Sometimes I write articles in response requests submitted by readers, but other times I will write an article more for my own edification. This particular exercise in self-indulgence is a result of me trying to figure out what to buy when we go food shopping, such that we can embark upon that dangerous enterprise as infrequently as possible. One of my macrobiotic cookbooks has a shopping checklist, which I think conceptually is a great idea, but their specific checklist is useful only if you’re macrobiotic, and I am not that strict at the moment. Everyone’s checklist will be different, but each should be balanced in its own way. The idea behind this article is that you won’t get stuck in the house with nothing to eat and no plan for what to do, and get stuck snacking or running out to the restaurant, which can get expensive and not be very healthy.
For anyone engaging in this exercise, I first recommend figuring out what you’d ideally like to eat. There are some things you can buy which will last a long time (such as most condiments and oils), and other that won’t last more than a week (fruit). My particular checklist is slanted towards whole foods, because they are healthier, less expensive, and occasionally take work. Most of what you’ll find here needs some preparation before being eaten, but this is deliberate. The work involved is not just about making the food: you’re also preparing yourself to receive the food, and with that kind of awareness involved, it’s much easier to eat the amount that is right for you, and to efficiently digest what you eat. I’d even say that the fact that meals made from whole foods without preservatives and processing are healthier is almost an afterthought. Nevertheless, I’d also like to spend a few words talking about food that comes in boxes and cans. Cereal, crackers, chips, candy, perhaps soda, pretzels, canned vegetables, canned beans, stuff patented by the food manufacturer, etc. – you find these guys in a lot of pantries, so much so that you’re wondering if they’re meant to double as bomb shelters. While it’s true that manufacturers can package and process food such that it lasts for 17 years, that’s not really necessary for the average person. Nor, in fact, do you want to eat food that never breaks down or gets moldy. That’s a sign that it’s missing many essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. If the mold stays away from it, so should you (think canary in the mineshaft). What follows is the most basic checklist I could think of for things I’d always like to have around.
Meat – At this time of year, we like to have more protein than usual. If you’re not a vegetarian, buying a little more meat than you need and keeping it in the freezer until you’re ready for it is a good idea; just remember to thaw it the day before you’d like to have it. Muscle meat is what’s most commonly eaten, but organ meats are among the healthiest foods you can eat if they come from a healthy animal. For making chicken soup, I will buy a whole chicken and roast it, and then use the bones in the soup (see recipes).
Seafood – Omega-3 fatty acids! Unless it’s sardines (a canned food that I think is occasionally all right), eat it as soon as possible. The one food I would insist that you eat the same day.
Eggs – A good quick source of protein. Also important for baking. We usually have a carton or two on hand.
Dairy Products – These will go bad, so don’t buy too much at once. We usually have a little cheese and milk around – again, it depends on your personal usage. Also good sources of protein and fat, but better if grass-fed.
Soy Products – Tofu, tempeh, miso paste, and soymilk are all excellent foods, whether you’re a vegetarian or not. I suggest staying away from other foods made with soy. They fall into the “highly processed meat substitute” category, rather than the “respectable thousand-year old fermenting method” category.
If you can eat your vegetables the day you buy them, you don’t really need to refrigerate them. However, most of us can’t go shopping every day (though it’s the best, and most traditional, way to make sure your food is always fresh. The same goes for most animal products).
Greens – I try to have greens every day, as they are the healthiest non-medicinal food you could eat. Kale, collard greens, cabbage, Swiss chard, bok choy, spinach, watercress, dandelion greens, beet greens, celery, broccoli, etc. They last a little over a week and then start to turn yellow – try to eat them before that. You want greens, not yellows.
Root vegetables – Especially good for this time of year; warming and grounding. We usually eat carrots, radishes, beets, turnips, parsnips, ginger, onions, and burdock. They will last for a long time, the round root vegetables lasting longer than the skinny ones. Beets are a vegetable you probably could keep in the bomb shelter, but carrots will get kind of bendable and even moldy after several weeks – so don’t buy too many at once, whatever the discount is. Weak, floppy vegetables are still nutritious, but their energy is, well…weak and floppy.
Other vegetables – Winter squash will do wonders for you in the winter, and there are many different varieties. Sometimes it can be baked, other times boiled – cooked long enough, it’s always sweet, and can easily be turned into a dessert. Kept in a cool, dry place, they will last even longer than beets. See recipes.
Grains – I like to have a few different varieties of grains available in jars, such as oats, brown rice, millet, quinoa, buckwheat, and barley. They will keep for almost a year, but don’t push it. Even grains are better on the day you buy them. Pasta and other noodles also keep for a long time.
Beans – The same goes for beans as well. Lentils, split peas, black beans, kidney beans, navy beans, chick peas, adzuki beans, etc. all keep for a very long time. Don’t forget to soak them ahead of time if you want to have them the next day.
Sea Vegetables – Kombu, hijiki, arame, wakame and dulse can be kept in the pantry. These are among the most nutrient-rich vegetables you can eat. They will keep your skin beautiful and your hair shiny. Having been dried, they’ll last a long time. The trick is not how to make them last; it’s to use them up!
Fats – I usually have plenty of olive oil and sesame oil on hand. We also have grass-fed butter and a butter substitute called Earth Balance. If you’re a vegetarian, flax seed oil might be good to have around; otherwise, either eat fish occasionally or face up to the cod liver oil (which is now being used medicinally by doctors in Europe, according to the NY Times. Can’t you just imagine the headlines? “Medical researchers discover powerful new traditional remedies!”). Those oils (and butter) have to be refrigerated, though, unlike the vegetable oils, which should merely be left undisturbed in a cool, dark place (They’re, uh…they’re very sensitive).
Fruit – Fruit should be eaten soon, and if you’re running out of time, bake it into something such as banana bread or apple crisp. Apples and pears are hardier and last longer, and oranges last pretty long as well; what looks good at the market should determine your decision here. Sometimes fruit can be chosen deliberately under-ripe (see avocados) or deliberately ripe to be eaten the same day. We usually have some bananas around for a post-workout food. Dried fruit lasts a long time, and is a good alternative to something unapologetically sugary.
Nuts and Seeds – can be kept in the pantry in glass jars and could be considered either a fat or protein, or just a snack – the same goes for peanut butter.
Herbs - I usually have around a few garlic bulbs and a few pieces of ginger root. They will add flavor, warmth, and enormous health benefits to your food. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are more than just a good song. Fresh basil is excellent as well.
Beverages – We keep a lot of tea around, as well as orange juice, milk, and soymilk, not to mention beer and wine occasionally, but mostly we drink filtered water, which is probably the healthiest of all foods, except clean air (does that count?)
Baking Products – Flour is obviously important, unless you’re a gold standard health nut, in which case you just keep on hand whole wheat berries and grind your own (I’m getting there). Baking soda, baking powder, yeast, and some kind of sweetener all come in handy. We use maple syrup and honey most often, but occasionally sugar on special occasions.
The emphasis here is on having a lot to choose from when it’s time for you to cook. Many of what’s listed above are “staples” that last a month or two, while other foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and animal products (unless frozen), should be eaten within a week. Usually when we go to the store we replace those things and perhaps have to buy a staple or two – and usually something that’s not on the list, just to make life more interesting – for example, I’m interested in eating more pickled and fermented food on a regular basis, like, well, pickles, olives, yogurt, and whatever else I can find.
Looking back now, this article seems awfully long – but I do try to be comprehensive. Even if you don’t have a hugely stocked kitchen, try having a thing or two from each of the following categories: a protein; a fat; a vegetable; a fermented food. If even that is too complicated, there is always the all-brown-rice diet (but only if you’re feeling both highly overwhelmed and extremely adventurous at the same time).