Friday, November 7, 2008

Keeping up a pantry

One of the reasons people spend too much money on groceries is that they allow themselves to run out of things they use on a regular basis. This means that they're always buying out of desperation and will likely pay more.

An easy example is buying milk. I've always found that convenience store milk is more expensive than supermarket milk, but when you need it now, and you don't have time to do a full shopping, you go to the convenience store to save time, and lose money. Ironically, you're not saving any time either, because rather than buying your milk during a regular, planned shopping excursion, you've had to make a special trip to buy just one item (and maybe a pack of gum and a cup of coffee, while you're at it ... adding to the bill).

If you cannot anticipate your food needs, you also cannot appropriately take advantage of sales, coupons, etc. I say "appropriately" because sales and coupons dupe so many people into buying things they don't want or need. Not every sale item is worth buying. Not every sale is truly a good buy (20 cents off a $5 item is hardly a bargain!). Most manufacturer coupons are for products that are way too expensive to begin with. And discount and wholesale stores (like BJs, Costco, and Walmart) may have some good deals, but you can't assume everything is a good deal. Still, some sales and coupons really are to your advantage, and if you plan well, you can save money using them.

Grocery shopping requires organization and planning, and it starts with knowing your pantry. Every pantry is different, of course, based on what sorts of foods you prepare and what your family likes to eat. Nevertheless, I think there are few must-haves and must-not-haves in a healthy pantry:

Must Haves
SALT - Sea salt, kosher salt and soy sauce
Wait a minute! Isn't salt supposed to be the UN-healthy? Not exactly. If you have or are prone to hypertension (high blood pressure), then yes, you should limit your salt intake. You should not, however, eliminate it altogether. If you are not prone to hypertension, you might suffer from fluid retention if you take in an enormous amount of salt, but normal appetites should produce no effect.
Salt is an essential mineral - we cannot live without it. When you drink a sports drink that is said to replenish your electrolytes, they are talking about salts. If you are stuck in the desert and drink only water, you will die! Eat a pretzel, drink some coconut water (nature's own sports drink - yup, it's the liquid inside the coconut), even have some Gatorade, if you must!!!
Why sea or kosher salt or soy sauce? Please, forget the table salt. You'll get your iodine from better sources. Sea salt and kosher salt are less processed, provide more minerals, taste better, and dissolve more easily than table salt. Tamari, a type of fermented soy sauce, is a good salt substitute (I buy the low-sodium variety to avoid unnecessary sodium) that works better in some dishes. Iodized table salt (and products that contain it) is how most Americans get their iodine, which is a vital mineral. It is, however, not the most bioavailable source of iodine, and it is certainly not a natural source. Sea vegetables are really the way to go in that regard (for all you sushi lovers, you're halfway there already!), but more about that later.

GRAINS - Whole grains provide complex carbohydrates to fuel our bodies. They don't result in the blood-sugar spike that simple carbs are known for, so they don't make us feel energized and then slow. Rather, they give us sustained energy that will carry us easily to the next meal. Whole grains are also a good source of protein, fiber, and many minerals (calcium, iron, magnesium, folate, etc.). I personally think that grains should appear in just about every meal.
Which whole grains you choose depends mostly on your tastes. Some are more nutritious than others, but all have value. Some good choices are brown rice, quinoa [not technically a grain, but functions as one], barley, bulgar wheat, oats, millet, teff. I also count whole grain pasta, couscous, noodles of other kinds, breads, cereals, and the like in this category, even though they are processed.

BEANS, LENTILS & NUTS - These are your wallet's, as well as your body's, best friends. Nuts are not at all inexpensive, but a sprinkling of chopped almonds or hazelnuts can add so much flavor to a dish, while giving you healthy fats, protein and fiber, along with many vitamins and minerals. Beans and lentils can easily be the star of the meal, in stews, soups, dips, burgers, casseroles, burritos, salads, one-pot meals, and even in baking. They are so versatile, and there are so many varieties, that it would be hard to get bored of these tiny miracles. They are also supremely dirt cheap! Dry or canned will work (I use both), but dry is your better bargain, and many say they are better quality, too.
We keep these beans and lentils in our pantry: green lentils, red lentils, black beans, aduki beans, garbanzo beans, canellini beans, butter beans, kidney beans. We also keep these nuts in the house (freezer is really where they live): almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, macadamias, pecans, walnuts.

OMEGA 3 FOODS - Canned sardines and canned salmon are both excellent sources of Omega 3 fatty acids, important for brain and heart health. They also happen to be very good sources of calcium and protein, so they kill several birds with one stone. Preparation? None. Expense? Minimal. What more could you ask for? Incidentally, we also have flax seed and fresh salmon (high Omega 3 foods, as well) in our house at all times, but those are items for the fridge/freezer, and we're focusing on the pantry for now.

FLOURS - Whether you bake cookies, bread, or you just need it to make an occasional roux, flour of some sort is an essential pantry item. For me, since I do bake, I have a variety of flours (whole wheat, unbleached all-purpose, brown rice, corn, bran, quinoa, coconut, etc.). I think anyone who wants their kitchen to be healthy needs to think about desserts in healthy ways, too. Incorporating whole grain flours into baking can add a healthy element to an otherwise barren indulgence. Still, as indulgences go, better to have a homemade oatmeal cookie that lacks hydrogenated oils, genetically modified ingredients, and various unpronounceables, than to have a pantry full of Ho-Hos and Ding-Dongs.

SEA VEGETABLES - This is an essential pantry item in part because sea vegetables are very nutrient dense AND shelf stable - something than cannot be said of a bunch of kale. As mentioned earlier, sea vegetables are also our primary source of natural iodine, which is essential for thyroid health. The sea vegetable that is probably best known by Americans is nori, the dark green wrap used to hold sushi rolls together. Nori is also one of the most easily used sea vegetables at home, because it can be made into crisp chips (bake a sheet of Nori on an ungreased cookie sheet at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, and break into pieces) - my daughter asks for these several times a week. Kelp is also a good sea vegetable that incorporates easily into home cooking. It is a powder that can be sprinkled into sauces and stews and soups. Another sea vegetable that I have in my pantry is wakame. Although I like wakame, I think it is more of an acquired taste. It goes particularly well in miso and fish-based soups. One note of caution about sea vegetables. Although iodine is an essential nutrient, it is easy to consume too much. Limit your intake of sea vegetables to one serving per day.

OIL & VINEGAR - Salad anyone? Yes, this pair does do well to help you create your own salad dressing, but they are essentials for quite a lot of meals well beyond salads.
Oil is a good cooking medium, although keeping the oil to a minimum is also a good idea to keep the fat content down (try Misto oil sprayer( ... it creates a mist of oil without any alcohol or propellants ... healthy for you and the ozone layer). Oil is also a good flavor enhancer, since it does have fat, but again, proceed with caution. The oils that I think are essential are extra virgin olive oil (for salads, sauces and low-heat cooking), safflower oil (for high heat cooking and baking), and sesame oil (for flavor). Oils are also expensive, and like most other expensive things, you need to use them sparingly, for your health and your wallet.
Vinegar, like oil, is also about flavor enhancement. Vinegar is an acid and acts in our mouth somewhat like salt, brightening and energizing the flavors that are already there. Vinegars vary so much in their tastes that I keep a whole lot of them around. I tend to use red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, white wine vinegar, and rice wine vinegar the most. Other less used vinegars in my pantry are balsamic, champagne, and sherry.

DRY SPICES & HERBS - Contrary to what chefs and foodies will tell you, you can use dry spices for a very long time with very good results. You're running a household, not a restaurant. Spices and herbs, while expensive, can go a long way, and can help make an otherwise dreary meal into a pleasure. Healthy cooking is often thought of as bland, but that's only because what passes as healthy (mostly taking fat and salt-laden recipes and cutting out the fat and salt) is all give and no take. Real flavor comes from seasoning.
Again, which spices and herbs you choose depends on your tastes. These are a few that frequent my pantry: garlic powder, chopped onion, basil, oregano, parsley, cumin, coriander, garam masala, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, thyme, rosemary, black peppercorns, chili powder, red pepper flakes.

NATURAL SWEETENERS - How can sweeteners be a part of a healthy diet? Well, sometimes they can't. But there are lots of sweeteners out there, and they don't all possess the evils of sugar. None of them really add much to your health (although arguments have been made that honey has anti-bacterial properties and molasses is a great source of iron), but some do more to detract from it than others. In general, the more processed a food, the worse it is for you. Nothing could be a better example of this than white sugar. White sugar is very high on the glycemic index, so it is more likely than lower glycemic foods to contribute to weight gain and the development of type II diabetes .
The reason I consider sweeteners a must-have, despite their waistline-expansion agenda, is that I think we are all human, and we need something sweet here and there. I don't advocate daily indulgence in sweets, but every so often, we might need a little something.
How can we lessen the blow? I do keep white sugar in my pantry, but I use it very rarely ... only in certain baking recipes when it is absolutely necessary. For the most part, my sweetener of choice is agave nectar, which comes from the same cactus that brings us tequila. Agave is very low on the glycemic index, especially as sweeteners go, and it has a light, subtle taste. I use it in coffee, in baking, in savory recipes that call for a little splash of sweetness (think stir fry), and in my daughter's oatmeal almost every morning. Agave is also expensive, but remember, you're not using much of it because you're trying to be healthy, right?
Other sweeteners that might work for you (some of which are in my pantry, too): honey, brown rice syrup, stevia (a natural no-calorie option), maple syrup, maple sugar, fruit juice concentrates.

HERB TEA - How could this be essential in anyone's pantry? Well, I guess it's not, but I think herb tea is a great way to get variety into your drinkables, which makes us feel a little less relegated to plain old water. There are so many varieties of herb tea these days, many of which have antioxidant properties and other beneficial side-effects. You will certainly never get bored with what you drink. Herb teas are not actually teas, per se, but they are brewed in the same way, and packaged in the same way, and enjoyed in the same way, so why not call them by the same name? They lack caffeine, so you can drink all you want, in most cases. You can make very inexpensive pitchers of iced tea from herb teas, or you can have them hot. You can use tea as an ingredient in baking recipes (try substituting a fruity herb tea when juice is called for), or you can make a healthy dessert, like poached pears infused with herb tea. And imagine all the fruit drinks (which are high fructose corn syrup and water, plus artificial color and flavor), sodas, energy drinks and overpriced coffee drinks you'll easily forgo when you can have almost any flavor you want in the form of herb tea.

So, now that you know what you must have in your pantry, let's look at some major must-NOT-haves:

Must NOT Haves
HYDROGENATED OILS (aka Trans Fats) - There should be absolutely no hydrogenated oils in your pantry ... no exceptions ... not even partially hydrogenated oils. The scariest thing about hydrogenated oils is that they can cause increased levels of LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol), which can harden your arteries and cause heart disease. Heart disease is still the #1 killer among women ... higher than breast cancer! We don't need any help raising our cholesterol in this country! Hydrogenated oils also contribute to obesity, and by extension, diabetes. They have no nutritional value whatsoever because they are an invention of science. Anything that does not occur in nature is not likely a healthy part of your diet (you'll see that sentiment repeated often here). To avoid these, and many other sneaky little bastards, you'll need to read labels well. Limit the amount of products you buy with long lists of ingredients. Chances are, something's hidden in that long list, and there's more than likely a whole lot of processing going on. There are no raw materials (fruits, vegetables, grains, meats) that contain hydrogenated oils. Stick to those, and you'll know you're safe.

GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) - These "foods" are all around us. Most non-organic soy, corn and wheat are most definitely GMO. Essentially, the term means that science has created, through artificial means, DNA that has some advantage (not to your health, of course), usually to farming, transportation, or other money-making ends. There are so many problems with GMOs, I'm sure to miss some, so please excuse me for being incomplete. Regarding health concerns, GMOs are not naturally occurring, and are therefore an unnatural part of our diet. What the effects of that will be may not be known for decades. Even now, it seems that American food allergies are on the rise, particularly to wheat and soy. Some say that they can digest these foods with no problem when in the other countries, but not here, in GMO-land.
Unfortunately, like it or not, you cannot eliminate GMOs from your diet entirely! Buying organic produce and meats can limit the amount of GMOs you'll ingest, but it won't do away with it altogether. While GMOs are not part of organic farming, in reality, that's a technicality. When the farm next door has GMO soy, and your farm has organic soy, what's to stop a busy bee from carrying pollen from the GMO soy over to your pristine organic soy and fertilizing your unsuspecting crops? And so, nature is swallowed up by profit margins. This has obvious environmental concerns, as well, as the more pest-resistant GMO crops overtake other natural crops, we could lose biodiversity, which would leave us increasingly susceptible to disease outbreaks, such as spinach and scallions contaminated with E-coli and salmonella (sound familiar?).

ARTIFICIAL COLORS & FLAVORS - Can you say ADHD? Several clinical studies have shown that artificial colors and flavors negatively affect the behaviors of children, decreasing their ability to focus, and increasing hyperactivity. Children with ADD and ADHD, after eliminating these products from their diets, saw marked improvements in their behavior. Even children who don't suffer from ADD or ADHD can display negative effects after consuming artificial colors and flavors. Consider how a child behaves after a typical birthday party that features cake with some obscenely colored icing. Yes, there's load of sugar in the cake, and that's no good either, but does your child bounce off the walls after a cookie as much as they bounce off the walls after eating fire engine red icing? Feel free to conduct your own experiments with these, if you wish, or don't and play it safe.
Once again, these are chemical inventions, and do not occur in nature, so I say, best to leave them out of your bloodstream.

NITRATES, NITRITES and SULFITES (preservatives)- Nitrites are mostly found in processed meat products - cold cuts, hot dogs, sausage and smoked/cured fish. The major health concern regarding nitrites is that it can lead to low oxygen absorption in the blood. Although very high quantities of nitrites would need to be consumed to have very ill-effects in an adult, children, especially babies, are very susceptible to poor health and even death as a result of too much nitrite intake. So, it's critical that pregnant women, babies and young children not consume these products that are so often given to children.
From an environmental standpoint, nitrates, which are commonly used in fertilizers and are also in high concentration in the excrement of livestock, are getting far too abundant and are making their way into our drinking water and our produce. Nitrates, when consumed, are converted to nitrites in the body, and are adding to the already high quantities in our bodies. This raises ethical questions about consuming farmed meat (but more about that another time).
Sulfites are used primarily in wines and dried fruit. In wine, it is part of the fermentation process (or rather ending fermentation), but in dried fruit it is a purely cosmetic issue. The concern with sulfites is that some people can have allergic reactions, which can be fatal. It's more likely to be serious among asthma-sufferers. Since most of us have had wine made with sulfites at one point or another, we probably know if we react to sulfites. Still, I avoid them in dried fruits simply because they are an additive I don't need, and they serve no purpose.

ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS - This is another instance where I say, nature didn't make it ... I don't want it. Artifical sweeteners have been shown to cause cancer, cause tumors, and are even correlated with weight gain (that's right, drink diet soda, GAIN weight!). Splenda, which does so much to convince the unknowing public that it's actually sugar, minus the calories, is probably the scariest one of all. It is processed with chlorine, making it an organochloride, a highly volatile and unpredictable, unnatural compound. We have no idea what it could do. Splenda is in the same category as other organochlorides that are produced by countless manufactures as by-products to manufacturing, polluting our soil, water and air. Why would I ever want to put something in that class into my body?

Now that you know what must and must not be in your pantry, it's your job to fill in the rest with what ever else your family likes, wants, and needs, and the possibilities are vast. Once you know what you must have in your pantry, here are your next steps:

Always have a back-up - Don't run out of anything in your must-haves. These are generally non-perishable items, so if you open a new bag of rice, even though you just opened it, you need a new bag of rice.

Make lists - Put a list of things to buy in a conspicuous place (fridge, peg board, marker board, whatever you prefer). When you need to buy a back-up, put it on the list right away, before you forget. Train your family to do the same. Putting something on the list doesn't mean you'll need to buy it right away. Sometimes, if you know that a bag of rice lasts you about a month, you can put off buying that rice until a good sale comes along, or until you have a less expensive shopping week. Just don't wait so long that you run out of that old bag of rice!

Keep a mental inventory - Know, at least approximately, how much you have of each of your must-haves. That way, if you an encounter a good deal, you can take advantage of it (or leave it alone, if you have more than you know what to do with).

Keep the clutter out - Try not to allow too many non-essentials to invade your pantry. Doing so will help you avoid impulse buying, as well as buying those foods that are interesting, but not practical. It will also help you keep your pantry orderly and easy to use.

Keeping up your pantry will give you some peace of mind, but it will also make meal-preparation and planning more predictable, and it will cut your costs because you'll be deliberate in everything you buy.

Hopefully, this wasn't information overload. I'll be sure to post this week's shopping list (mine, that is) soon. Happy shopping!!

No comments: