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Unless you’ve been living in a dark internet-less cave for the past two months, chances are you binge-watched Tidying Up with Marie Kondo like the rest of us. From the very first episode, you get sucked into her utopian world of clutter-free closets and Home Depot catalog-worthy garages that sell you on the promise of a highly functional life.
It is just so cathartic to watch the show’s subjects overhaul their homes and rid their lives of junk.
But if you watched Tidying Up as closely as I have, you may have noticed Kondo’s nearly complete disregard of the most used room in many of our homes – the kitchen. Sure, some expired spices and souvenir mugs were discarded, but as far as I’m concerned, the inside of a someone’s pantry says a lot more about them than their shoe collection.
In the spirit of patron saint Marie Kondo and the arrival of spring cleaning season, I got inspired to share my guide to purging a pantry (or in my case, cupboards), as well as some criteria for finding those healthy needles in the haystack of junk food that lines our supermarket shelves.
The purpose of this article isn’t to divide food into ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ categories. Rather, it’s to give you the tools to make your own decisions. So many of our food choices are dictated by clever marketing or fad diets, and as a result, many of us think we’re eating healthfully, while in reality we may not even know what our food is made of.
Okay, let’s dive in!
First things first: If it’s in a wrapper, beware.
Most products that are sold in a wrapper are chemically formulated to be shelf-stable and highly craveable (i.e. loaded with sugar, salt, and preservatives). Which brings me to my next point…
Read the ingredient list: If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.
Growing up in a world that yo-yo’s between vilifying calories, fat, and carbs, many of us have been conditioned to scan the Nutrition Facts label for a sense of a product’s nutritional value. But not all calories/fat/carbs are created equal. For instance, you’re better off eating 300 calories worth of almonds than the same amount worth of protein powder.
Scanning the ingredient list gives you a much better idea of what’s inside. Try to only buy products whose ingredients you recognize – if it sounds more like a science project than food, leave it on the shelf. Additionally, beware of any product whose ingredient list is too long.
As a rule of thumb, buy food as close to its natural state as possible, to avoid industrial processing, artificial preservatives, or added sugar and salt. For instance, peanut butter should only contain one, at most two, ingredients: peanuts and maybe salt.
Do the math
The two things I do recommend scanning the Nutrition Facts label for are sugar and sodium. (Did you know that 60% of all products sold in American grocery stores contain added sugar?) The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends we eat no more than 25 grams of sugar per day. 4 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon, so 25 grams = 6 ¼ teaspoons.
Although we expect sugar in cookies and soda, it also looms in many savory foods we generally think of as healthy, like salad dressing or pasta sauce.
This Chobani blueberry yogurt, for instance, has 15 grams of sugar (3 ¾ teaspoons), which is more than half of the daily recommended amount. (I do wanna point out I’m referring to added sugar, not the naturally occurring kind found in fruit or other whole foods). If you love fruit-flavored yogurt, try swapping it out for the plain kind and adding your own fruit with a drizzle of honey or maple syrup.
As for salt, the WHO recommends consuming less than 2 grams of sodium (equivalent to 5 grams of salt = just under 1 teaspoon) per day. Processed/packaged foods tend to be high in sodium since salt is often used as a preservative, or to mask the flavor of artificial ingredients.
This marketing tactic is used to make products appear healthier or more eco-friendly than they may be. Corporations love to plaster health-trigger words – like “healthy,” “low carb,” “natural,” “gluten-free,” “100-calorie,” or “no high-fructose corn syrup” – on food packaging to capture shoppers’ attention. And while sometimes these cues are helpful (if you’re gluten-intolerant, for instance), these labeling practices have gone too far and now you can find food products (like water or tea) labeled gluten-free while they never contained gluten to begin with.
Choose whole foods
Whole foods are those that have all their edible parts still attached – for instance, sweet potatoes with their skins, or eggs with the yolk and the white intact. This is how nature intended these foods to be eaten, and once we start taking parts away (or extracting what we deem to be most valuable), they lose the synergy of their micronutrients and often our bodies can’t assimilate them as well or at all. This is why vitamin supplements aren’t as effective as vitamins from food sources.
To start getting all the amazing benefits of whole foods, try switching out your white rice for brown, white flour for whole wheat (“whole wheat pastry flour” acts almost identically to all-purpose in baked goods), and eating the edible skins of fruits and veg instead of peeling them away.
Avoid unnecessary packaging
Plastic is a huge problem for our environment and so much of it is used for food packaging. Many brands and restaurants have started doing their part by eliminating plastic bags at checkout, providing biodegradable takeout containers, and no longer sticking a plastic straw into every drink.
One way to cut down on your own plastic use is what my friend Abby calls “shopping naked” (not talking about strolling the aisles in your birthday suit). This means that instead of placing your fruit and veg into individual single-use bags in the produce section, you simply pile them into your cart. Just make sure to give them a good wash when you bring ‘em home.
Another way is to invest in reusable linen drawstring bags. These can be used for smaller produce (think mushrooms and Brussels sprouts) and for the bulk bin section (for grains, nuts, and seeds). When I get home, I transfer the bulk bin items to glass jars (these are from Amazon).
(First image contributed by Nalae White)