Welcome to the latest edition of 52 Healthy habits when each week we tackle a new habit in order to improve our healthy lifestyle. It's not about changing all your bad habits at once, but making incremental improvements over time. Working on developing healthy habits, rather than trying to overhaul your whole life at once, is a much more sane and sustainable approach to healthy living.
When we're trying to eat healthier, sometimes the problem lies not in the decisions we make today, but in the the decisions we made in the past. When our refrigerators, our freezers and our pantries are loaded up with unhealthy foods, it can make it more challenging to reach for healthy ones. When you're hungry will you reach for a handful of potato chips or an apple? What if the chips weren't there? The first step in changing our eating habits for the better may be in cleaning out our existing food supply. If you keep unhealthy foods out of arm's reach, you are less likely to eat them.
THE PANTRY CLEANOUT CHALLENGE
Take everything out of the pantry and place it on nearby kitchen counters or tables. (This may also be a good opportunity to wipe down the empty pantry shelves, because if you are anything like me, this doesn't happen very often.)
THROW AWAY EXPIRED FOODS
Look at the expiration date and 'best by' dates of the foods in your pantry and start by throwing away aged food. It's an easy first sweep through the contents in your pantry. I often find items from 2004 that I swear I was going to get around to eating some day. Throw it away.
NEXT, IDENTIFY RED FLAG FOODS
Red flag foods are heavily processed foods with a lot of added sugar, sodium and processed ingredients. Items like chips, cookies, crackers, candy, high-sugar cereals, high-sodium soups and most packaged snack foods should be evaluated closely. Who in the family consumes them? Is there a healthier alternative? Are they a temptation? That's not to say you shouldn't save a few treats, but be honest with yourself and only keep the foods that know you can maintain control over. If you've never opened a bag of chips without polishing the whole thing off (raises hand) it might be a good idea to get rid of them. For a healthier pantry and less risk of temptation, most of these types of foods should probably be eliminated.
LEARN TO READ NUTRITION LABELS
Once you have rid your pantry of expired foods and red flag foods, it's time to take a third sweep through and look for sneaky foods that may be masquerading as healthy foods but in fact, are not. Food marketing labels sometimes use buzzwords that claim foods are all-natural, organic, gluten-free, sugar-free, all natural, vitamin-enriched or multi-grain, but these labels are often meaningless marketing.
Organic fruit rollups are not healthy, gluten-free cupcakes are a low-nutrient junk food, low-carb cookies are...well, cookies. The key to not being misled by food marketing labels is to understand how to read a nutrition label.
Read the ingredient list first. This will tell you almost everything you need to know. Ingredients are listed from highest amount to lowest, so if sugar is the first ingredient, it has more sugar than anything else. Other names for sugar in ingredients lists are corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, maltose, malt syrup, cane crystals, evaporated cane juice.
Look for ingredients that you recognize. If the ingredient list is riddled with partially-hydrogenated oils, corn syrups or long words you can't pronounce or understand it likely doesn't fall into the healthy category, no matter what the marketing label says.
Then look at the nutrition label and make sure the sugar, sodium and calories are in line with your goals. Pay attention to portion size listed on package, often one small package will claim to have several servings in order to make the calorie count seem lower. I'm sorry, but three crackers is not a serving in my world.
Take everything you learned about reading nutrition labels and make a final sweep of your pantry.
Not everyone can afford to throw away all the food in their pantry and replace with new healthy food. There are often foods in my pantry that are not the healthiest choice...but not the worst either. My husband likes to buy those packaged flavored rice mixes and boxed pasta salads. Last week he bought Star Wars mac & cheese because he liked the box. Hah. There are definitely healthier choices for side dishes, like vegetables, plain brown rice, potatoes or quinoa.
However, I live in the real world, where every morsel I consume is not worthy of a health food standing ovation. Honestly, I'd rather not waste these foods by throwing them away. I'd rather eat through them in moderation, in proper portions, then make the choice (or convince hubby) not to buy them again in the future. I know I can eat Yoda-shaped macaroni without my whole healthy living plan falling apart. It's not about being perfect, it's about making good choices most of the time. My boxed pasta salad in proper portions in moderation (occasionally) is still probably better than a restaurant meal. One less-than-perfectly-healthy side dish is not going to ruin my health or fitness progress. Moving away from the perfect-or-nothing mindset is the first step in living a healthy lifestyle.
CREATE A SHOPPING LIST RESTOCK WITH HEALTHY STAPLES
Once you've followed the steps above, it's time to restock your pantry with what is left and create a shopping list for healthy staples.
tomato sauce, tomato paste with no sugar added
canned fruits in water
raw nuts (watch out for added sugars and oils in 'flavored' nuts)
whole wheat flour, almond or coconut
healthy oils like extra virgin olive, grape seed, avocado, coconut
low-sodium broths like chicken, vegetable, beef
pouched or canned protein like tuna, salmon, sardines, chicken
low-sodium turkey jerky
natural peanut butter and other nut butters
Once you tackle your pantry you can follow the same process to clean out your fridge and freezer...but one step at a time. Don't overwhelm yourself by trying to do too much at once.
Just looking at the all the labels in your pantry and evaluating them to become more aware of what you are consuming is a fabulous first step, even if you don't throw away or replace a single item.
Does your pantry need a healthy makeover? Have questions? I'd love to help!
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I am a NASM personal trainer and RRCA adult distance running coach that specializes in strength training for runners. I offer in-person training in the Shredshed, online training and nutrition coaching. If you are interested in coaching, please contact me. Have questions? I'd love to help.
While I am a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach, I am not your personal trainer and nutrition coach. Since I don't know your exercise abilities, injury background or medical history, please see your doctor before beginning any new exercise or diet program. This is an opinion blog. No information in this blog is intended to be taken as medical advice or prescription. Please see your doctor and/or registered dietitian for any health concerns.