The new year always brings out the urge to clean up our act – step up our exercise, organize our homes, and of course, clean up our diets. Since clean eating is all about getting the highly processed, overly sweet and excessively caloric items out of our diet, it makes sense that a natural first step is cleaning out your kitchen.
In part one of this series, we are addressing the refrigerator. The refrigerator can be the black hole of leftovers and well-intentioned produce, or it can be the workhorse to support your clean eating habits.
If you want to eat clean, these are the essentials you want in your refrigerator (in no particular order).
- Half and Half and Chocolate Soy Milk – Half and half is a good alternative to those fake (albeit yummy) flavored coffee creamers. Chocolate Soy Milk is my chocolate fix. When I crave something chocolaty, I love a small cup of the light Silk Chocolate Soy Milk (only 60 calories). It can also be used in a chocolate banana smoothie or frozen for a fudgesicle-type treat.
- Juice – I know we are trying to reduce sugars with clean eating, but I keep juice so I can add a splash when making smoothies or to mix with a sparkling water for a refreshing alternative to water.
- Eggs – Eggs are the most easily absorbed protein source for our bodies. I keep raw eggs and hard boiled in the fridge, so they are ready for a snack, salad topper, or quick protein to go with my breakfast. I also keep liquid eggs (or Egg Beaters) for a quick microwave egg dish on really busy mornings!
- Nuts – In the refrigerator you say? Yes! Nuts are high in fat, which is why you have to be careful about your portions. That fat can turn rancid quickly when left in a pantry. Especially if you buy nuts in bulk, like I do, you should keep them in your refrigerator for freshness.
- Lean Meats or Fish – Any raw meats, thawing or fresh, should be on the lowest shelf and in a container to catch any draining liquid. You don’t want that leaking onto your salad greens!
- Yogurt – Like many of you, I like Greek yogurt for its lower carbohydrate and high protein amounts. I especially like the 100 calorie Yoplait Greek yogurts that allow me to add fruit or granola without accounting for half of my day’s calories.
- Salad Fixings – I have found that I dedicate a drawer (or more) to all the ingredients for a salad – salad greens, cucumber, tomato, carrots, or whatever you like. It makes it super easy to throw a salad together when everything is in one place.
- All Other Produce – My second produce drawer works hard to contain many things:
- Lemons and Limes – A clean eating essential! Lemons and limes are great when cooking, the zest can be used on salads, side dishes, and the juice in salad dressings and marinades. Slices of lemon and lime are a great way to give water a bit of interest.
- Fresh Herbs – My dream is to have a massive herb garden. While my black thumb turns a bit greyer with each trial I still find myself purchasing fresh herbs from time to time. When you buy herbs, you can wash them and wrap in a damp (not overly wet) paper towel. Place this is a resealable bag and herbs should stay fresh for several days.
- Fruit – I like to keep hearty fresh fruit like apples, oranges, and pears in a bowl with bananas on the counter in my kitchen. Statistically, we are more likely to eat what is convenient and what we see. Other, more fragile fruit like berries, grapes, or melons I store in the refrigerator. I line my produce drawers with paper towels for easy clean up in case I should have something go bad or when the drawers need the occasional cleaning.
- Other Vegetables – If you are going to have healthy side dishes with your meals, you need to have a variety of vegetables on hand. Of course, you could use frozen (canned is less preferred), but the key is to plan your meals so that good produce doesn’t go to waste.
- Cheese – Personally, I could make a meal out of cheese, but beware. Clean eating means portion control with cheese. However, I find that it is an essential of any good kitchen. Pungent cheeses like bleu, goat cheese, or feta are great in salads because you need very little to go a long way. Adding shredded or shaved Parmesan cheese to side dishes, on top of roasted vegetables or as a finish to soups add a nutty flavor and heartiness with few calories. Avoid processed cheeses, waxy, or fat free cheeses. The less flavor, the more inclined you are to add more cheese to the dish.
- Ground Flax Seed and Garlic – Just like the nuts, flax seeds contain fat. When you grind the flax seed (remember you don’t absorb the goodness when eaten whole; grind them in a coffee bean grinder before adding to your foods), you release the oils which can turn rancid very quickly. I grind a small amount at a time and keep it in an air-tight container in the fridge, just ready for sprinkling on a salad or in a smoothie. As for garlic, I love can do to foods, but I’m prissy when it comes to the smell on my hands. So, I buy the pre-chopped option in a jar. It still has the antioxidant power of the fresh variety and tastes just as good.
- Milk – To me, there is nothing more refreshing than a glass of skim cow’s milk. If you are partial to other kinds of milk – goat, almond, or soy, no worries. Just be sure there isn’t too much sugar or fat in the kind you prefer.
- Mustard – All kinds! Since mustard is a natural emulsifier (meaning it combines oils and vinegars well), Dijon is great for making your own salad dressings. Mustard can add a lot of flavor when cooking meats or fish and is a great alternative to mayo on sandwiches and wraps.
- Mayo – Yes, I have some. Actually, I have 3 different kinds – a light mayo, Miracle Whip light (curse you leftover ham sandwiches) and Vegenaise. I have to say, when it comes to clean eating, I would recommend the Vegennaise over the rest. It is light enough that is won’t overpower dishes while still meeting the need for mayo. More often I substitute avocado or roasted red pepper hummus on sandwiches and wraps.
Even though water is a very important part of clean eating, you might notice there is no bottled water in this fridge. I prefer to use a reusable BPA-free bottle to help me keep track of my water intake, save money and appease my guilt when I kill a houseplant.
What about the freezer? Ok, technically we are talking about the refrigerator but as a conjoined twin, the freezer deserves some time in the spotlight. To eat clean, I use the freezer to stores meat, poultry, and seafood like shrimp and fish fillets, chicken bones for making stock, sweet potato fries (my kids love these), frozen juice like pomegranate, yogurt pods (frozen portions of leftover yogurt soon to expire but work great in smoothies or as a dessert), frozen fruit, and vegetables.
What’s in your fridge? I can’t wait to hear about your nutrition goals this New Year.
Not sure how long to keep items in your refrigerator? Check out these great resources to tell you when to throw it out!
Food and Drug Administration – printable chart for refrigerator and freezer expiration timeframes
WebMD’s Table of Condiments – an interactive way to see how long you should keep the condiments in your refrigerator
Martha Stewart – includes refrigerator and pantry items
Real Simple - Where you should store items in the refrigerator for maximum freshness