They say if you have healthy food on hand, you’ll eat it. But that’s not necessarily true. Faced with nothing but “ingredients,” it’s often tempting to just order pizza or go out.
And let’s be real: we’ve all chosen that road more than once! But if you keep those ingredients in an easy-to-use form, it increases your odds of actually cooking at home! I’ve written before about 30 things I always keep on hand for easy healthy meals, but this post is going to focus on what I keep in the freezer, with some tips and how-to’s.
I don’t always buy organic fruits and veggies. It depends on the prices, and how much of the food I’m going to eat, and how easy the surface is to wash. And also taste! Organic strawberries and carrots taste so much better than conventional!
But another factor is which foods tend to be most pesticide-laden. Every year, the Environmental Working Group puts together a handy two-part report card called the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean Fifteen.”
Here’s the list for 2015. (It usually doesn’t change much from year to year. But you can always google “clean fifteen” for the given year.)
Note: This post was originally from 2012 (when I still made bread) but I’m bumping it up to today because there are some good tips here. I’m no neat-freak, but I do find that being organized in the areas I use on a daily basis helps make cooking less stressful — even if the rest of the kitchen is in varying levels of chaos!
In our house, we’re mostly sporadic organizers. Or sporadic messies, depending on whether you’re a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kinda person.
But in the places where I need to find stuff day-in and day-out, I like to keep things pretty neat, because searching for stuff makes me nuts!
Here are a few cheap, easy things I’ve found that help keep my stuff findable. Most of the containers are items you’d find at an office store, Target, or the like.
Batteries in a magazine file
In a house full of computer nerds, we go through batteries like crazy, so I buy the huge multi-packs at Sam’s. For the longest time, I just stashed them willy-nilly in my office shelves, but one day as I was deciding whether to throw out this magazine bin, it hit me that this is the perfect size for those big battery blister packs.
Spices* in a CD box *or anything else that comes in flat bags or envelopes
We buy most of our spices from a local specialty store (yay, The Spice Merchant!), where the spices are packed in these flat plastic bags that are 4 or 5 inches wide. I’ve found a CD bin works perfect for this, and is just the right depth to stash in an upper cabinet. This would also work for instant soup packs and small boxed mixes such as Rice-a-Roni or Zataran’s.
Nuts* and clothespins *and other things that come in paper bags
Nuts are both healthy and versatile, so I always keep a good stash of several different kinds on hand. The ones we eat most (walnuts and pecans) go in big canisters, but the ones that we buy in smaller quantities, I keep in the original bag (shout-out to another local: Nifty Nut House!), in another metal-mesh bin in the pantry. Writing the name on a clothespin helps me see what’s behind the front row at a glance.
Bread- (or breakfast-)making kit
I keep everything needed for homemade bread — including the recipe — all in a bin in the pantry. (Well, everything that doesn’t need refrigeration.) So when I want to bake a loaf, all I have to do is grab this, and I’m good to go.
Update: now I do this in my fridge with things I’m likely to use at the same time. I have four bins:
When my kids were small, it dawned on me one day that I almost always gave them their meds in the kitchen. So why was I keeping everything down the hall? I corralled all the cold, allergy and asthma meds in one small plastic crate, all the tummy and fever stuff in another. Instead of digging through a shelf full of bottles, I can just pull the pertinent bin. (Make sure you keep this stashed on a high shelf to keep out of little hands. Or behind a lock, if you have a climber.)
Shopping bags in a folder holder
An office organizer, usually used to hold folders, is the perfect place to stash shopping bags of various sizes. When I have too many to fit in the holder, I know it’s time to start throwing them in the recycling or passing them on to thrift stores.
But don’t hate me because I’m organized…
Keepin’ it real
Lest anyone think every corner of my kitchen is always in perfect order, here’s a dose of reality for you. There are still parts of my pantry that look like this:
And on most days, my kitchen table looks something like the pic below. It’s only gotten worse since my kids are at college, ’cause now I only have to clear off two places for dinner instead of four!
Keeping a kitchen organized is a bit like putting an octopus to bed. You get one part tucked away neatly, and another tentacle pops out somewhere else! But you gotta keep trying. Can’t let the octopus take over!
I recently read a “30 Tips” post on Rubies and Radishes that had some great suggestions to make eating Paleo easier.* Most of them will apply to any real-food diet. Just substitute the name of your diet wherever you see the word “Paleo.”
But… compulsive editor that I am, I edited it down to what I thought were the best 15 tips for eating Paleo/real food, and add a few helpful items and notes of my own. Here you go!
1. When you’re just starting, plan out meals and snacks several days in advance. This keeps you from caving in on busy days. Once you get the hang of cooking and eating this new way, it will be easier to throw together meals from your well-stocked kitchen. (You might want to read about how I stock my kitchen for easy meals.)
2. If planning all your meals seems overwhelming, try it in phases. Most people don’t need a lot of variety in breakfast, so find one or two healthy breakfasts that work for you and get those nailed down. Figure out how to prep your breakfast so it’s a no-brainer in the morning. (Here are some no-brainer breakfast options.) Then find a few lunches that work for you. (If you eat out for lunch, check out my Eating Paleo/Whole30 When Eating Out post.) Then move on to planning dinners.
3. For encouragement and inspiration, join Paleo Facebook pages. Here are a few:
Also, if you’re on Instagram, follow me at @janalovesrealfood: I often post easy lunches and dinners there, as well as Paleo-friendly restaurant dishes.
For example, here’s a tip from my Instagram pages: a breadless BLT kit using romaine leaves as a wrap makes an easy summer lunch!
4. Cook meat in bulk, but don’t freeze it in a huge chub: portion it out into easy-to-thaw portions before putting it in the freezer. Hamburger, pulled pork, chicken, and your favorite kinds of sausage are all handy to have ready to deploy. You can also cook bacon in big batches and keep it in the fridge or freezer. Have you tried cooking it in the oven? So easy!
5. Dedicate time to prep ingredients every week. Or, if it works better for you, every evening after dinner, prep what you’ll need for tomorrow’s meal(s). Thaw anything that’s frozen. Chop up ingredients. Pre-mix seasonings or sauces. I’ve collected a few tips on ingredient prep, too.
6. Paleo eating and meal planning takes time to adjust to. Give yourself time and grace. Keep at it — it will get easier! It’s only hard until it’s routine.
7. Read labels. Learn to recognize sugar in all its disguises. Yeah, it’s overwhelming and kind of depressing at first, but it’s a necessary education.
8. Don’t spend too much time trying to figure out how to substitute or recreate the unhealthy food you once ate. Instead of mourning the loss of food that makes you feel yucky, celebrate new food discoveries that make you feel great! As you stick with this, your taste buds will change and junk food will become less and less appealing.
9. Explore Paleo blogs and books. The more Paleo knowledge you have, the easier it is to stick with your new lifestyle! (Check out my books page.)
10. When you make dinner, make extra. Enjoy it for breakfast (yes, you can!) or lunch the next day, or pack it in the freezer for an easy future meal.
11. One of the hardest things about eating Paleo (or your personal version of it) is the social pressure to eat junk. Always have a plan before going to social gatherings. And focus on how that food is going to make you feel tomorrow! Tell yourself, “When I eat crap, I feel like crap.”
12. Eat a satisfying meal before you go to parties so you won’t be tempted by unhealthy choices. Drink plenty of water while you’re there. Focus on enjoying the people, not the food.
13. If it’s a pot luck, bring your own Paleo dish (or two), because that might be your only healthy choice!
15. Remember to get the sleep you need every night, and drink plenty of water. And several times a week, if not every day, try to get a little sunshine and gentle exercise.
BONUS TIP: Expect ups and downs! Give yourself grace if you slip up. As Melissa Hartwig says in Food Freedom Forever, “Insulting yourself over your food choices is perhaps the most damaging behavior of all.”
Want to cook more healthy at home, but daunted by the meal planning?
Are you thinking about starting to eat Paleo, do a Whole30, or just eat cleaner, healthier, real food? If you’re going to change the way you eat, you’ll probably need to change the way you stock your kitchen. This can feel daunting, but I hope this list will help.
There are certain ingredients that I always keep on hand to make meals more doable. You know those articles in women’s magazines and blogs, where they show you eight articles of clothing that can be combined into 40 different outfits? This is the same principle! I’d guess that at least 90% of what I make for everyday meals can be accomplished with only these ingredients.
Your list doesn’t need to match mine, of course, but hopefully this post will serve as inspiration. This list is mostly Paleo, almost Whole30 except for a couple items, and completely whole, real foods!
And be encouraged: once you look over this list, you’ll probably realize that you’re already well on your way to a well-stocked kitchen.
10 things I always have in the fridge:
1. Chopped onions. I chop up yellow onions a couple times a week, enough to last two or three days.
2. Eggs. Always enough for a couple days worth of breakfast, at least, plus a couple to spare.
3. Good quality hot dogs or fully cooked sausage. Quick, hearty lunch when heated up with some sauerkraut!
4. Already-baked sweet potato. Add to scrambled eggs, soup, salads, hash; top with pulled pork or other meat. Or spread with butter or bacon fat, salt and pepper; or mash with butter and cinnamon for a quick, nutritious side dish!
5. Already washed baby spinach. Beyond salad: chop and add to soup or eggs.
6. Maple syrup. For glazes, sauces, and salad dressings.
7. Condiments: tamari (gluten-free soy sauce), mustard, sriracha, chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (or just a jar of adobo sauce), pickles
8. Full-fat coconut milk. A good sub, in many cases, for heavy cream. If you’re not avoiding dairy, stock real, unadulterated cream.
9. Lemon juice. I juice a couple fresh lemons once every week or so, keep it in a small jar in the fridge. For salad dressings, deglazing a pan to make pan sauce, adding to tea, etc.
10. Flours: almond, coconut, flax. Substitutes for wheat flour in various uses. Keeping them in the fridge helps them last longer. Info on almond and coconut flour.
Additional things that are usually (but not always) in my fridge, or are seasonal:
Sauerkraut, bacon, rendered bacon fat, avocado, hard-boiled eggs, carrots, celery, green onions, zucchini (to make zoodles), bell peppers, cabbage, apples, bone broth, homemade mayo, romaine (used for wraps in the summer), already-baked russet potato
Want more info about how I do meal planning for people who hate to meal plan?
1. Chopped parsley, stored in a baggie with most of the air pressed out. It’s easy to scoop out a tablespoon or a quarter-cup as needed, with no additional chopping. This is more than a garnish; it adds a fresh, peppery zing and some bright green color to the party!
2. Hamburger; some cooked, lightly seasoned, and crumbled; some raw in 1/4 lb. patties. Sometimes, also fully cooked meatballs.
3. Salmon & mahi-mahi, individual portions
4. Shrimp, deveined & deshelled
5. Bulk sausage, Italian and/or breakfast, stored in individual portions
6. Homemade sugar-free marinara, stored in 1-cup portions. If you don’t want to make homemade, go for the most sugar-free brand you can find or afford.
7. Chicken thighs or breasts, prepped and frozen individually
8. Berries: sometimes mixed, sometimes single varieties
9. My veggies of choice: currently green beans, broccoli florets
10. Bone broth or plain chicken stock, stored in 2-cup portions
(Also: leftover chicken bones, onion ends, and parsley stems for my next batch of broth)
Things I always have in the pantry:
1. Bag of yellow onions
2. Head of garlic
3. Extra coconut milk
4. Vinegars: rice, balsamic, red wine, unfiltered apple
5. Oil: olive, coconut, and usually sesame for Asian dishes
6. Homemade seasoning mixes: taco, chili, Italian, burger (and of course other individual seasonings)
7. Nuts: cashew to top an Asian stir-fry; almonds, pecans, and walnuts for salads & snacks
8. A little wheat flour or rice flour for pan-frying fish
See? Not such an exotic list, for the most part. You probably have most of this on hand. It’s just a matter of learning to see new ways to combine these basic “wardrobe” pieces to create an infinite number of quick, easy, tasty meals!
We just got back from a five-day visit to Seattle. Our motto and mission on vacation always has been: “Go places and eat things!”
If you’ve read my blog for long, you know I believe in eating healthy most of the time, but making allowances for the occasional bending of the rules. For me, vacation definitely falls under the rule-bending side of things, but I don’t want to completely throw all rules out the window, every meal. One of my main strategies is to start the day off with a decent breakfast. In other words, some protein and healthy fats, some fruit and/or vegetables, with a minimum of carbs and sweets.
It would be easy to rationalize cinnamon rolls and french toast for breakfast every morning — after all, it’s vacation, right? But I know that starting the day out that way will make me hungry (and probably cranky) by mid-morning, and set me up for bad decisions all day long. So here’s my advice for starting the day out right on vacation.
7 tips for eating a healthy breakfast on vacation
1. Eat well before you leave home. On our day of departure, I allowed myself enough time to get up and have my normal, healthy breakfast. For me, this is two eggs with sweet potato hash. Because I always have onions and already-cooked-sweet potato diced and ready to go in the fridge, this is quick and easy to throw together. (I didn’t actually bother with sausage and avocado the day we left. This is an old pic. #latergram)
2. Be prepared with healthy snacks. Before we left, I stocked up on my favorite version of trail mix: mixed nuts and diced prunes. Laugh if you want, but prunes are some of the lowest glycemic dried fruits — and that extra fiber can’t hurt when you’re traveling!
Oh, and by the way: most of these shots are not going to be beautiful. Part of keeping vacation relaxing for me means I don’t work too hard to get a perfect shot; one or two shots as-is. Case in point…
This turned out to be my lunch on our flight there and my dinner on our flight home, so I’m glad I came prepared!
3. If possible, stay in a place with a kitchen. And 4. Eat what’s fresh and local. We found a great apartment on airbnb that was 9 minutes from the main attractions, at less than half what a cheap hotel room would have cost! On top of the great price, we had a fridge, microwave, stove and dishwasher. Enough equipment to have some eggs and fresh local fruit some mornings…
Other mornings it was eggs and this amazing local yogurt…
If you’re ever in Seattle, track down some Ellenos Greek yogurt! It’s the mildest, creamiest yogurt I’ve ever had! My favorite flavor was marionberry, but the plain sweetened with honey was great, too. (This is not a sponsored post. I just truly love this stuff!)
5. If you can’t get a kitchen, try for a mini fridge and microwave. Then pick up some pho the night before. Our first night in Seattle, we went to Ba Bar, where they have phenomenal Vietnamese pho (pronounced “fuh”), a bone broth featuring various ingredients; mine had ramen noodles, duck confit, mushrooms, and lemongrass. The broth and ramen noodles were so delicious, I ordered extra to take “home,” and had this for breakfast the next couple days. (This photo is terrible, but the breakfast was not!) On the side, I had peaches and strawberries with a drizzle of cream. So, slight bending of Paleo rules – noodles, cream – but still a whole-foods, low-carb, no-sugar breakfast. And quite delightful! I did not feel one bit deprived.
If you can’t find pho, egg-drop soup would probably work well, too.
6. When you’re in a pinch, just make the best choices you can. One day, we were stuck with nothing in the fridge and no ride for a couple hours, so we walked to the nearest place — which happened to be a Starbucks. (No surprise, in Seattle!) This is the best I could do there: a low-glycemic KIND bar, and water. Not a great breakfast, either from a health or satisfaction standpoint, but it was enough to get me by till we could get something more substantial.
7. Bend rules: sometimes a little, sometimes a little more! One of the days, we ended up having “second breakfast” at a place called Oddfellows. While there were lots of bready things on the menu — even gluten-free biscuits — avocado toast sounded delicious to me. It came on whole-wheat bread, sprinkled with pepitas and sprouts, and shaved radish. I removed the latter (not a radish fan), then cut up the bacon I ordered on the side, and added that on top. Yum!
Our last day, we ate at Glo’s Cafe; a very small mom-and-pop diner type place. One of my MOST favorite things to order for breakfast is eggs benedict, not just because I love it, but also it’s something I never make myself. The white bread English muffins that come standard with bennies are definitely not Paleo. I’ve tried benedict without any bread at all, but then so much of that yummalicious yolk-and-hollandaise sauce goes to waste on the plate! So my compromise is to order it on whole wheat toast — which works out quite nicely. I also order a side of avocado to healthy it up a bit. Glo’s has really good eggs benny, and it comes with a heap o’ hash browns…
I’m not the huge hash brown fiend my husband is, but I do enjoy them if they’re crispy. So bending the rules a little more, I enjoy the crispy bits, and leave the rest behind.
This was a fully satisfying, delicious, treat of a breakfast, but still with no guilt.
Some other places to eat in Seattle
Just to be real, I DO bend the rules more during the rest of the day on vacation! On this trip, I enjoyed street tacos at Tacos Chukis, creme brullee at Ray’s Boathouse, Molly Moon’s ice cream, and more!
My husband really enjoyed the coffee and quiet at Storyville Coffee. I may have had a sip or two. Cream and sugar included.
Although it wasn’t a meal, my favorite food discovery was the Quintessential Gourmet tasting room, where you could taste wines, hard ciders, olive oils, and — the thing that made me giddy — almost 20 different flavors of balsamic vinegar! Strawberry, blueberry, espresso, chocolate, cranberry-pear. Mix them with orange-infused or lavender-infused olive oil, or any of the several other flavors. Oh, we had fun, and walked out with a ridiculous amount of small bottles!
My favorite meal of the week, though, was a picnic we enjoyed at Gas Works Park, feasting on smoked salmon that tasted like bacon (from Pure Food Fish Market), nothin’-paleo-about-it pastries from Peroshky Peroshky, and drippy-ripe slices of nectarine dipped in my aforementioned new love, Ellenos! (All of which we discovered on the Seattle Bites Food Tour — also highly recommended!)
I do confess to pigging out on the yogurt. It was our last night, and we couldn’t take it on the plane!
So I did not live a regimented life while we were there. But I just find that making the effort to start the day with some good protein and minimal sugar keeps my energy and mood up all day long. And who wants to spend vacay tired and cranky?!