Warm spring temperatures inspire us to open the windows and get organized. Whether you clean from floor to ceiling or just enough to lighten the load, make sure you add pantry or food cabinets to your list.
A well-organized pantry can help boost food shopping and meal prep efficiency, lower your grocery bills (say goodbye to multiple jars of dried oregano!) and improve your health.
Think of spring cleaning your pantry as a way to streamline your food stockpile and kick-start your healthy eating habits. It’s your opportunity to throw out the old and unhealthy, and start anew. In fact, a well-organized pantry may be the easiest lifestyle change you make!
First, remove everything from your pantry. Yes, everything. You’ll find fallen spice jars and grains you forgot you bought. Then, wipe down the shelves using a wet cloth or a vinegar-water spray and allow to dry completely.
While shelves are drying, it’s time to categorize and purge! Use this opportunity to throw out the bad so you can make room for the good.
Here are some items that you can (and should) ditch for your health.
Items to Purge
Expired items: Check expiration dates and toss those spices, herbs, grains, teas and anything else that has expired or has no date.
Damaged goods: Throw out cans with dents and packages that have tears or rips.
Not-so-healthy packaged foods: Toss those packaged goods that are high in added sugars and/or sodium, like cookies, candy, some granola bars, some cereals, chips, refined flour crackers, ramen noodles and full-sodium soups and sauces. Look for items that contain these alternate sugar names: sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, maltose, barley malt and rice syrup in the ingredients list. While all foods can fit into a healthy diet, I find that clients tend to eat more of these foods if they’re within reach. Keep these foods out of the house, especially if they’re trigger foods, and save those calories for the really good stuff, like an occasional (note the keyword here, occasional) freshly baked cookie from a bakery or “house-made” chips from fresh potatoes or sweet potatoes.
Packaged foods made with refined flour: While you’ll probably throw out most of the refined flour products when you toss the items with lots of added sugars and sodium, do a double check and get rid of white pasta, rice and bread. These highly processed grains provide calories without all of the nutrients you get from whole grains: think dietary fiber and phytochemicals. Sometimes it’s tricky to tell white grains from their whole grain counterparts, so look for the words “whole” or “100% whole” on the ingredient list.
If any of these foods are unopened, consider donating them to a local food bank.
Now, on to my favorite part. Here are some ideas for nutritious foods to add to your newly-cleaned pantry!
Items to Add
Canned and pouched seafood: Canned and pouched tuna, salmon, anchovies and sardines are great to keep in the pantry. Not only are canned fish affordable and convenient (you literally just open a pouch or can, no cooking required), they are incredibly nutritious. Canned seafood is rich in protein, vitamin D, selenium, iron and those heart-healthy omega-3s DHA and EPA. Eating a can or two each week can help you meet the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendation to consume at least 2-3 seafood meals weekly. This is especially important for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, as well as children. Try turning any meal into a Mediterranean one by subbing out meat and poultry for canned seafood in your favorite dishes… spaghetti sauce with tuna or anchovies; burgers made with tuna or salmon; tuna quesadillas or tacos; sardines on pizza; and salmon or anchovies in your frittata. (Click here for one of my favorite recipes that’s great for the entire family!)
Whole and ancient grains: Unlike their refined grain counterparts, whole and ancient grains have their most nutrient-dense components still intact. Most whole grains tend to contain dietary fiber, manganese, phosphorus and magnesium. Ancient grains are whole grains, whose origins can be traced back to the beginning of time and have largely remained unchanged for hundreds of years. According to the Dietary Guidelines, at least half of the grains we eat each day should come from whole grains. To increase your nutrient intake, try replacing refined grains with whole and ancient grains, such as brown rice, oats, barley, freekeh, farro, bulgur, millet, spelt, popcorn and whole grain pasta, bread, crackers and cereal.
Canned and dried beans and lentils: Like seafood, beans and lentils are affordable protein sources. Beans and lentils provide healthy amounts of dietary fiber, B vitamins, iron, magnesium and antioxidants. To reduce your sodium intake when eating and cooking with canned beans, choose a reduced-sodium variety and rinse them well. While dried beans aren’t as convenient as canned beans, they are more economical and, with a little preparation, just as tasty. Beans and lentils make great additions to salads, soups, dips and pasta. Or, try your hand at making a bean or lentil patty.
Nuts and seeds: Rich in dietary fiber and unsaturated fats, nuts and seeds and their butters boast a healthy profile. From chia, hemp and flax to pumpkin, sesame and sunflower, seeds have been receiving a lot attention in recent years and for good reason. They are a nutritious and whole food, just like nuts, but they provide an alternative to those who are allergic to nuts. Add them to your salads, yogurt, smoothies, cereals and trail mix. Crushed nuts and seeds can be used as a “breading” for fish and poultry or added to baked goods. Just remember: the calories in nuts and seeds add up quickly, so stick to a handful (or about 1-1.5 ounces) to keep portion sizes in check. One thing to note: If you don’t go through your nuts in less than 2-4 months, you may want to store them in the refrigerator to keep the oils from going rancid.
Oils and vinegars: Choose heart-healthy oils like olive, canola, flaxseed, grapeseed, avocado, walnut and hazelnut to ensure you’re reaping the biggest heart-health benefits. Try keeping a couple of different oils in your pantry. Olive oil is great for dressings and cooking on low, while high smoke-point oils like canola are better for cooking food at high temperatures. While coconut oil has received a lot of media attention lately, the jury is still out on exactly how the types of saturated fat in coconut oil impact the body. So, if you prefer the taste of coconut oil, look for oils that are less processed (virgin) and use sparingly. And when it comes to vinegars, try keeping a couple of varieties of vinegar on hand, as well. From champagne and fig balsamic to maple-infused and peach balsamic, there are so many to choose from. Try drizzling fig balsamic on strawberries or lemon vinegar on your salad.
Dried herbs and spices: Dried herbs and spices amp up the wow factor in your dishes, while providing a good dose of antioxidants. Use dried herbs and spices liberally in your recipes, and I promise you’ll never miss extra salt. Sprinkle ground cinnamon on oats, tea, coffee, yogurt, cereals, oatmeal and baked goods. Add dried oregano or basil to eggs, soups, salads, grilled seafood and poultry, roasted vegetables, sandwiches and casseroles. And, explore some new herbs and spices, as well, to add a new taste twist to your favorite meals.After purging the not-so-healthy and adding some nutrition superstars, it’s time to categorize and organize.
You can categorize by grouping the 1) same kinds of foods together (i.e., canned beans in one spot, cereals in another spot), 2) food groups (protein-rich foods like canned seafood and canned beans together, grains like pastas and cereals together), 3) by meals (tuna, spaghetti sauce and pasta in one section, oats and dried fruits in another section) or by how your family eats (cereals where kids can reach, foods that need to be “cooked” in another section). Go with the one that makes the most sense for your space and your family.
Lastly, use tools that help you organize. Clear glass Mason jars allow you to store dried beans and pastas so you can see how much you have on hand. Air-tight containers with easy-open lids allow your kids to help themselves to cereals, whole grain crackers and popcorn. A Lazy Susan allows you to keep multiple oils and vinegars at hand without taking up too much space.
A clean pantry will help your food-keeping space feel lighter, and you may find it helps you feel lighter, too.