avoiding as part as your daily healthstyle.

There is room for anything in a healthy life, but here are some foods that DO NOT promote health and can lead to weight gain:

  • Sugar In any form, sugar wreaks havoc on your health and metabolism. Two keys to protecting yourself from sugar damage are quantity and timing. Do not eat too much sugar at once (stick to small desserts) and do not eat sugar very frequently. I try to limit real desserts to once or twice per week (max) and satisfy all other sweets cravings with fruit. Eating whole grains is particularly effective at reducing sugar cravings.
  • Refined flour Processed grains (all flour) are almost as bad as sugar in their effect on your metabolism. In fact, your body processes them exactly the same way. Generally look for alternatives to breads, pastas and other foods made with flour. Instead focus on getting carbohydrates from intact whole grains. Try to limit refined flour foods to less than once per day. If you are actively trying to lose weight, I would make an effort to cut these out completely.
  • Trans fat Twenty years ago scientists believed they had solved the problem of saturated fat by replacing it with an artificial solid fat made from plants. It turned out these processed fats, trans-fats, are one of the most dangerous foods you can put into your body. Not only do they raise your “bad” LDL cholesterol, they also contribute to lowering your “good” HDL cholesterol–a double whammy for your health. No amount of trans-fat is considered safe in the diet (the data is striking), and you should avoid these processed fats completely. Better to eat foods made with real butter. Better yet, choose healthy fats from vegetable sources like coconut oil, olive oil and canola oil.
  • Anything processed It is worth emphasizing that nothing processed has ever proven to be healthier for you than real whole foods–even foods with fantastic health claims on the package. In fact, as Michael Pollan points out in his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, a health claim on a package is a pretty good sign that a food is bad for you. There are no stickers for “Whole Grain” or “Low Carb” on your vegetables, and those are what you should be eating.
  • Red meat As I discussed earlier this week, red meat is probably not good for you. Some people argue that it is really bad for you, and some people think it is not so bad. It appears to not be quite as bad as processed foods, but there are plenty of compelling reasons to limit how much red meat you eat. For myself personally, cancer is a bigger fear than heart disease. But there is also some data that saturated fat plays a role in insulin resistance. I recommend less than one (4 oz) serving of red meat per week. The same can be said about poultry with skin.

I do not recommend completely eliminating foods you love–even if they are bad for you–because this is not something you can maintain forever and it strips some of the joy from life. Instead I suggest trying a few customizable strategies to be sure that the less healthy foods you love bring you happiness, but do not damage your body:

  • Reduce, Don’t Eliminate Simply being aware of how often you eat these foods and trying to stick to the guidelines above can drastically improve your healthstyle. If you currently eat a lot of sugar, processed foods or red meat, do not attempt to completely overhaul your diet overnight. Make changes gradually or it will be very difficult to make them permanent.
  • Be Picky When you first start to upgrade your healthstyle, identify foods you can do without and those you can’t live without. Some changes will be easier for some people, while others are nearly impossible. Focus on the easier changes and do not beat yourself up over things that are difficult for you. Every little change you make will add up to a healthier you.
  • Set Up Simple Rules It is often hard to keep track of everything you do or do not eat. A food journal or Twitter can help with this, but the simpler your healthstyle the better. Setting up simple, easy to remember rules for yourself can help you make healthy changes. The guidelines above are a great place to start. For example, if you decide in advance you can only have one dessert per week, you can be sure that the one you choose is well worth the wait. Use simple rules to both increase your good habits and decrease your bad ones. Experiment to find simple rules that work for you. For example, if you love to eat pizza make a deal with yourself that if you have it you must have a big pile greens on the side–this may also help you eat one less piece.

Please share with us the strategies and rules you use to upgrade your healthstyle!

This is the final post in the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Much thanks to those of you have shared your tips and insights in the comments so far. Summer Tomato will continue to build upon these ideas and help make it easier for you to upgrade your healthstyle. If you have specific questions, concerns or even an idea for a future post please submit them in the Ask Me section.

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How To Get Started Eating Healthy: Balanced Meals

by | Apr 17, 2009
Collards, Carrots and Lentils

Collards, Carrots and Lentils

Once you have everything you need to cook healthy meals, you are well on your way to a better healthstyle. But first let’s stop and make sure we know what a healthy meal looks like.

(This post is part five of the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Part one is Stock Your Pantry, part two is Essential Groceries, part three is Seasonal Shopping and part four is Stock Your Freezer. The recipe pictured is posted here.)

My goal here at Summer Tomato is to help you permanently adopt healthy eating patterns. Why? Because short-term weight loss diets, “cleansing” diets and ignoring your health completely will never do you any good. In contrast, healthy eating habits can add years and in some cases decades of high-quality time to your life.

I am not being sensationalist. The data is very convincing that your eating habits are the most important factor in your long-term health.

For many people the first big step in getting healthy is losing weight, and this means eating better and eating less. But my advice is generally the same (with a few exceptions) if you are not overweight. Healthy eating is the same for everyone–eating for fat loss and eating for health and longevity are the same thing.

How can you permanently eat better?

You cannot expect to let yourself go hungry and stick to that eating plan forever. It is therefore critical that you get the most out of your meals by making sure they have enough nutrients and flavor to keep you satisfied. I would go so far as to say you should love the food you eat and should walk away from it not wanting another bite. With balanced meals and wonderful ingredients, you can feel this way about what you eat.

Your body needs many things to function properly. It runs on complex carbohydrates, vitamins, fats, fibers, minerals, proteins and probably many more things we have not yet discovered. If you follow some trendy diet that encourages you to eliminate one or more of these, your body will feel deprived and ultimately find a way to get what it wants (usually in binge form). So let’s forget the starvation option and instead choose foods that give us all the nutrients we need. What we will reduce (not eliminate) are foods with fewer nutrients, the ones your body can be happy without. These foods will be addressed in a future post.

The best strategy is to give yourself a steady supply of what your body needs throughout the day. Every day. And because scientists have been unable to replicate a healthy diet with a pill, we need to focus on eating food. Real food. The kind that comes from the earth, not from a drive-thru.

The following is a guide to creating a perfect, healthy meal from food. It is only meant to be a blueprint, not a rigid plan. But I feel it is important to spell this out at the beginning because it is so different from how most people eat. I can assure you that it is very doable and more than satisfying. I eat this way, and I can say without hesitation that food is my favorite part of my day.

Eat Your Vegetables

Size Matters

As I alluded to in my post on seasonal shopping, the bulk of your diet must be vegetables if you hope to permanently lose weight and avoid heart disease, diabetes, cancer and dementia. The science is very clear on this point. If you do not like vegetables, I suggest you try and learn to like them. Chances are you have not eaten many high-quality vegetables from your local farmers market or that the ones you have tried were not prepared very well. Keep trying! Explore different recipes. Try different vegetables at high-end restaurants. Go out of your way to find vegetables cooked a way you like.

Here are some tips on learning to love foods you don’t like.

I recommend finding a friend who loves to cook and inviting him or her to explore your local market together–the enthusiasm of a chef at a farmers market can be contagious! You could even volunteer to help make a meal afterward with the fresh ingredients you found. It is amazing how quickly a kitchen becomes demystified when you spend a little time in one. Start with simple recipes. Delicious food does not have to be complicated if you cook with wonderful ingredients.

To reiterate, your first task is to increase your vegetable intake. Aim for about half of your (medium-sized) plate to be covered in vegetables. Make this happen for both lunch and dinner. If for whatever reason your choice of meal makes this difficult, try to get at least some green on your plate. Adding kale or spinach to whatever you’re making is usually pretty easy.

Diversify

You also want to try to get as much diversity as you can in the types of vegetables you eat. If you have seen those obnoxious lists of “superfoods,” you may have started to realize that any fruit or vegetable can be considered super. The fact is that all vegetables have some unique benefit and you maximize your health by eating many kinds of them, not by eating a lot of one kind. I try to mix up my weekly shopping cart to reflect the diversity of the farmers market, and I usually try to buy something I have never eaten before.

One wonderful thing about seasonal shopping at your local farmers market is that vegetables and fruits come and go pretty quickly, so diversity comes with the territory.

Smart Protein

I mentioned above that it is important to feel satisfied by your meals, and protein can go a long way in helping you achieve this. However, there are many misconceptions about protein, particularly regarding how much and what kinds you should eat.

I’ll start by saying that virtually no one in the Western world is protein deficient. It is relatively easy to get the protein your body needs to maintain its muscle mass. I do not recommend counting protein grams unless you are a professional body builder, in which case this probably isn’t the best website for you.

Despite what some people may say, many vegetables and grains contain protein. For instance, a cup of brown rice has 5 grams of protein. A cup of black beans has 15 grams of protein (and 20% of your daily iron). Some will argue that these are not “quality” sources of protein because they are not “complete proteins,” meaning that they are lacking in some essential amino acid. However, this argument is irrelevant if you follow my advice above and enjoy diversity in your diet. Yes, if all your protein comes from brown rice then you may be deficient in lysine, but presumably you are eating more than just brown rice and the rest of your food will easily make up the difference.

Getting all your protein is important, but since it is relatively easy to get I find the biggest value of protein is helping you feel satisfied after a meal. Protein digests more slowly than carbohydrates and can help you feel full longer. From this perspective, it matters very little where your protein comes from.

Personally I try to get my protein from beans, eggs or fish, because they offer more than just protein. Beans are a great source of fiber and iron. Eggs are a perfect size and are rich in vitamins. Fish has wonderful oils that have been shown to protect your heart and brain.

I’m fairly neutral on poultry and red meat in reasonable quantities.

Intact Grains

Despite what disciples of Dr. Atkins may say about carbohydrates (a lot of which I agree with), intact whole grains are essential to a healthy diet. Unfortunately, real whole grains are not very easy to come by in our culture. I have explained before, there is a tremendous difference between an intact whole grain that still looks like a grain and the “whole grains” in Lucky Charms that have been mutilated then reassembled. Real, intact grains digest slowly and are an essential source of fiber, vitamins, minerals and other wonderful things.

Like protein, whole grains should comprise about a quarter of your plate. However, since whole grains are rather difficult to get, I usually choose to make intact grains the bulk of my breakfast, and usually incorporate other grains such as brown rice or quinoa into either lunch or dinner. These will also go a long way to increase the satisfaction you feel from a meal.

Healthy Fats

One of the reasons the low fat diet from the 20th century failed so miserably is that it did not account for the necessity of healthy fats. Oils from plants and fish are critical for protecting against disease. And, like protein and grains, they contribute greatly to how satisfying your meal is.

Because fats have a high caloric density, a little really goes a long way and there is no definitive space on your plate that I allot to them. However, generally I recommend dressing or cooking all your vegetables in minimally processed oil, such as cold-pressed olive oil. I also recommend cooking with nuts (many different kinds, of course) regularly and enjoying avocado and other oily plants frequently.

Fish provide a different kind of oil than plants, and both are important. But if you are eating substantial amounts of fish you should be aware of the dangers of mercury contamination.

Conclusion

Strive to eat a diverse array of fresh vegetables, healthy proteins, intact grains and plant and fish oils as a part of your daily healthstyle, particularly in the meals you have control over. However, this is not something you should approach as all-or-none. Any meal can be made more healthy by adding these ingredients, and it is worth it to work them in if possible.

But most important, be sure that whatever you eat you enjoy. None of this is “diet food” and all of it should make you happy.

Subscribe now to get free healthy eating tips delivered to your inbox.

My goal here at Summer Tomato is to help you permanently adopt healthy eating patterns.
Why? Because short‐term weight loss diets, “cleansing” diets and ignoring your health
completely will never do you any good. In contrast, healthy eating habits can add years and
in some cases decades of high‐quality time to your life.
I am not being sensationalist. The data is very convincing that your eating habits are the
most important factor in your long‐term health.
For many people the first big step in getting healthy is losing weight, and this means eating
better and eating less. But my advice is generally the same (with a few exceptions) if you are
not overweight. Healthy eating is the same for everyone–eating for fat loss and eating for
health and longevity are the same thing.
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How To Get Started Eating Healthy: Stock Your Freezer

by | Apr 15, 2009
Rice Balls

Rice Balls

There are many places you can turn when you’re feeling lazy or are too busy to cook a fresh meal, but instead of reaching for the take-out menu I prefer to turn to my freezer. For one thing, even the taqueria directly downstairs from my apartment cannot whip up something as quickly as I can. And their grilled veggie burrito (not to mention the carne asada burrito!) is substantially more expensive than anything I would make–I’m sure you can guess which is healthier too.

(This post is part four of the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Part one is Stock Your Pantry, part two is Essential Groceries and part three is Seasonal Shopping.)

Your freezer is an invaluable resource for storing foods that are best made in large batches. Frozen fruits and vegetables from the grocery store can also come in handy when you are in a pinch. Below is my personal list of freezer essentials, but please add your own in the comments and tell us how you use them:

  • Frozen rice balls The single most essential item in my freezer is my giant bag of frozen brown rice balls. When I first explained the best way to make rice, I mentioned that I prefer to make a large batch and freeze it in individual servings. This is a trick I learned from a former housemate that always cooked traditional Japanese food (thanks Kiyoshi!). He used white rice, but I think this method is even more valuable for whole, intact grains since they are not particularly easy to integrate into your meals unless you make them yourself. Whole grains take quite a while to cook, but if you make a lot and freeze them you only need to cook grains occasionally. In addition to rice, you can also freeze other grains like barley and steel cut oatmeal.
  • Cooked legumes To know me is to know that I love beans and lentils. Legumes are some of the healthiest food you can eat, and are among the best sources of protein on the planet. The only problem is they can take a long time to cook. Lentils cook pretty quickly (~20 minutes), but I like to make beans in large batches in the pressure cooker and freeze the rest in 1-2 tupperware containers that I thaw at my leisure. Lentils can be frozen as well.
  • Green legumes In addition to beans I have cooked myself, I also keep a stock of shelled, frozen soy beans and petite green peas in the freezer. These cook in just a few minutes and are delicious tossed with nuts, garlic and fresh herbs. My recipe needs some serious updating, but if you want an example of what I mean check out my Edamame and Peas Quick Fix.
  • Frozen fruit I always have a few bags of frozen wild organic blueberries for the days I run out of fresh fruit for my cereal. They thaw pretty fast (sometimes I put them in the microwave for 30 seconds) and are pretty tasty. They are great in oatmeal and pancakes as well.
  • Walnuts I keep my walnuts in the freezer to prevent the unstable omega-3 fatty acids from going rancid. Other nuts likely store well in the freezer too but tend to be more stable at room temperature than walnuts, which are particularly high in omega-3s.
  • Soups I love soup and cook it often. If you have ever browsed through James Peterson’s book Splendid Soups, you know why. The problem with soup is there is only one of me and the recipes tend to serve at least 4 people. Unless you want to eat the same thing all week long, freezing your left overs is your best bet. An added bonus is that you end up with a freezer filled with your favorite creations that can be eaten on lazy days.
  • Bread I do not eat bread often, but love to have it in the house just in case. But I never buy regular, sliced grocery store bread that is full of preservatives, dough conditioners and other bizarre ingredients that belong in the lab. Instead, I like to go to my local bakery (Acme or Tartine), get a fresh loaf, cut it up into single servings and freeze it in gallon freezer bags. You would be shocked at how nicely frozen bread reheats in an oven set to 325. Alternatively you can take it out a day early and thaw it in the fridge.
  • Meat Most of you already know that meat stores well in the freezer, but you can also store scraps and bones to make your own stock. Conveniently, you can also freeze your homemade stock.
  • Sauces During the summertime my local markets are practically giving away basil. It is such a wonderful herb, I cannot help making big batches of pesto all season. Leftover sauces can be frozen and taken out in winter when your favorite flavors are harder to find.
  • Spices I have recently started grinding my own spices, but like many things it is easier to do it in large batches. Extra spices store well in sealed containers in the freezer.

Your freezer is a great resource and I encourage you to be creative. It can make healthy eating much easier by giving you quick access to healthy foods, and also spares you from monotony when you cook in large batches.

How else can your freezer help you eat healthy?

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How To Get Started Eating Healthy: Seasonal Shopping

by | Apr 13, 2009
Heirloom Tomatoes

Heirloom Tomatoes

Every Saturday morning I wake up as early as I can (usually not very early) and head to the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market to buy my vegetables for the week. Seasonal vegetables are the foundation of a healthy diet, and buying them each week is the single most important step you can take to upgrade your healthstyle.

(This post is part three of the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Part one is Stock Your Pantry and part two is Essential Groceries. Subscribe to Summer Tomato to get more free healthy eating tips)

Why Vegetables?

Decades of research on diet, nutrition and health have universally confirmed that a vegetable-based diet can reduce your risk of (and even reverse) almost every disease. Debates still rage regarding the mechanism by which vegetables improve health (Is it because they replace bad foods? Contain antioxidants? Are low in calories? Low in fat? Low in protein? Have low glycemic index?), but for you and me the reason doesn’t really matter. The important point is that vegetables are proven to make you healthy. Those other questions are only important to people who want to bottle that benefit and sell it to you at a premium.

Interestingly, one of the most consistent findings in nutrition science is that any attempt to isolate a specific element of food and create a useful dietary supplement fails to mimic the benefits of the whole food. The lesson from all of this is that you are much better off spending your money on vegetables and other whole foods than on nutritional supplements.

Why Seasonal?

If you have ever wondered how much vitamin C is in a tomato, please stop. The idea that one tomato is the same as the next is ludicrous, yet this is the kind of logic we have accepted from grocery stores and the food industry in general.

Anyone with taste buds can immediately tell the difference between a sweet, ripe heirloom tomato at the height of summer and a mealy red beefsteak from your grocery store in December. These foods taste wildly different because of how they were grown, so doesn’t it stand to reason that they may have different nutrient levels as well?

In fact, there is a tremendous difference in nutritional quality of foods grown in the correct season and in good soil. Seasonal organic produce is substantially better for you than the conventional produce at Safeway, and this difference is reflected in how your food tastes.

For these reasons, shopping in season can do wonders for how you think about vegetables. A salad may sound boring to you, but how about miner’s lettuce tossed with arugula, Tokyo turnips, Mediterranean cucumbers, ruby grapefruit and sliced almonds? If you are more excited to eat vegetables because they look, sound, smell and taste delicious, then you will lose weight and become healthier by default. Your daily greens will be a joy, not a chore.

Seasonal produce is also more affordable than out of season produce that was grown in a greenhouse or shipped halfway around the world.

How To Shop Seasonally

Farmers Markets

As I mentioned above, my preferred place to shop for vegetables is my local farmers market on Saturday. Farmers markets are wonderful because you have access to the freshest local and seasonal vegetables available, usually just picked the day before. This means that not only are you guaranteed vegetables at the peak of their season, you can even go from stand to stand and find the batch you like best. You can also discover interesting and unique offerings (like the chocolate persimmon), and build relationships with local farmers. If you are lucky enough to have a weekly farmers market in your area, it is certainly worth it to commit yourself to go every week.

Read this blog on Saturdays to keep up with local finds in the Bay Area and California in general.

CSAs

Unfortunately, farmers markets are not practical for everyone. Some people have time constraints that prevent them from attending a weekly market. Luckily there are some alternatives available. One option is the CSA, or Community-Supported Agriculture. When you subscribe to a CSA you have pledged support for a particular farm (or sometimes a group of farms), and in exchange receive a box of seasonal produce each week or on an agreed schedule. The biggest convenience of joining a CSA is that the times arranged for delivery or pick up are much more flexible than the weekly market. There are CSAs for vegetables, as well as meat and dairy.

From what I understand, individual CSAs can vary substantially in how they are run and what they provide. If you are interested in finding a CSA in your area, I recommend spending some time researching your options and deciding what works best for you.

I have personally never belonged to a CSA and would love to hear about your experiences if you have.

Local Produce Markets

Even without a farmers market or CSA it possible to shop in season. Most cities and suburban areas have local produce markets and/or health food stores that focus on fresh vegetables. While not everything in these markets will be seasonal and local, they usually provide a nice alternative to large chain grocery stores to at least supplement your produce shopping. For more information you can read my article about how to find local produce markets in your area.

Grocery Stores

Even if none of these options are available in your neighborhood, it is still likely that the most affordable and best tasting food at your regular grocery store is whatever happens to be in season. Thus it is still worth it to keep up on local produce trends in your area.

Conclusions

Eating your vegetables is the most important thing you can do for your health, and neither nutritional supplements nor regular workouts can substitute for a healthy diet. Whether you have access to farmers markets or not, you are better off eating any vegetables than no vegetables at all. The same is true if you are considering conventional vs. organic produce.

If farmers markets are not available to you year-round there are many ways to get seasonal vegetables and fruits. But the first step is committing to your health and your future by making sure seasonal, fresh vegetables are a part of your personal healthstyle.

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How To Get Started Eating Healthy: Essential Groceries

by | Apr 10, 2009
Fresh Herbs

Fresh Herbs

Having the necessary pantry items is critical to getting started eating healthy, but obviously you need a lot more than that if you actually want to cook fresh, delicious food. Today I have prepared a list of groceries that should always be in your refrigerator. Many of these items are fresh, which means you need to buy them regularly.

(This post is part of the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Part one is Stock Your Pantry. Subscribe to Summer Tomato to get more free healthy eating tips)

As I have explained before you must set aside a small amount of time once a week to do your grocery shopping or else healthy eating will be nearly impossible. This time needs to be non-negotiable; you must find a way to make it happen.

So why not start to upgrade your healthstyle this weekend?

Put these groceries on your weekly shopping list and never take them off:

  • Shallots or leeks These are members of the onion family, but milder and sweeter than you might be used to. Even if you think you do not like onions, I recommend starting most vegetable dishes with one of these ingredients. Shallots are like small, mild red onions. Leeks are like large green onions, but tender and delicate in flavor. Here you can see pictures of leeks and shallots.
  • Garlic People feel very strongly about garlic, some can’t get enough while others avoid it. I have found myself in both camps at some point, but now I am somewhere in the middle. I go through a small bulb every week, but rarely use more than one clove per dish. With subtle amounts of garlic you can add depth and dimension to your meal. Too much can overpower all the other flavors.
  • Lemon As I explained when discussing vinegar, acidic foods are extremely important in cooking. Lemon has the added bonus of possessing an amazing zest that adds both sweetness and brightness to your food. I panic a little if I don’t have lemon in the house.
  • Parsley Flat leaf or “Italian” parsley is the perfect herb for everything. I always buy it, even if I do not know what I am going to use it for. It is also rather robust and keeps longer in the fridge than more delicate herbs, like cilantro. If you do not normally cook with parsley, definitely buy some and try it in your next vegetable dish. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
  • Fresh herbs Of all the other fresh herbs, I usually only pick one or two to have in my kitchen at once. Which ones I choose depends on the other foods I am buying. Mexican food thrives with cilantro and oregano. French style vegetables are beautiful with thyme. I cannot live without rosemary on my roasted potatoes. Mint is perfect with Moroccan food. Experiment! Fresh herbs can change the way you approach cooking. If you don’t know how to use something, Ask Me! or ask Google 🙂
  • Eggs I do not buy eggs every week, but I buy them regularly (always a half dozen farm fresh eggs). They are incredibly versatile and a great, quick meal any time of day. Check out my favorite scrambled eggs recipe.
  • Tofu or tempeh However you think you feel about tofu should probably be reexamined. It can be very delicious when prepared correctly. Regardless of the claims of Dr. Atkins, science tells us it is actually much healthier to get your protein from vegetable sources. I love meat in all its forms, but during the week I usually stick to vegetable protein and fish. And sometimes eggs.
  • (Soy) milk I use soy milk for my cereal and in my coffee. I know many people prefer different kinds of milk, and whatever you choose is fine. If you currently drink dairy milk, my only warning is to use it very sparingly. Consuming cow’s milk is strongly linked to increased risk of prostate cancer, breast cancer, osteoporosis (I know!), acne, type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis. If you were raised in America and do not follow nutrition science, I’m sure this sounds insane (it did to me). Unfortunately it is true. Easy on the milk.
  • Condiments I mentioned last time I keep my soy sauce and almond butter in the refrigerator. The other condiments I keep handy are tahini, mustard, tomato paste, capers and olives. None of these are absolutely necessary, but they are nice to have around to mix up your flavors. They do not need to be purchased very often.

These groceries are always in my refrigerator and it is fair to say that I consider them essential. However, this list is by no means exhaustive.

Please share with us your favorite essential groceries so we can all benefit.

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How To Get Started Eating Healthy: Stock Your Pantry

by | Apr 8, 2009
Pantry

Pantry

Nothing has a bigger impact on your health than the food you choose to eat (unless you smoke cigarettes). A diet rich in whole vegetables, grains, legumes, fish and fruit can prevent and even reverse most of the diseases that devastate our society. The good news is that farm-fresh, seasonal produce happens to be some of the most delicious food on the planet.

Unfortunately, our culture does not make it easy to eat foods that are both healthy and delicious. Your typical grocery store is filled with processed, packaged junk that barely resembles the plants and animals it came from (usually corn and soybeans). Even the produce section is populated with clones shipped from halfway around the globe.

But eating healthy is not impossible. I manage to pull it off, despite a long-ish commute and impossible work schedule. All you need is a little planning and a road map.

For many people the most difficult thing about starting to eat healthy is learning how to prepare and cook food. It is very difficult to upgrade your healthstyle by eating in restaurants. You have got to be able to shop and cook for yourself.

This is the beginning of a series of posts designed to give you detailed instructions on How To Get Started Eating Healthy. It is the perfect place to begin if you are new to Summer Tomato. Once you have learned to integrate these instructions into your normal routine, nothing on this blog should pass over your head. You will be able to follow any recipe, conquer any ingredient, get healthy and love every minute of it.

For more free healthy eating tips be sure to subscribe to Summer Tomato.

Keep in mind I was once as clueless in the kitchen as I was at the farmers market. I found my healthstyle through trial and error and created Summer Tomato to share what I have learned.

If you are beginning with a barren kitchen and are not sure what you need to get started, check out the Summer Tomato Shop. Once you are there, use the navigation in the sidebar on the right and browse through Kitchen Gear.

Once you have all your pots, pans and cutting boards you need to Stock Your Pantry. I have created a list of essential items that should always be in your kitchen. Because these things all store well and can be purchased in large quantities, you do not need to buy them often. But check your supplies regularly and be sure you always have everything here:

    • Olive oil You really cannot cook anything until you have olive oil. I go through olive oil relatively quickly, so I am sure to buy large bottles. Look for cold-pressed olive oils in dark bottles. For cooking I try to get the highest quality oil I can find at a reasonable price. My current favorite is Whole Foods 365 Organic brand extra-virgin olive oil. I buy the full 1 liter bottle.
    • Sea salt Whenever I come across vegetables I do not like they tend to have two things in common: they are 1) over-cooked or 2) under-salted (or both). But salt is bad for you, right? Yes, it is bad to eat the inconceivable volumes of sodium present in processed and packaged food. But you would be hard pressed to ingest that much salt if you add it yourself. It is possible to over-salt your vegetables, but under normal circumstances you can determine the appropriate saltiness by taste. In contrast, processed food tastes gross (grosser, I should say) without salt. You can add a reasonable amount of delicious sea salt to natural foods to enhance their flavor without much worry. Sea salt helps make fresh vegetables taste amazing, and if you eat them you are substantially better off. (note: If you have very high blood pressure, potassium salt might be better for you. Talk to your doctor about your options.)
    • Pepper Pepper is an essential spice you should always have in your pantry. It has better flavor if it is freshly ground.
    • Vinegar Frequently the easiest way to salvage a struggling dish is to add some kind of acid. Acid has a slightly sour flavor that can help brighten a dish. Vinegar and lemon are the go to choices for most cooks, so you need to have them around. Vinegar (and oil) is also what I use to dress salads. Balsamic vinegar is particularly wonderful because of its sweetness. But if you don’t like it experiment until you find a vinegar you like. Red wine vinegar is my next recommendation. Rice vinegar is also handy to have around, particularly if you like cooking Asian cuisines.
    • Fancy olive oil Speaking of salads, I always keep a top-shelf, fancy olive oil in the house for when the dish I’m creating depends on olive oil itself for flavor. Salad is the most basic example, but there are many instances where a better oil is worth the investment. You should enjoy the taste of your food, a few extra dollars for an outstanding olive oil is more than worth it.
    • Soy sauce One of the easiest ways to change up the flavor profile of a dish is to add a splash of soy sauce. You should always have some. Keep it in the fridge after opening it though.
    • Whole grain cereal I have found it incredibly difficult to find cereals–even whole grain cereals–that aren’t loaded with sugar. Muesli is my best recommendation, but it usually needs some help in the flavor department. I add fruit to fix this. Oatmeal (stove top) is a perfect breakfast if you have time for it (10 minutes). Whatever you choose, make sure you find a cereal made of intact grains that you are happy to eat most every day. For variety, I alternate between cold and warm cereals and change the fruit I use with the seasons.
    • Assorted whole grains Intact grains are so old-fashioned these days they are pretty hard to come by. If you do not eat them at home, you will almost certainly never eat them. Brown rice and quinoa are the two I rely on most. Quinoa cooks easily in 15 minutes. Brown rice takes longer, but I make it in large batches and freeze it in single servings that microwave in 1 minute. I also keep whole grain couscous around, even though it isn’t a real whole grain. I just love it in Moroccan food.

    • Dried legumes Legumes are some of the healthiest foods on the planet, and are notoriously under-appreciated. Lentils and beans are not just a vegetarian protein source, they are essential to a healthy diet regardless of carnivory. One benefit of them being out of fashion is that they are incredibly cheap and can usually be purchased in an unadulterated form. Lentils are wonderful because they cook quickly, in about 20 minutes. There are many varieties of lentils with different purposes. I recommend starting with regular brown or French green lentils because they keep their shape well. Beans require soaking and still take at least an hour to cook, unless you have a pressure cooker (I couldn’t live without a pressure cooker now). You can buy canned beans if you prefer, but they are far more expensive and have inferior taste and texture.
    • Bouillon cubes I had never heard of these until I started cooking, but I use them pretty regularly now. Bouillon cubes are essentially dried, concentrated broth. I keep chicken bouillon around for couscous and soups. Beef bouillon tastes amazing and I love to add it to beans and richer dishes. They make veggie bouillon too. You can get these everywhere, probably even your local liquor store.
    • Boxed broth Since these keep for at least a year, it is good to always have a few boxes around. Soups are great to whip up for dinner when you are tired and don’t feel like cooking anything fancy. If you always have broth, you can always have soup. I buy the 1 qt chicken and veggie broths. The smaller boxes or cans are good for making sauces.

  • Canned tomatoes I keep at least one 28-oz can of diced tomatoes at all times. Canned tomatoes are the base of so many different cuisines and make for wonderful meals. Tomatoes are, ironically, one of the few canned vegetables that don’t repulse me.
  • Nuts You should see the shoebox I use to store all the nuts I buy, it is bursting at the seams. Nuts are healthy, filling and turn food from average to awesome. I throw cashews in stir frys, cook my chard with pistachios and have almonds for a snack almost every day at work. Get in the habit of cooking with nuts or adding them to salads rather than just eating them plain. My kitchen always has raw walnuts (store in the freezer, they go rancid the quickest), roasted unsalted pistachios and sliced almonds. Hazelnuts, macadamia nuts and peanuts are also wonderful. Go nuts!
  • Dried fruit With plump, juicy raisins in my oatmeal I do not need to add sugar or honey. Dried apricots are wonderful in Moroccan soups or couscous. Dates are a great after dinner treat. Dried fruits store well and come in handy, you should keep the ones you like around and be creative with them while cooking.
  • Canned fish My canned fish of choice lately is sardines. Sardines are incredibly rich in omega-3s and vitamin D. When skinless and boneless, they are also delicious on bread or in a stir fry. My second choice is canned salmon (again, please get boneless–even if it costs extra). Tuna is okay, but it is too high in mercury for me to eat it at the frequency I prefer (you should limit tuna to 1-2 servings per month, particularly if you are a woman of childbearing age). Salmon is high in omega-3s and lower in mercury than tuna. I eat canned fish 2-3 times per week.
  • Basic spices When I first discovered cooking I went to the seasoning aisle of my grocery store and bought every spice and herb I had ever heard of. This was a mistake. I have since learned that most of the ones I bought are much better fresh (e.g. parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme). But there are a few spices I still use a lot. I always keep Saigon cinnamon, cayenne pepper, chili flakes, coriander, cumin (seeds and powder), ground ginger, garlic salt and chili powder in the house. I recently got a spice grinder, so sometimes I grind my own. But these are spices that are good to have around.
  • Natural nut butter Almond butter on good bread is one of my favorite quick, filling midday snacks. It is high in calories, but very effective at curbing the appetite. I always keep an unopened jar in my pantry. If you buy the natural kind (which you should), refrigerate after opening.
  • Pasta I know it sounds sacrilegious, but I do keep pasta in my pantry because sometimes it is just the easiest option. A healthy-ish choice is Japanese soba noodles that are made from buckwheat rather than semolina. I do not have pasta very often, so I do not worry too much if I eat it occasionally.
  • Plastic wrap and zipper bags I know these aren’t food, but I consider them essential items that need to be stocked regularly. I also happen to keep mine in the pantry. Don’t forget to buy them!

Once you have these basic ingredients you are ready to start cooking for yourself. In future posts for the How To Get Started Eating Healthy series I will discuss items you need to regularly stock in your refrigerator and freezer. I will also explain how to shop seasonally and outline a few basic cooking techniques you can use to cook almost anything.

Please do not consider this list exhaustive. This is simply a blueprint for how to get started stocking your pantry to cook healthy food.

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