Stock a Healthy Refrigerator

What to put in the fridge to guarantee nutritious eating.

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Photo by Gregor Halenda
Healthy eating would be a lot easier if someone would clean out the refrigerator, get rid of the junk, and stock the shelves with nutritious choices. If high-fat, high-salt, low-fiber foods aren't in sight (Chubby Hubby, anyone?), they are more likely to be out of mind―and out of mouth. But until you find a nutritionist-slash―personal assistant to do the job for you, take a peek into this healthy refrigerator. Look at it again before you head to the supermarket―it might keep you away from the Cool Whip.

Dairy and Staples

Hummus
Keep tubs on hand, plus bags of baby carrots. The combo is a low-fat, high-protein snack alternative to hunks of cheese or a fistful of cookies.

Cheese
Replace mellow, soft cheeses with sharp, harder ones. A small amount packs lots of flavor, saving you both dollars and fat grams. Look for aged Cheddar and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Eggs
Keep eggs in their carton on a lower shelf to guard against the loss of carbon dioxide and moisture. The shells may look impermeable, but they are covered with tiny holes that can absorb odors and flavors.

Butter and margarine
Use real butter where it counts, but sparingly. Keep sticks in a covered dish. (Freeze sticks you're not using.) When it comes to margarine, soft kinds in tubs and those labeled "trans-fat free" are the only healthy butter substitutes.

Chicken broth
Buy it in resealable cartons. Use it to cook rice, mash potatoes, or saute vegetables for rich flavor without butter or oil. (Add broth to a warm skillet with the vegetables; cover and cook until tender.) Look for low-sodium or organic broth.

Yogurt
As with milk, go for low-fat instead of nonfat to enjoy more flavor. You can bake with it or drain it through a coffee filter for yogurt "cheese."

Milk
One percent milk has enough fat for baking but isn't unhealthy to drink. Buy milk in opaque containers to protect it from light, which can reduce the vitamin content.

Orange juice
Select juice that is calcium fortified. There's barely any difference in taste, and drinking one glass will give you a third of your recommended daily allowance of calcium.
 

Oils, Water, Produce

Salad dressings
Your healthiest bottled-dressing options are vinaigrettes made with olive oil, but if you have a weak spot for creamy dressings you can make them last longer (and eat fewer calories) by thinning them with milk, mild rice vinegar, or herb tea. Tossing a salad with dressing before serving it is the key to using less.

Mayonnaise
Go for low-fat mayonnaise rather than the low-cholesterol kind. Regular mayo doesn't have a lot of cholesterol to begin with, but it does have a great deal of fat.

Drinks
Keep filtered water or seltzer in the refrigerator and you'll always have a cold, refreshing, healthy drink on hand. (Soda consumption in the United States surpassed milk consumption in 1994 and is still shooting upward.)

Leftovers
Spoon leftovers―even the take-out kind―into glass or plastic containers that are microwave-safe. Some take-out trays and yogurt tubs are made from a kind of plastic that can leach chemicals into food at high temperatures. Avoid reheating in plastic containers that aren't designated microwave-safe.

Bagged lettuces and vegetables
Consider bags of baby spinach and other salad greens a shopping-list staple. For longest shelf life, buy prewashed greens in single-variety bags (the fragile leaves in salad mixes spoil first and can ruin the whole package). Combine them with more economical lettuce, such as iceberg, as needed.

Produce
Put produce in its place. That generally means either out of the fridge entirely (tomatoes and tropical fruits) or in one of the bottom bins, where the humidity is controlled. When vegetables lose moisture, they get limp and may lose vitamins. Spinach can lose as much as 50 percent of its vitamin C if left out overnight.

Oils
Olive, canola, and sesame oil are your healthiest options. If you have all three, you'll be ready for just about any kind of cooking. All are best kept in the refrigerator, because they oxidize when exposed to heat and light. Oxidized oils taste rancid and may release free radicals, which are linked to many health risks. Chilled oils may become cloudy, but they'll clarify at room temperature.
 

The Freezer

Prepared foods
Packaged meals come in sensible portions―but with sky-high sodium content. (The bulk of the sodium in the U.S. diet comes from prepared foods, not from what we use in cooking or sprinkle on at the table.) With homemade frozen foods, wrap tightly, label, and date. Meals stored in the freezer should be used within three months.

Whole grains
Brown rice, whole-wheat flour, and oatmeal are the best grains to stock, but they should be kept cold. Unlike refined grains (the white ones), whole grains contain the outer bran as well as the inner seed, or germ. The germ contains some fat. And, like cooking oils, that fat can oxidize at room temperature.

Sweet snacks
When frozen, marshmallows get caramel-chewy and grapes end up tasting like cold gumdrops. Either will give you satisfaction without giving you fat.

Bananas
When bananas are too speckled to pack in lunch bags, throw them into the freezer unpeeled. The skins will blacken, but the fruit will stay sweet and ripe inside. Blend one with orange juice, berries, and yogurt (no need for ice) for a breakfast smoothie.

Nuts
Freeze an assortment―peanuts, pistachios, almonds, and walnuts―all of which are loaded with antioxidants. Don't worry about the fat. Nuts are mostly made up of monounsaturated fats (the good kind). Like oils, nuts need to be kept cold and out of the light to remain fresh.

Ice cream
A University of Pennsylvania study found that the larger the container, the more careless we are about indulging. Buy ice cream in four-ounce individual servings or pints.

Soybeans
Here is the healthy, high-protein snack that will break you of the potato-chips-before-dinner habit. Edamame (soybeans in their pods) are the best-tasting tofu alternative. Drop them frozen into boiling water for a few minutes, drain, and salt. Serve warm or chilled (with a separate bowl to collect the discarded pods).