The beginning of a new year can offer a fresh start after the gluttony of the holidays. If you’re committing to some healthy new habits, set yourself up for success by clearing out the clutter in your kitchen. Research shows that how you set up your kitchen can go a long way toward supporting a healthy weight.
The goal for the following kitchen purge is twofold: toss anything that’s past its prime (to reduce your risk of foodborne illness), and restock with all the healthy ingredients you’ll need for a cleaner, leaner 2016. Ready? Here’s what to do.
First toss the following: anything with a bad case of freezer burn or items that are basically encrusted with frost; anything not labeled that you don’t recognize, and foods you bought on a whim that you really don’t need in your life. (Looking at you “diet-friendly” ice cream bars.)
Next, start checking dates on things that are marked. Leftovers are only good for about three months, uncooked chicken about nine months, and ground turkey three to four months. Also be sure to check out the dates on any pre-packaged foods, like frozen dinners–they do expire.
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Load up on frozen produce where the only ingredient is the veggie or fruit, like frozen broccoli and berries. You can steam veggies to toss with a little pesto or tapenade, and whip both veggies and fruits into smoothies. Add frozen whole grains to your grocery list, too. These days you can find bags of pre-cooked brown rice and quinoa, which you can thaw and add to a salad or heat and eat. For a quick and easy protein look for frozen pre-cooked shrimp. All you need to do is rinse them under cold water to eat chilled, or to thaw for an add-in to a stir fry.
Now is the ideal time to commit to preparing more meals yourself rather than heating up a frozen pizza, and keeping healthy frozen ingredients on hand can serve as major time-saving shortcuts.
Sometimes it’s obvious when items in your fridge need to go. But you can’t always rely on your senses to know what’s good, because you can’t see, smell, or even taste some of bacteria in food that can make you sick.
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To be safe, you should toss leftovers, uncooked poultry, meat, or seafood, and deli meat after a few days, and check dates on foods like yogurt. Eggs in the shell are good for three to five weeks, but cartons of eggs or egg yolks are only safe to keep for three days after they’re opened.
The keep time for condiments after opening various by product: one month for salsa; two months for pickles, olives, mayo, and salad dressing; three months for barbeque sauce and horseradish; six months for ketchup and jam; and eight for mustard. If you honestly aren’t sure how long something’s been in your fridge opened I say better safe than sorry – get rid of it.
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In addition to the obvious items, like fresh whole foods, condiments can be a great way to whip up healthy foods quickly and easily. I already mentioned the pesto or tapenade trick, which also works well for jazzing up lean proteins, like chicken breast or scrambled eggs.
Mustard, especially spicy brown and Dijon, combined with balsamic vinegar (which can keep opened for a year) are my go-tos for a quick and healthy salad dressing. Just add dried Italian herb seasoning to the mix and you’re good to go.
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Tahini is another staple. Typically the only ingredients are ground sesame seeds and a little salt, but you can add more flavor by stirring in a little lemon juice, garlic, and cayenne pepper. It’s awesome as a salad dressing or to drizzle over anything, from cooked veggies to chicken, fish, lentils, and chickpeas, or (if you’re adventurous) stir it into oatmeal.
Two more great condiments: salsa and fermented veggies (think sauerkraut, kimchi and the like). They can also be used to flavor just about anything, from omelets and hard boiled eggs to beans, potatoes, whole grains, lean proteins and raw or cooked greens.
Finally, a must-have for your fridge is a filtering pitcher. Keep it front and center and if you want, toss in flavor infusers, like fresh mint, sliced cucumber, fresh ginger, or any type of in-season fruit.
Some of my clients are shocked to discover that some of the items stashed in their pantry are long past their ‘best if used by dates,’ like almond milk, and whole grains. Even worse is when they don’t know how long something has been stashed after it’s opened, because once a food is exposed to air, light, and humidity, it can degrade fairly quickly. For example, whole grains and olive oil should generally be tossed after six months, nut butters and flours or meals after two to three, and cereals after two to three. If you regularly keep opened goods in your cupboards tack on a sticker or piece of masking tape as soon as you open an item, and grab a sharpie to record the date.
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Despite the often-heard advice to shop the perimeter of the grocery store there are some shelf stable items that make healthy additions to your pantry.
One of my favorites is low sodium organic vegetable broth. I use it to sauté or stir fry veggies, and as a base for homemade soups and stews. Other items to keep on hand include: pulses (beans, lentils, and peas), which can be found bagged or canned and in aseptic cartons; canned wild salmon; whole grains (quinoa, wild rice, popcorn, oats, buckwheat soba noodles, etc.); canned pumpkin; nuts and seeds; herbs and spices; good-for-you oils, like olive and sesame; and un-opened condiments.
For less than nutritionally stellar items you keep on hand, either for your family, or as occasional treats for yourself, choose a designated low traffic area and stash them together, away from your “everyday foods.” If you see cookies or chips every time you reach for nuts or spices you’ll wind up getting into them more often. And finally, keep your kitchen surfaces clear, or stock them with only healthy fare, like a bowl or fresh fruit. One recent study found that what you store on your counter tops can have a big impact on your weight: women who had a visible fruit bowl weighed about 13 pounds less than those who stored sugary things like cereals on their counters.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor. She privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is also the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the New York Yankees MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics.