Nutrient Dense Kitchen 101

I am guessing preparing your kitchen isn’t currently on the top of your “to-do” list, but right now in the face of a national pandemic, it’s even more important to focus on nutrient density to fuel our cells with the right macro and micronutrients to keep our bodies (and minds) strong. And while we’re all practicing social distancing, it might be a good time to focus on cleaning out your pantry and replacing supplies in your kitchen (from online sources, for now).

So where does one start with this intimidating task?

Pantry clean up!

1. Use or Lose

While I don’t encourage tossing everything and starting fresh out, take stock of your pantry and refrigerator and clean out anything that is expired.

2. Examine Your Fats

Refined vegetable oils can increase inflammation and free radical damage at a cellular level, and that added stress isn’t something we want circulating when we want our system ready and able to fight any foreign invaders or viruses. So trash the canola, sunflower, soybean and vegetable, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils and replace with organic, cold pressed coconut oil or a tallow for high heat, or organic, cold pressed avocado or olive oil for low heat or finishing.

3. Ditch the Chemicals

Start reading food labels. Are there lots of ingredients that you can’t pronounce and are not whole-food derived? Now is the time to replace them with more nutrient dense swaps because those fake ingredients can cause direct damage to our endocrine, digestive, cardiovascular, immune, and neurological systems and offer no nutritional benefit.

4. Search out the Sugar

Yeah I said it, sugar. It can be our best friend during tough times, but can have detrimental effects in larger quantities. And because of its additive properties, if you have it in your kitchen it may be hard to moderate how much you eat. So, save it for special occasions (like going out for ice cream with your kids or friends) and get rid of refined sugar in your pantry and in your foods. Also, pay attention because sugar can be sneaky (high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, maltodextrin). But getting rid of sugar, doesn’t mean you can’t have any sweetness in your life. Try raw honey, organic maple syrup or monkfruit sweeteners as you transition off the white stuff.

5. Replace Refined Grains

You don’t have to go gluten or grain-free, but pay to the grains that you have in your pantry. Are they processed (nutrition stripped away)? Most conventional grains are genetically modified and have high pesticide use which can add to gut distress and cause some types of cancer, so now is the time to make the switch. If you’re used to having bread, try organic pre-sprouted. If you have some extra time and want to experiment, make our own sourdough! There are many different alternative flours too that you can test if you are gluten sensitive – from almond and coconut flours to tigernut and cassava. And if you’re into experiments, try using things like kale, cauliflower and sweet potato as “vehicles” for your foods.

6. Experiment More in the Kitchen

Replacing your staples for healthier versions is the first part of the pantry clean up – but having a plan and knowing how to shop and prepare nutrient dense whole foods is the best way to meet your health goals and support your body from the inside out. The foundation of your plate should be based on whole foods, sourced local and seasonal if possible. If going to your local grocery story is still convenient for you, focus on the organic produce section. If you’d prefer other virtual ways to source foods, try your local farmers Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) or produce delivery like Imperfect Produce. But the key is planning on how to integrate these foods into your daily life and that sometimes take a little extra time and patience.

 

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Why Nutrient Dense Foods?

Isn’t clearing out the junk enough?  Although it’s a great start – replacing foods in your kitchen with more nutrient dense options is going to provide your body with the nourishment it needs to keep your cells and systems in homeostasis. So you have a few options depending on your level of effort and resources:

Focus on fruits and veggies, but buy organic when it comes to the dirty dozen

Conventional fruits and vegetables are gown in soil that is depleted and laden with chemicals, so while you think you are making a healthy choice, you might be eating produce that is nutrient deficient and toxic.

Shop local (farmers markets, food co-op or delivery) to get seasonal foods

Local foods are picked closer to their ripeness and have higher nutritional content and supports local agriculture. Sometimes produce at the grocery story could have been picked months ago and spray with chemicals to retain their colors and shapes.

Purchase Pasture Raised and Grass Fed/Finished

As Michael Pollan said, “you are what you eat, eats.” Beef and poultry that are raised through industrial agriculture are fed a diet of corn, soy and synthetic fillers – sometimes even candy! Pasture raised animals not only have a better life that makes them happier, and less prone to disease and antibiotics, they also have a dramatically higher content of vitamins and minerals because they are exposed to the sun and eat a diet of grass and bugs.

Variety is Key

Eating seasonally and trying to incorporate different colors from produce is a good way to ensure you’re getting all the different micronutrients fruits and vegetables have to offer. And through produce nature provides the right plant-based medicine we need at specific times of the year. When it comes to protein sources, whether it’s plant or animal based, each have different nutritional profiles, and even cuts of meats vary in nutrients.

Food Preparation Techniques

Understanding how to prepare your food, based on your individual needs, is key to long-term adherence of a whole food nutrient dense diet. And the fact is, we all have different digestive abilities, taste preferences and time. Let’s review a few simple food preparation practices to integrate whole foods into your daily life and how they help nutrient quality.

Roasting: the process of roasting meats and vegetables with dry heat helps preserve water-soluble vitamins
Braising: because the cooking liquid is preserved in the food, soluble nutrients are preserved
Frying: with a quick cook time, frying helps retain heat sensitive nutrients. Make sure to use the right fats and check often so it doesn’t get too hot, which can cause free radicals
Steaming: properly steamed vegetables retain most of their nutrients and are easier to digest
In a rush? Try a pressure cooker (like instapot) to make bone broths, yogurt, soups and hard-boiled eggs

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Kitchen Essentials

You don’t have to use your full paycheck to buy all new kitchen utensils. But investing in a few high-quality tools and supplies will ensure your food retains its taste and quality without toxic side effects. Think about investing in one nice cast iron skillet, a few sizes of glass pyrex, a nice natural wood cutting board and a few quality steel knives (look for the ones where the blade is one piece of steel from end to end). If you already have the basics and are looking to test out some new toys, think about a pressure cooker, food processor, immersion blender or dehydrator.

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Time to Experiment
Ok, so that was a lot and it’s easy to be intimidated by all these new foods, techniques and toys. But you don’t have to rush out and conquer everything at once. Take baby steps, experiment, get the family involved, look up new recipes, and most of all – have fun!

Thanks for reading. This is a homework assignment for my Nutritional Therapy Association Culinary Wellness coursework. — Sara 

Citations:
Pollan, Michael. (2007). The omnivore’s dilemma : a natural history of four meals. New York :Penguin
Nutritional therapy Association. (2020). Culinary Wellness Pt. 1.

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