On the Table

A better diet is simple

CORRESPONDENTAugust 4, 2010 

Eating right is a commitment. How far are you willing to go to do it well?

Last week's News & Observer featured a story about a Matthews family testing its resolve for 100 days. During this time, the family members vowed to avoid processed foods, eating only whole foods close to their natural state.

That means buying fewer packaged foods and fixing more meals from scratch at home. It's better for your health and better for the environment.

Their effort has merit. Packaged and highly processed foods are higher in sodium and added sugar and lower in dietary fiber. A diet high in processed foods increases the risk for several chronic diseases and conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and coronary artery disease.

Plastic wrappers and containers from processed foods add to our landfills, too.

So going for a greener diet is the right thing to do, but what if you don't want to make your own ketchup? Where's the middle ground?

Stocking the staples

There are several things you can do to get more whole and unprocessed foods into your meals. Begin with how you shop. Start by stocking simple staples like these:

Fresh, unadulterated fruits and vegetables. Keep several varieties of seasonal produce on hand at all times. Buy whatever looks good and figure out later how you'll use it.

Tomatoes, leafy greens, bell peppers, cucumbers, onions, avocados, lemons, limes and other fruits are a good place to start.

Frozen vegetable singles and mixtures. Nutritionally, they're equivalent to fresh, and they're often more convenient.

Individual foods such as green beans or chopped spinach are versatile, but mixtures are convenient to have on hand as well. For example, I buy bags of red, yellow, and green bell pepper strips and chopped onions for making chili and diced vegetable blends for soup.

Avoid the brands with added butter or salty sauces.

Whole grain breads, cereals, rice and pasta. These ingredients are practical foundations for many quick and easy meals that are relatively inexpensive, too.

Combine beans and rice or pasta and vegetables, and use whole grain bread to slap together tomato sandwiches or French toast.

Canned beans. Rinse off the salt before you use them to cut the sodium content substantially.

Use them in soups, salads, casseroles, mashed for burritos and tacos, and pureed for dips and spreads.

Seeds and nuts. They add color, crunch, flavor and nutrition to salads and side dishes. Blend tahini - a paste made from crushed sesame seeds - with pureed chickpeas or cooked eggplant to make Middle Eastern dips.

Fresh nut butters such as peanut and almond are good as sandwich fillings or as flavorings in sauces and stir-fry.

Fewer ingredients

In addition to these staples, buy minimally processed convenience foods. There's nothing wrong with leaning on a few boxed mixes to save time, but look for the ones with the shortest ingredient lists.

For example, I like Hodgson Mill Whole Wheat Gingerbread mix and Near East couscous, whole grain and rice pilaf mixes.

At home, cook without recipes more often. You'll save time. Practice putting together ingredients in ways that please you.

Combine the basics - pasta, beans, vegetables, rice - and experiment with herbs, spices, pesto, garlic, sundried tomatoes, and other simple ingredients to create your own variations.

Simple is not only quicker and easier, but it often tastes better, too. Work at getting there. Part way is progress.


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