Your cupboards are full and there’s never room in the freezer – yet you still can’t find the right ingredients to create a healthy and tasty meal! If this sounds familiar, you might be in need of a kitchen detox, HFG-style.
A huge part of being healthy comes from being prepared. You can make it easy on yourself by having everything you need on hand to create healthy meals in a hurry, so you’re not tempted by faster, less healthy options. Giving your fridge, freezer, cupboards and shelves a thorough clean and de-clutter might take a few hours, but the time and health benefits you’ll gain in the long term will be well worth it. With our straightforward step-by-step guide, there’ll be no need to grab takeaway. This is a sure-fire way to revitalise your culinary skills and make it easy to create simple, healthy meals in a flash.
1. Take an inventory
It’s important to take stock of what you’ve already got in your cupboards, fridge and freezer. Chances are, you’ll find food that needs to be thrown out, packets past their use-by date, or items that need to be stored properly in containers. Plus, if you know exactly what you’ve got, it helps with planning both your shopping lists and your healthy meals for the week ahead! Here’s how to efficiently take an inventory of your pantry, fridge and freezer:
The first thing you need to do is take note of all the food that’s in your kitchen cupboards. Remove everything and put it out on the bench. Give your cupboards a good clean and wipe down. Now, be ruthless. While some foods, such as those in cans or cartons, may last months or even years, other non-perishables, such as flour, should be discarded earlier. Check best-before or use-by dates, throw away anything that has expired and keep track of items that are on their way out, so you’ll be sure to use them up rather than wasting them. Put them closer to the front so they’re easily visible. See point 3 below for a list of healthy essentials to keep on hand in your pantry.
Leftover pasta from two weeks ago, jars of curry paste festering in the fridge door, almost-empty bottles of sauces and a crisper that leaves a lot to be desired… if this sounds slightly familiar, it’s time to take a real inventory of your fridge and have a clean out.
To begin, pull everything out – even all the little jars that are floating around at the back. Then, take out the drawers and shelves and give them all a good clean. Throw out anything that you can’t remember the last time you used. Get rid of any fruit and vegies that have perished and anything else that doesn’t smell quite right. Be sure to check the fridge carefully before going shopping, so you don’t replace anything until it’s run out.
While freezing food is a great way to make it last longer, the quality and taste will decline after a certain time. Plus, a disorganised and overstocked freezer can mean you forget what you’ve got and end up wasting food. It can also reduce the effectiveness of the freezer. It’s a good idea to label things with the date they went into the freezer, so it’s easy to keep track. To avoid wastage, here’s how long you should be freezing different foods for:
Meat should only be kept in the freezer for about six months, and mince for three. If you have any meat that needs to be used up quickly, thaw it out, cook it thoroughly, then cut it into pieces and use in salads, soups and sandwiches.
Bread should only be kept frozen for six months. If you’ve got crusts or the ends of loaves hanging around, throw them out, or thaw and then use to make homemade breadcrumbs or toasted sandwiches.
Lean fish, such as snapper, can be frozen for up to six months, while fatty fish like salmon can be frozen for four.
Frozen vegies will last for around eight months.
Sauces, stocks and soups – tomato-based sauces and soups can last for six months, but creamy sauces will only keep for three.
2. Be smart with food storage
The best way to store food in your pantry is in airtight, transparent containers. Opting for transparent containers simply makes it easier to know what you’ve got stored, where. Try to use square or rectangular containers as they stack well and take up less space. Cut out any cooking directions and best-before dates from the packaging and put them on the inside of the container, facing out so you can easily see them. Or, use a sticker to label the containers.
If you’re going to keep food in its original packaging, squeeze any air out of the packet first. If you have open bags (e.g pasta) seal them with a clip, rubber band, or even a peg. It’s also a good idea to store items such as garlic, onions and potatoes in a large basket on their own to ensure they get a regular flow of air and don’t spoil too quickly.
Use your fridge to its best potential by keeping foods in the right spots. Store vegies in the vegie crisper – this keeps the humidity in, helping keep them fresh for longer. Keep meat and cheeses in the meat drawer. The drawers are the coldest area so things that go bad quickly should always live there.
Condiments and the most stable foods should be kept in the shelves in the door as this is normally the warmest part of the fridge. It’s best not to keep your eggs in the door, as they can bump around and crack.
Store older ingredients at the front of the fridge so you use them up first. Store leftovers in single-portion, tightly-sealed containers, which will make them easy to grab and use. This also saves space and prevents bacteria from growing. If you’ve opened a can of food, such as lentils or kidney beans, store what you don’t use in a container rather than the can. Keep anything you’ve opened or half-used in a container or covered in cling-wrap. You can also try placing a box of open bicarb soda in the middle of the fridge to absorb any odours.
Get rid of anything in your freezer with freezer burn and throw out any ‘UFOs’ (unidentifiable frozen objects!). Make sure everything you want to keep is well-wrapped to reduce the risk of freezer burn – and it pays to date everything so you know how old it is. Keep anything you need to use up sooner, such as mince or sauces, at the front of the freezer in an accessible spot. Freeze leftovers in single-serve portions to make thawing and reheating easier.
3. Keep essentials on hand
Stock your cupboards with the right ingredients and you’ll always have the makings of a healthy meal, even when it’s time to do a new grocery shop. Some of the most useful include…
Canned goods can be the ultimate fast food. Canned tuna and salmon are ready to eat and make a nutritious low-cost meal base. A can of reduced-salt baked beans makes a quick and filling breakfast or snack. No-added-salt canned tomatoes are essential for many dishes, so stock up when they’re on sale. Canned tomatoes and fruit can be kept for 12 to 18 months, whereas other canned foods, such as vegetable soup, vegetables, beans and lentils, will last two years or more – but discard any dented, bulging or rusting cans.
Pulses (dried or canned) add nutrients and texture to casseroles, soups and salads and also extend meat dishes. Dried peas and beans keep for around 12 months – but they deteriorate over time and may need soaking and cooking for longer than usual.
Cereal is not only a breakfast food, but a great snack too. Choose varieties with at least 6g fibre per 100g and less than 400mg sodium per 100g. Also opt for cereals that have less than 25g sugar per 100g if sweetened with dried fruit, or less than 15g per 100g if sweetened with sugar or honey. Look at the packet for a best-before date, as storage times can vary.
Oats are a versatile base for muesli, porridge, crumbles and biscuits. Check the packet and use them within their use-by date.
Dried fruit will last around six to 12 months before deteriorating, but some types are more susceptible than others. Sultanas, for example, absorb moisture from the atmosphere and may go mouldy more quickly. It’s best to store dried fruit in a sealed container after opening.
Dried herbs and spices will bring life to your food and are a healthier alternative to salt. Storing them in airtight containers helps to preserve their flavour if they come in sachets. They’ll need throwing out after about a year as they’ll no longer have much flavour. If you buy refill packs of spices and herbs and keep them in old jars, note the best-before date on the jar.
Dried pasta and noodles, especially wholemeal varieties, are an excellent source of fibre and essential carbohydrates. They make a good base for many quick and substantial meals. Dried pasta keeps well for around two years.
Rice is a great choice for soups, curries, stir-fries and salads. Choose basmati or brown as they are lower GI than white rice. Brown rice will last six months, but white will last about two years as the outer layer (which contains a small amount of fat) has been removed, so it is less likely to go rancid.
Flour lasts from eight to 12 months, but wholemeal flour won’t last as long, so get rid of any you’re not sure about. Cornflour or arrowroot is useful for thickening casseroles, sauces and soups.
Powdered drinks – check opened jars of instant coffee or drinking chocolate – if any moisture has got in, they will go hard and be unusable.
Sugar can be spoiled only by moisture. Keep it dry and it’ll last.
Oils, such as sunflower and canola, are very versatile. They’re inexpensive, high in unsaturated (heart-healthy) fats and their high smoke point means they can be used for cooking. Cooking oil spray is a healthy choice as you use less, adding fewer kilojoules to your meal. Extra-virgin olive oil is rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated oils and tastes good in salads, while sesame and peanut oils add flavour to stir-fries and salads. Oils begin to oxidise once opened and can turn rancid, so get rid of any that smell ‘off’.
Spreads aren’t just for using on toast. Vegemite adds flavour to casseroles and soups, honey can be used in baking, and peanut butter in Asian dishes. Check the packet to see how long they’ll last once opened.
Table sauces such as tomato, barbecue or Worcestershire have varying best-before dates. Choose reduced or no-added-salt or sugar varieties where possible. Check the label and store accordingly.
Vinegar will keep almost indefinitely.
Fresh fruit and vegies are our favourites! Each will vary differently as to how long they will keep, but storing in the crisper will get the longest amount of time out of them.
Reduced-fat dairy (or alternatives) are an essential for every fridge. Skim milk, white cheeses like ricotta, mozzarella for home-made pizzas, or sandwiches and tubs of reduced-fat yoghurt are all good to have. They usually have a short fridge-life so check these products regularly and use them before their use-by date.
Spreads – doesn’t just mean reduced-fat table spread. Try keeping a tub of hommous, extra-light cream cheese or tzatziki to spread on toast or crackers for a snack. Each product will have varying use-by dates so check the labels.
Condiments such as salsa, chutney and mustard are all great for adding a bit of extra flavour to meals. Again, check the label for use-by and storage instructions as they will vary.
Nuts and seeds will go rancid if exposed to oxygen, due to their high fat content. Try not to buy huge quantities at a time and store them in a sealed container in the fridge once opened, for up to four months or freeze for up to six.
Frozen vegetables are perfect to boost the nutritional content of a meal when you don’t have any fresh vegies in the fridge. Try peas alone or vegetable mixes for some variety – they store for about 8 months – but you’ll most likely use them before then!
Healthy frozen meals can be a great option rather than resorting to takeaway. Check the label for one that’s low-fat, has less than 800mg sodium per serve and has as many vegies as possible – although you’ll most likely need to add more to make it a balanced meal (see above!).
Lean meat – keep lean beef or pork fillet in your freezer as both can be used in a variety of healthy recipes.
Fish fillets make a simple, healthy meal when you pop in the oven, then serve with salad or vegies.
Berries are perfect for when fresh isn’t an option and great for adding to your breakfast, a smoothie, or as a tasty dessert or snack.
4. Make the healthy stuff promiment
Did you know that the position of food in your pantry and fridge can actually influence your eating habits? Basically, you’re more likely to eat the chocolate or chips if they’re the first thing you see when you open the cupboard door! So, it pays to plan where everything will go before you stock your newly clean cupboards.
Get into healthy food habits by placing healthier foods (that you want to eat more of) at eye level and at the front. Anything you use on a regular basis, for example cans of tomatoes or pasta, can be stored in a less obvious position as you’re less likely to forget they’re there. Any foods that you may find tempting, such as biscuits or snack foods you bought for entertaining, are safest at the back where you won’t see them on a daily basis.
Overall, it is a good idea to group foods together – such as condiments, herbs and spices on one shelf, breakfast cereals on another – so you can easily find what you’re looking for. In the fridge, keep any leftovers in portion sizes, visible at the front so you use them up and they don’t go to waste. Keep your fruit and vegies visible. In the freezer, keep things that need to be used up at the front, along with the healthy options such as frozen vegies, frozen berries and lean meats. Keep any treats such as ice-cream at the back so you won’t be tempted each time you open the freezer door!
Five fridge-friendly snacks
Reduced-fat cheese to put on grainy crispbread
Hommous or reduced-fat tzatziki with vegie sticks
Chopped fresh fruit salad
Individual tubs of reduced-fat yoghurt
Slices of smoked salmon to put on toast or crackers
Your healthy kitchen equipment checklist
On a roll with your healthy kitchen makeover? Become a more efficient healthy cook by de-cluttering your kitchen drawers, too. The rule? If you haven’t used it for years (if at all), then learn how to use it – or lose it! Here’s a list of some healthy kitchen essentials you may want to stock up on once you’ve cleaned out the clutter:
Small, medium and large saucepans
Non-stick frying pan and/or wok
Steamer or steam basket
Casserole dish with lid
Ovenproof lasagne dish
Colander or large, heatproof sieve
Large roasting tin
Set of knives
Three separate chopping boards (for meat, fish and vegies)
Set of scales
Set of measuring spoons
Hand blender or liquidiser
Make sure your food is safe
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) gives this advice:
Use-by dates are on foods that go off quickly, so they’re common on fresh products, such as meat, poultry, fish, ready meals and prepared salads. Even though food may look or smell fine, it can be dangerous to eat after this date.
Best before dates are on foods with a longer shelf life, eg. canned foods, flour and frozen foods; and show how long the food will be at its best quality. Eating food after the best-before date doesn’t necessarily mean it will be unsafe, but it may not taste as good. Eggs are the exception – they should be eaten within a day or two of their best-before date and cooked thoroughly. Bread with a shelf life of less than 7 days may include a ‘baked on’ date or ‘baked for’ date instead of a ‘best-before’.