As anyone with a chronic condition can attest, one of the hardest parts of the day is mealtime. Especially for chronic pain patients with children or families to feed, the struggle to find the time and energy to put healthy meals on the table can make every day feel like an uphill battle.
One way to combat this is to create a healthier fridge and pantry so that meals and snacks come together in a snap. Here’s how.
Get organized for a healthier fridge
Organizing your fridge (and freezer!) is the first step towards creating a healthier fridge and pantry. Making a few simple changes can help you become a more efficient cook and also reduce food waste.
- Door: Many of us use the doors to store milk and eggs, but that it not the best place for these temperature-sensitive foods. Doors are the warmest part of the fridge, and milk and eggs should be kept colder to extend their useable life. Store condiments and juices in the doors of your fridge.
- Upper shelves: This is a great place for grab-and-go foods and snacks like tortillas, hummus, and leftovers. Make sure leftovers are placed in clear containers so everyone can see what’s there.
- Lower shelves: This is the coldest place in the fridge. Store temperature-sensitive items like eggs, yogurt, meat, and seafood here. Take care to keep raw meat and seafood away from other foods by keeping it in its packaging and placing it in a separate container just in case it leaks.
- Crisper drawers: Crisper drawers are designed to maintain a cool, humid atmosphere to keep fruits and veggies fresher, longer. Fruit should be stored separately from vegetables, as certain fruits and vegetables give off ethylene, a natural gas that speeds ripening. Delicate fruits like berries should be stored on upper shelves and washed right before eating. Vegetables like greens, lettuce, carrots, and celery can be washed and chopped for easy salad prep.
- Freezer: The key to eliminating food waste and making your job as a cook easier is to label and rotate anything you freeze. Freeze extra soups, sauces, and freezer meals in plastic freezer bags laid flat to optimize space. You can also use glass jars in the freezer if you take care to leave space for expansion. If you are worried about breakage, use plastic containers instead, and don’t forget to label everything with what it is and the date you placed it in the freezer.
Organization of the fridge is just the beginning. The key to a healthier fridge and pantry is in what you buy. Many of us reach for convenience foods with tons of fat, salt, sugar, and preservatives because they are just that: convenient. The trick is to make healthy eating easier. When stocking the fridge and freezer, focus on these healthy staples:
- Hummus: Store bought, or try this version if you like a more mellow flavor
- Cheese: Cut into cubes or slices
- Baby carrots, cut-up celery, or sugar snap peas
- Fruit: Berries, apples, oranges, or pears
- Yogurt: Unsweetened so you can control sugar
- Eggs: Hardboiled and not
- Nuts: Store in the freezer
- Whole grains: Cooked rice, quinoa, or barley make a great meal base
- Fermented foods: Pickles, kimchi, or kefir
- Leftover roast turkey or chicken
- Tortillas: Corn or flour, great for quick quesadillas and wraps
- Cooked pasta: Great for a pasta salad or to heat up for dinner
- Chicken or vegetable stock: Freeze in two-cup portions for quick soups
- Fish, chicken, and grass-fed beef: Freeze in four-ounce portions
- Freezer meals: Make them yourself, or find one healthier option in the grocery store for those times when cooking needs to be fast and easy
- Frozen vegetables: Frozen peas, carrots, broccoli, and spinach can all be added to soups, pasta, and rice at the last minute to round out a meal
- Bread: Bread can be frozen but should not be kept in the fridge
- Ginger: Keep a hand of ginger in the freezer
For the pantry, stick to staples to keep your options wide open:
- Dried pasta
- Variety of beans: Canned or dry, but canned is generally more convenient
- Variety of grains: Quinoa, couscous, or barley
- Canned tomatoes
- Canned vegetables
- Oils: Canola and olive
- Canned tuna
- Granola: Store-bought or homemade
- Jarred pasta sauce: For quick meals
- Mexican staples: Salsa, enchilada sauce, taco sauce, but watch for preservatives and additives
- Asian staples: Fish sauce, sesame oil, and soy sauce (or tamari for gluten free)
- Spices: Spices add flavor without adding salt, fat, or calories. Chronic pain patients benefit from anti-inflammatory spices like ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, and cayenne
- Chocolate: Dark chocolate is anti-inflammatory and can benefit the heart
Now that you have stocked a healthier fridge and pantry, make sure you use all of the food you have bought.
Even before you hit the grocery store, think about what dinners you will prepare for the week ahead. Some people may even want to cook once for the entire week or even the entire month with freezer meals for the crockpot or just to heat up quickly. Consider lunches and snacks when you make your shopping list. Meal planning eliminates waste at home and also keeps you from making impulse purchases at the grocery store.
Plan ahead for healthy meals and snacks by washing, chopping, and pre-portioning vegetables. When you bring your produce home, wash a week’s worth of lettuce, spin in the salad spinner to remove all of the moisture, and store in a freezer bag with a paper towel (for residual moisture).
As you cook for the week, make sure to store leftovers at eye-level in clear containers in the fridge. You can also go through the fridge and pantry periodically to rotate canned goods. Whenever you buy canned goods, make sure to store them towards the back of the pantry, rotating older cans to the front to eliminate food waste.
Creating a healthier fridge and pantry can be a lifesaver, especially for chronic pain patients. How do you keep your food choices healthy at home?