So New Year, new you? Thinking of quitting sugar, quitting processed food, eating more real food, trying gluten-free, grain-free, or going Paleo? I’ve done all of those, and while I’ve landed on a real foods, mostly-veggies-and-meat formula, I’ve collected quite a few tips that work for a wide variety of healthy diets.
Making the switch from convenience food — whether from restaurants or frozen meals — to a whole-foods/real food/homecooked lifestyle does have a learning curve, but once you learn a few tricks and practice them until they become habits, it’ll be a breeze!
Set yourself up for success by trying a few kitchen stocking and ingredient tricks. Here are all my best “tips for eating healthier” and “meal plan” posts:
So, you know you should eat a healthy breakfast every day, but those ready-made convenience foods — cereal, bagels, yogurt — make it so easy to load up on low-nutrient carbs that it’s hard to get out of that rut. But that rut is what makes you hungry again before 10 o’clock every morning!
Since losing more than 30 pounds two years ago, and because I’ve kinda become known as a food guru in my social circles, people often ask me, “So, how do you eat?” I’ve had a hard time answering that. It took me a long time and much trial and error to arrive at what works for me, and even when I found it, I was too close to it to be able to articulate it for others.
But this week it hit me. It’s just this simple five-part formula:
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.
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.
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.
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 some on to Goodwill.
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!
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
10 things I always have in the freezer:
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!
One of the biggest challenges in eating clean and healthy is putting together meals. And one of the most important tips/tricks for making healthy meals super easy is to have some food “building blocks” ready in your fridge and freezer at all times. I plan to do a complete post on this soon, but for now, here is one of my favorites: sweet potatoes. They’re easy to prep, keep well in the fridge, and very versatile at playing well with other foods.
Plus, when you’re looking for nutrient-dense foods, sweet potato is a super-hero source of Vitamin A! This chart shows amounts for a whole 5″ potato, but even half this is good! (nutrition data source)
I learned this prep method from the ladies at Layers of Happiness, but their recipe was for a complete dish. I’ve just borrowed the method, and adapted it for the ready-t0-go-ingredients tray in my Whole30 compliant fridge. (A post for another day.)
I start with a medium-sized sweet potato. What I’m calling “medium” is about 5 or 6″ long and roughly 3″ wide at the widest point. Give it a good scrubbing with a vegetable brush under running water, then pat dry. Poke several holes in it with a fork. I usually make three or four pokes on one side, then turn it over and repeat.
Then I put it in the microwave on high for one minute and 45 seconds; turn it over and repeat. (Please note that all microwaves are different and you will probably need to experiment to find the timing that works with yours.)
Next, I take it out and cut it in half. It should be somewhat soft all the way through. It doesn’t need to be thoroughly soft, and you really don’t want it to be. But if it’s still hard in the middle, you can put the halves cut-side-down on a microwave safe plate and zap it for another 30 – 45 seconds.
Then, using a sharp paring or steak knife, cut the flesh of the sweet potato into cubes of about 1/2″ — but don’t cut all the way through to the skin. You may go ahead and cut all the way through the middle, if you like. (Note/update: I used to leave them semi-cut, like this, but I found that I usually use them diced, so now I just cut all the way through the skin and store them diced.)
Just stash this in an airtight container in the fridge, ready to deploy for all kinds of easy Whole30/Paleo meals. Such as…
A breakfast stir-fry with eggs, sausage, spinach, and sweet potato.
Another breakfast option — and one reason you don’t cut all the way through the skin. Scramble your favorite eggs and meat combo, and serve it on top of a reheated sweet potato half or quarter. Add snipped chives, if you have ’em, for color and flavor:
A super-easy side dish: Spread some bacon fat (or other healthy fat of your choice), salt, and pepper on top, and reheat. Sweet potato and pork were made for each other:
Another easy meal is to top a prepped, reheated sweet potato with some pulled pork or carnitas — then top it all off with some caramelized onions. I haven’t shot a photo of that exact dish, but here’s a similar combo from Free the Animal:
(Mashing your sweet potatoes is another option.)
One of my favorite easy lunches is to throw some leftover pork or sausage in some bone broth — either chicken or ham — and some veggies from my make-ahead tray; here, I used sweet potato, onion, and zucchini:
This soup is thickened with an egg yolk. On this particular day, I was lucky enough to have some local eggs from a friend. The yolks were almost orange, and it gave the broth a lovely golden color!
The healthy breakfast and soup options are really endless — even within Whole30 restrictions! Once you have some mostly-cooked, mostly-diced sweet potato in the fridge, you’ll find all kinds of new ways to use this flavorful, healthful, versatile veggie!
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New to eating gluten-free? Or thinking of going Paleo?