If you asked most people what the most stressful aspects of trying to eat healthy for your personal goals, they would probably list food choice, food shopping and food preparation. Aside from buying, cooking and eating there isn't too much more to your diet. Having the necessary ingredients on hand at all times and then preparing them in an efficient and stress-free manner is critical for success in following your food plan. My goal is to bring clarity to the process of shopping and then setting aside time to prepare your food for the next 5 to 7 days. A brief warning however: if you hate leftovers and refuse to eat anything more than one day old then my suggestions is to acclimate yourself. Try making enough food for two days and see if you can handle that. Once you feel comfortable with that expand to three and four and so on. In regards to this, I have spoken to many people who stress over shopping and cooking because they only cook for today. That goes against so much other preparedness we implement in our lives. How many times do you just put in enough gas for your car for one day? Wash enough clothes for one day? Buy enough toilet paper for one day? That would be extremely inconvenient and good letting guests use your bathroom!
With that logic in hand, let's cover how we should shop for five days to a week.
Beef, Poultry, Fish and Eggs
Shopping for meat and eggs can be tricky. I would encourage you to first find a sale on chicken, beef, pork or fish and then buying enough for a few weeks. There really is nothing wrong with meat that is properly stored in the freezer and then defrosted in the right conditions. Plus, if you shop for meat every five days you never know if you'll hit a sale or not. It is better to invest up-front and be secure in the fact that you have all the protein you need for two to three weeks rather than trying to wrestle the last reduced-priced pork chop out of someone's hands.
If you aren't up for getting into a fistfight over meat then let's assume you will be buying in bulk. The next step is storing the meat you buy. If you buy a very large package of ground beef I think it is best to portion it out into quart ziplock bags and then squeezing all the air out and sealing it up. If you flatten it out then it will defrost quicker too meaning you won't have to wait around all day to cook it. If you buy a family pack of chicken breasts you can do the same here except for individual cuts of meat(not ground) I prefer wrapping in plastic wrap and then tin foil.
Eggs keep quite well and buying a couple 12 or 18 packs will last you a while depending on how much you eat, and won't go bad for a few weeks. This would be a good time to wait for organic/local eggs to go on sale and buy them in bulk.
In terms of defrosting, nothing beats sitting in cold water. I have seen plenty of people defrost meat in warm or hot water and this is truly not more efficient than cold water. All we want is to bring the temperature of the frozen meat up to an effective temperature to cook at. Cold water will bring the meat up to around 40 degrees and hot water will bring it closer to 70 or 80 on the outside. This means you will have a warmer outside surface of meat with a cold interior which just encourages the product too cook to fast on the outside and too slow on the inside. Honestly, I have never seen a benefit to defrosting in hot water. Instead, place your bag of ground beef in a large pot of cold water and let it sit for a couple of hours. If you wrapped individual steaks, you can either:
A. Put them in a large ziplock bag and then place them in water
B. Let them sit on the counter to come closer to room temperature (no longer than 3-4 hours)
As long as meat goes up or comes down to 40-140 degrees within 4 hours then you are fine in regards to bacterial growth. This means less than 4 hours spent within that temperature zone is safe.
Possibly the biggest obstacle I hear regarding vegetables is some people simply do not know what to buy. There is cabbage, rutabaga, squash, sweet potatoes, kale, collard greens, parsnips and I would guess that 80% of the vegetables in the grocery store are purchased by 20% of the customers. I suspect part of this is because our Food Guide Pyramid has steered so much of the population towards grains that they have become the new vegetable. Combined with our post-World War II canned goods obsession, you can get almost any fresh vegetable in canned form which is almost too convenient to pass up. The poor quality of canned vegetables has altered people's perceptions of what real food tastes like and has fostered a distaste for some common and delicious foods. Think canned beets, carrots, peas and corn.
One of the first steps is to think in seasons. This isn't always convenient and I do not strictly follow this myself some of the time but it is a good starting point. Here's some common vegetables/fruits found in the four seasons:
Summer: Italian and yellow squash, tomatoes, chives, scallions, string beans, eggplant, cucumbers, corn, chick peas, celery, berries, peppers
Fall: Endive, chicory, celery root, potatoes, mushrooms, cauliflower, green beans, leeks, pumpkin, rutabaga, spinach, cabbage, apples
Winter: Salsify, winter squash, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, sweet potatoes, potatoes, turnips, parsnips, radiccio, cabbage, pineapple, broccoli
Spring: Cucumbers, greens, carrots, beans, artichokes, asparagus, fiddleheads, jerusalem artichokes, jicama,, lettuces, lemons, peas, rhubarb, radishes, broccoli
Keep some of these in mind...if you see zucchini and tomatoes in winter, you can bet they won't taste very good. In regards to fruits, most tropical fruits are in-season year round so those are less of an issue. I would urge someone following this to only choose two to three vegetables at a time when shopping. It can easily be overwhelming if you buy six different things to only eat a couple and let the rest go bad. Since we are coming out of winter and into spring right now I would suggest buying some kale, cucumbers and broccoli.
A few staples I always carry because they are so versatile are onions, garlic and citrus like lemons and limes. These are generally passable any season and can be used to cook alongside almost any of the above listed vegetables.
So, our vegetable shopping list for one week in late winter/spring would be:
1. 2 onions
2. 2 heads garlic
3. 2 Bunches Kale
4. 2 Cucumbers
5. 2 heads Broccoli
Oils, Vinegars, Spices and Herbs
This is our last stop for rounding out our groceries for a week. If you buy the right combination of spices, you will ALWAYS have something on hand to properly season food. I believe spices, oil and vinegar are mandatory in a kitchen with herbs being optional.
If you are into making a lot of salads I would suggest extra-virgin olive oil. This is a poor choice to cook with though because of its lower smoke point and tendency for oxidative degradation. If you insist on cooking with oil and do not want to use butter or coconut oil, then I would choose “pure”olive oil over corn or soybean. Pure olive oil is from a second pressing of olives, lacks the distinctive taste of extra-virgin and has a higher smoke point. It isn't my top option for cooking but is far better than corn and soy.
For cooking I would prefer to see people use coconut oil, butter and ghee as they have higher smoke points, are rancid-resistant, taste great and are oxidatively stable. Choose either grass fed butter like Irish butter or organic extra-virgin coconut oil.
Choose one or two high-quality vinegars. I really like a good quality balsamic and apple cider vinegar. Be careful when choosing balsamic vinegars as most of the cheap ones are made from grape-must and white vinegar and contain high amounts of sulfates which means the vinegar will be bitter, watery and the sulfates can give you a headache. Unless the ingredients only say “balsamic vinegar”, don't buy it, and that goes for any vinegar you buy unless it is flavored, as in a pomegranate vinegar.
These are true kitchen mainstays and I cannot stress enough how little you need to use, how well they keep and versatile they are. My favorites are cumin, smoked paprika, chili powder, chipotle powder, black pepper, turmeric and cinnamon. I consider kosher salt a necessity and should always be in your kitchen. Other spice combinations I enjoy are some of the Adobo seasoning mixes as they usually contain salt, garlic, cumin and turmeric and taste great on poultry and eggs.
Herbs are optional here because aside from rosemary, thyme and sage, many of them go bad quickly and can be expensive, which is just added pressure for you to use them before they go bad. If I specifically need basil, chives or some other herb I will buy them. Otherwise, the most beneficial herb to buy on a regular basis would be scallions. Organic scallions are cheap, plentiful, last longer than a couple of days and go with almost any food. If you prefer, you can buy a good quality dried basil or oregano and keep those on hand when you need them, in addition to the scallions.
This list of meats, vegetables, spices and herbs is a great starting place for almost anyone. If you have an absolutely bare-bones kitchen I would look through my following list and choose as many of the items as you can. Doing so will ensure you have everything you need to make a number of great dishes and won't be returning to the store every two days to pick up a forgotten item. In the second part of this series, we will cover planning and cooking, but for now, get shopping!
1. Choose one or two : 85%-90% lean ground beef/ground turkey/chicken breasts/pork chops or loin/beef chuck or other large roast
2. Two 12 or 18 packs of eggs
3. Two onions
4. Two heads garlic
5. 1 Lemon or lime
6. Two to three vegetables from the season we are currently coming out of or going into
7. Extra-virgin coconut oil or grass fed butter
8. Extra-virgin olive oil for salads
9. At least one kind of high quality vinegar: balsamic, champagne, apple cider, red wine
10. Three or four spices from the list above. I consider cumin, paprika, cinnamon and chili powder to be the best initial choices (kosher salt is mandatory)
11. Optional: A mixture of one to three dried or fresh herbs. Don't worry too much about fresh when starting out, so dried basil and oregano would be good choices