Spring Clean Your Pantry: What to Toss, What to Keep

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How you stock your pantry can either set you up for success or sabotage your healthy-eating efforts. With Spring cleaning chores on the brain, now is not only a great time to organize your closet but also to pick apart your pantry.  Luckily for you, I tackled this very task in my own kitchen last week, and I’ve put together a list of the things to toss or donate, and the staples to stock up on.

TOSS OUT

Expired goods Healthy or not, expired foods in your pantry may not be safe to eat. Instead of just tossing it into the trash, empty the food contents into a compost bucket or down the drain, and recycle the packaging. If you come across an item that’s just recently passed it’s eat-by date, leave it out on the counter instead of putting it back in the pantry, and plan a meal to use it up by week’s end.

Items with trans fats Look at the list of ingredients. If you see a type of oil preceded by the words “partially hydrogenated,” you’ve got trans fat on your hands. (For example: “partially hydrogenated soybean oil.”) If a product has less than 0.5g per serving, food manufacturers aren’t required to list it on the Nutrition Facts label, but that doesn’t mean the food doesn’t contain it. Some common trans fat-filled foods include: microwave popcorn, shortening, cake mixes and frostings, pancake and waffle mixes, non-dairy creamers, packaged cookies, crackers, processed meat sticks, some canned chilis, and packaged pudding,

Foods loaded with added sugar Foods high in added sugar are likely also adding to your waistline. Again, look at the ingredient list. If sugar is one of the first few ingredients, added sugar is a big component. Some of the usual culprits include breakfast cereal and pastries, packaged desserts, baking mixes, packaged pudding, granola bars, fruit snacks, canned fruit, and even some dried fruits and packaged nuts.

Packaged snack foods Pretzels, potato chips, cheese doodles, rice cakes—these foods do very little to satiate hunger or nourish your body. I think we gravitate to them purely for their salt and crunch factors.

Refined grains Traditional cous cous, white rice, white pasta—all of these grain-based items have been stripped of nutrition through processing and provide little more than refined carbohydrates. Donate these items to a local food pantry or, if you prefer to use them up, incorporate them into a meal with plenty of vegetables and legumes.

Salty snacks, soups, and sauces Much like decadent desserts, salty foods are okay once in a while. But having a cabinet full of them is asking for trouble—especially if you have high blood pressure, or have been told to cut back on sodium. Food manufacturers add salt mainly for two  reasons: our tastebuds love the stuff, and it acts as a preservative. When it comes to foods like nuts, soups, and sauces, opt for the low-sodium version—you can always add a little more if needed, which is still usually less than the amount found in the regular version.

STOCK UP

Canned or dried beans Beans are incredibly versatile and can give meals and snacks a boost of protein and fiber. With just a handful of additional ingredients beans can be whipped up into spreads or dips, like homemade hummus, a quick vegetarian chili, bean burger patties, soups, and more.

Whole grains As your stash of white, refined grains dwindles, replace them with more nutritious and fiber-rich whole grains. I always have a stash of whole wheat pasta, brown rice, barley, and whole wheat cous cous in my pantry. I also keep healthy breakfast grains, like old fashioned or steel cut oats and wheat bran, on hand to sprinkle onto yogurt and fresh fruit.

High fiber cereals Though typically a breakfast food, I will admit cereal for dinner isn’t the worst meal in the world. Fiber plays an important role in digestive health—it keeps things moving, and also helps with satiety and prevents big blood sugar spikes after a meal.

Chicken, beef, or vegetable broth I always have one 32-ounce container of each in my pantry, which comes in handy for making a quick soup or adding a little bit of flavor to grains like quinoa and cous cous. Grab the low-sodium kind, and be sure to store it in the refrigerator after opening.

Packaged protein Canned tuna and salmon are great sources of protein (and calcium too, in salmon’s case) and can quickly be turned into a number of nutritious meals for a busy weeknight dinner or a last minute lunches.

Nuts and seeds Walnuts, almonds, pecans—whatever type of nut you prefer, are all good sources of healthy fats, protein, and fiber. Vacuum packed bags will maximize shelf life. When choosing nut or seed butters, keep in mind that the healthiest ones have the fewest ingredients—just nuts and maybe some salt. Because natural nut butters don’t contain shelf-stable trans fats or preservatives, be sure to check the label to see if they should be refrigerated after opening.

Herbs and spices Great for enhancing flavor without adding sodium, lately herbs and spices have also been making headlines for their powerful antioxidant abilities.

Healthy snacks and treats Dark chocolate, granola bars, and dried fruit without added sugar are more nutritious than cookies and candy. A small handful of dried fruit or a square of chocolate can quickly take the edge off of that sweet tooth. Granola bars can make a great snack or a quick grab-and-go breakfast, just look at the ingredient labels and choose ones that provide the most fiber and least amount of sugar and other additives.

What are your spring cleaning pantry plans? I’d love to hear what you will be tossing and keeping! 

So You Want to Start…Cooking Healthy

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Cooking healthy. For many of us, saying these two words together is a culinary kiss of death. You see, somewhere between the fat-free, reduced salt and sugar-free fads, “healthy” became synonymous with bland and unexciting.

Back when I decided to start “cooking healthy” shortly after graduating from college, I, like many others, made every mistake in the book. I skimped on the fat and sprinkled salt only sparingly. For years I chewed…and chewed…and chewed dreadfully dry chicken breast and tried to get excited about steamed, butterless broccoli.

That never happened–but with the help of cookbooks, beautiful food blogs, and a whole lot of hours in the kitchen, I gradually discovered that healthy cooking could actually be really tasty–and it didn’t mean skipping the butter on my broccoli. I grew to love cooking so much I started my own food blog, went back to graduate school to become a Registered Dietitian made myself a career out of enjoying healthy food!

If you too want to start cooking healthy, here are some tricks I learned along the way to take the headache out of, and put the taste back into, cooking healthy:

1. Find some reliable recipe resources. Don’t do what I did and get stuck in a bland broccoli rut for lack of a reliable recipe collection. Ask friends for cookbook or recipe recommendations and poke around online for some healthy food blogs to follow. The internet is laden with millions, maybe even billions of delicious, healthy recipes. When you find one that catches your eye, just bookmark, Pin or print it for later. CookingLight is a personal favorite for quick, easy, and reliably delicious recipes since they taste-test every single one in their amazing test kitchen.

2. Take it one dish at a time. Learning how to cook takes a bit practice, so start simple and take it slow. Begin by selecting one new recipe, preferably one that’s done in 30 minutes or less. If you like it enough, perfect it next time by adjusting the seasoning to your tastebuds. Do this a few times a month and before you know it you’ll have a rotation of familiar favorites to choose from. You can even add your top recipes to the MyFitnessPal food database for quick and easy logging!

3. Don’t be afraid to try something new. When selecting healthy recipes, sticking to those with ingredients you know and enjoy is always a safe bet, especially if time is tight. But don’t forget to occasionally give a new, totally delicious looking recipe a try, or pick up an unfamiliar grain, fruit or vegetable the next time you spot one at the grocery store. A few years ago my husband introduced me to brussels sprouts in a way I had never had them before: roasted with just a bit of olive oil, sea salt and a dash of pepper. They’ve since become one of my all-time favorite veggies! Which leads me to #4…

4. Roast your vegetables. If you’re like me and don’t love raw veggies or salads (there, I said it…) roasting is an easy way to bring out great flavor. They almost always come out of the oven more sweet and irresistibly delicious. And because there’s no boiling involved, they tend to retain a good amount of their water-soluble vitamins and minerals. Coat them with a bit of olive oil to retain moisture and you’ll up the absorption of those healthy fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K too.

5. Learn some simple ingredient substitutions. Oftentimes adapting a decadent dish into something a little more nutritious can be as simple as swapping out one or two ingredients. For example, dollop some 2% Greek yogurt on top of your spuds in place of sour cream for a protein-packed potato. I’ve found Pinterest to be a great resource for healthy ingredient substitution ideas.

6. Write a grocery list. With takeout just a phone call away, not having the right ingredients on hand could be bad news if you’re trying to cook healthier. Grocery list writing is an underrated skill that can  not only save time but spare you the headache of having to beg your spouse to run back to the grocery store for you. I speak from experience. Once you have a recipe selected, jot down your list of items to buy as you poke through the kitchen cabinets and take inventory of what’s in the refrigerator. If you know your market well enough, organize foods by groups as they’re arranged in the grocery store (i.e. produce, meats, cheeses etc…) to save yourself even more time.

7. Make small Investments in cooking equipment. I never realized the value of an inexpensive slow cooker until I owned one. Now that I do though, I can’t imagine life without it. Certain kitchen gadgets really can simplify cooking, make your food taste better and reduce the amount of time and effort you spend in the kitchen. On my long list of must-haves:

8. Stock your pantry with some healthy essentials. When they’re on sale, stock up on canned beans and tomatoes, herbs and spices, soup stocks, nuts and whole grains like brown rice, quinoa and oats. Having a stash of healthy pantry staples will save time and money and allow you to pull together flavorful dishes when you have food in the fridge that needs to be eaten up.

9.  Put your trust in your tastebuds, not the recipe. Very rarely do I find a recipe that doesn’t need some sort of tweaking, even if it’s just a tad more salt or a little less spice. Whatever you do, don’t make a recipe and wait until it’s on the table to taste it. Recipes are guides, at best, and the only really way to end up with a truly satisfying dish is to taste along the way.

10. Make cooking a friend and family affair. I admit, with all of the peeling, slicing and dicing involved–with those veggie-heavy dishes in particular–sometimes cooking can feel like a chore. Involving the kids, your spouse, or inviting friends over to make dinner on the weekend can quickly make cooking healthy a fun and delicious occasion. Who knows, you may even acquire some buddies to swap recipes with in the process!

11. Resolve to learn a new culinary skill in 2014. Sign up for a cooking or knife-skills class this year. Becoming a better, faster and safer cook will only be more incentive to skip the takeout and make more healthful meals at home. As an added bonus, you can show off your new skills in the kitchen when your friends come over for dinner. 

12. Consider a meal plan. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, signing up for a weekly meal planning service might help get you started. Meal plan recipes are generally geared towards newbie cooks, can typically be tailored to meet your individual dietary needs and many services provide some added perks like preparation tips and tricks or printable grocery lists. Check out our holiday gift guide for a few healthy meal planning services to consider.

I hope these tips help you be a little bolder in the kitchen when it comes to cooking healthfully.  Feel free to share any healthy cooking tips and tricks you’ve learned in the comments below!

MyFitnessPal 2013 Holiday Recipe Remix Cookbook

MyFitnessPal 2013 Holiday Recipe Remix Cookbook Cover

As a little thank you for being the biggest and best group of food-loving and logging, health enthusiasts ever, we wanted to give you all a little gift for the holidays!

Hopefully you’ve been watching Elle remix your unhealthy meals into healthier versions of their former selves in the Holiday Recipe Remix but to show our real appreciation, the MyFitnessPal food editors put together the MyFitnessPal 2013 Holiday Recipe Remix Cookbook, complete with all 6 of Elle’s remixed recipes, links to the videos and some other delicious dishes to try from CookingLight!

So before you start planning your holiday dinner menu, download the cookbook today!

Ready to Cook Your A** Off?

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Cheeky cooking competition show aims to help viewers eat healthier.

If you’re a fan of our Holiday Recipe Remix web video series then get ready to enjoy Cook Your Ass Off, a tasty new take on the classic cooking competition show, airing on HLN.

Top Chef All-Stars winner Richard Blais serves as host of this recipe remixing feed-for-all from Upwave and the producers of Chopped. He’ll get a side dish of assist from nationally recognized nutrition expert and author Keri Glassman.

In each episode of Cook Your Ass Off, three chefs battle to transform recipes and lives by spinning unhealthy dishes into nutritious eats. The last chef standing walks away with the Grand Prize of $50,000!

The best part for MyFitnessPal users? All of the healthy recipes are ready to be logged at MyFitnessPal! Just search “Cook Your Ass Off” in the food database.

In last week’s premiere, the chef contestants were challenged to reinvent grilled cheese as a healthy dish for a vegetarian afflicted with Lyme disease. Watch highlights here.

As mentioned before, if you can’t get enough recipe remixing then make sure to check out our very own Holiday Recipe Remix series. Watch as the MyFitnessPal registered dietitian Elle takes your favorite holiday recipes and remixes them into healthier versions of their former selves.

So kiss your ass goodbye…because you’ll be losing weight, thanks to all of these healthier recipes! Check here for local TV listings.

Healthfully,

The MyFitnessPal Team

Holiday Recipe Remix: Sweet Potato Pecan Tart

Welcome to another webisode of Holiday Recipe Remix! In case you’re tuning in for the first time, here’s the story so far: a few weeks ago we asked you to submit your favorite unhealthy holiday recipes so Elle, the MyFitnessPal Registered Dietitian, could remix them into more nutritious versions of their former selves.

Earlier this week we shared Elle’s remixed recipe for a delicious, Spicy, Not Sinful Pumpkin Spice Latte. This time around Elle is making over a recipe for an  Utterly Deadly Pecan Pie from MyFitnessPal user RaeLynn. Sounds scary good, doesn’t it?

Bourbon-laced pecan pie topped with whipped cream is undoubtedly a holiday staple; we certainly love it here at the MyFitnessPal office (we log and track, promise). It’s probably not much of a surprise that pecan pie is usually loaded with corn syrup, which translates to lots of added sugar and empty calories. RaeLynn’s recipe called for 1.5 cups of corn syrup alone. Forget we said good – that just sounds scary.

Elle got her hands on the recipe and swapped out the corn syrup for vitamin-packed sweet potato, brown sugar and a little maple syrup. She also ditched the frozen pie crust and made her own pecan tart crust. One thing Elle did keep? The bourbon, of course!

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The end result? A lighter, more flavorful pecan dessert that, per slice, has:

  • 200 fewer calories
  • 10% less saturated fat
  • Over 30 fewer grams of sugar
  • Approximately 150% of your daily Vitamin A
  • About 10% of your daily iron

Here, Elle explains how she remixed the recipe:

So break out of your shell this season with this Sweet Potato Pecan Tart–just be sure to log your slices in MyFitnessPal! Just search Holiday Recipe Remix in the food database. There you’ll find the full nutrition info and be able add a slice to your food diary!

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If you don’t yet have MyFitnessPal account, you can sign up on the web, or through downloading the free app for your iPhone, iPadAndroid or Windows mobile devices.

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For submitting her favorite delicious-but-deadly recipe, RaeLynn won herself a MyFitnessPal apron, a Withings Smart Body Analyzer scale, and two cookbooks full of healthy, delicious recipes from Cooking Light! ReaLynn is committed to improving her health and is looking for fitness pals, so feel free to add her as a friend on MyFitnessPal. MyFitnessPal users that have 10 or more friends lose 4 times as much weight compared to those who aren’t connected to friends!

Photos by Elle Penner | MyFitnessPal