The Produce Aisle
Your healthy diet doesn't start at the dinner table, or even at the stove. It begins at the grocery store. "If you don't know how to navigate a market and separate the good from the not-so-good products, you won't bring home the foods you need," says Jackie Newgent, R.D., a New York City-based chef and dietitian. It's just as important, she says, to store foods properly, so they won't go bad before you can eat them. "A vegetable crisper full of wilted leafy greens and spotted carrots is just another excuse to order takeout." We asked Newgent to take us shopping and point us in the right directions.
How to Shop
- Buy color. "If you select at least one fruit or vegetable from each hue, you'll cover many nutritional bases with a wide range of disease fighters," explains Newgent. Dark green vegetables, such as spinach and kale, are loaded with nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin C, fiber and lutein (a cancerpreventive phytochemical). Red items, like tomatoes, pink and red grapefruit and watermelon all contain lycopene, which guards against heart disease and some forms of cancer. Carrots, cantaloupe and red peppers pack in beta-carotene, another cancer fighter.
- Look for fruits and vegetables that are grown locally, in season. Produce grown in a far-off locale is harvested before it is fully ripened to withstand being transported. By the time it arrives at your market, nutrients, already diminished because of the shortened ripening period, are even further depleted.
- Avoid anything with bruises, wormholes and soft spots. These indicate that a fruit or vegetable is past its prime or has been poorly handled. However, some marks, such as surface scarring, are a natural effect of tree ripening.
How to Store
- Most fruit and veggies stay good for about four days, but some last even longer. When refrigerated, fiber-rich apples remain fresh for three weeks, and vitamin-C-packed papayas and mangoes keep more than one week. Sweet potatoes and rutabagas, both high in fiber and vitamin C, keep for a month when stored in a cool, dry place.
- For more perishable items, like herbs, lettuces and tomatoes, invest in sealable, breathable containers that are made specifically for the task. (Supermarket plastic bags aren't.) Tupperware's FridgeSmart storage containers have two vents, which can be opened or closed depending on each fruit and vegetable's "respiration rate," or the speed at which it deteriorates (the containers come with an insert explaining these rates). Glad's new inexpensive zipper storage bags with FreshProtect II keep produce fresher longer by balancing levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
The Dairy Case
How to Shop
- Go for reduced-fat dairy foods instead of nonfat if you're trying to lose weight. The small amount of fat may help ward off cravings. Also, avoid sweetened dairy foods, like fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt, which contain added sugar. Nonfat or reduced-fat dairy products have just as much calcium as whole.
- Try yogurt and hard cheeses in addition to lactose-free products if you're lactose intolerant. Neither has enough lactose to cause trouble for most people. Soy milk is another option, but unfortified kinds are lower in protein and calcium than cow's milk, so be sure to make up for these essentials elsewhere in your diet.
- Pick up some eggs. "The protein they contain is highly bioavailable — meaning your body is able to utilize it most efficiently," says Newgent. Plus, the yolks provide lutein and zeathanthin, which can prevent age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of blindness later in life. Although egg substitutes are lower in calories than whole eggs, they may lack these other nutrients. Fortified eggs, such as those with omega-3 fatty acids, offer additional benefits, but they cost more.
- Pass up any dairy containers that leak, which indicates spoilage. And check each egg for hairline cracks, which hasten deterioration.
How to Store
- All dairy foods should be refrigerated and used before the "use by" date, but there are exceptions. Egg substitutes can be frozen (once thawed and opened, they're good for five days), and nonfat yogurt stays fresh for a week past the "sell by" date. Wellwrapped (with both cheesecloth and waxed paper) blocks of cheese will keep for up to three months.
How to shop
- For a healthy loaf of bread, check ingredients lists and nutrition-facts labels. Don't rely just on color or product names. "Words like multigrain or hearty can be misleading," say Newgent. "Look for whole-grain or whole-wheat flour as the first ingredient. Wheat flour and enriched white flour don't contain the bran of the wheat kernel, Look for wholegrain or whole-wheat flour as the first ingredient. Then check for fiber content. which holds essential nutrients." Next, check for fiber content. Newgent suggests choosing bread that contains three or more grams per slice.
- Avoid baked goods that contain partially hydrogenated oils, which signal the presence of trans fatty acids. They act like saturated fat in the body, increasing your risk of heart disease.
- Beware of freshly baked loaves. "It's difficult to tell if the baker used whole-grain flour," warns Newgent. "If an ingredients list is provided, read it carefully, and don't be afraid to quiz the salesperson." As a last resort, buy a loaf that contains nuts and seeds for the added nutritional benefit.
How to store
- Keep in the freezer to slow mold growth. Most packaged breads will last as long as three weeks, but whole-grain pita bread and English muffins will stay fresh for only about five days. Keep an eye on freshness dates for more guidance. Freeze freshly baked wholegrain breads that contain nuts and seeds, which deteriorate quickly.
The Meat Case and Deli
How to Shop
- Watch out for white marbling; while it means that the cut is more tender, it also signals higher fat and more calories. "The leanest cuts of pork and beef have the words loin or round in their names," Newgent says. "Top-round beef and pork tenderloin, for instance, have about four grams of fat per three-ounce serving." But be aware that because of their lower fat content, they'll dry out quickly with intense, prolonged heat. Stir-fry or broil, and use a marinade.
- Pass up skinless poultry cuts; they offer less fat but are more expensive. The skin keeps meat moist during cooking (just remove it before you eat to save on fat and calories). Boneless cuts, also pricey, aren't as flavorful as those cooked with the bone attached. Dark meat (from the thigh and leg sections) is higher in fat than white meat from the breast is.
- Look for reduced-fat, low-sodium luncheon meats at the deli. They often taste just as good as full-fat meats (especially when eaten with full flavored condiments like coarse-grain mustard or chutney). The type of preparation used — roasting, broiling, baking or smoking — has little effect on calorie and fat content, unless sweet glazes such as honey or maple syrup are used. Nutritional information on all deli meats should be available for the asking.
- Take only tightly wrapped packages that show no signs of leakage, marked with a sell-by date later than the current date. This applies to all meats, including those in the butcher case and deli.
How to Store
- Pay attention to the use-by date on the package. Fresh meats will last about three or four days in the fridge; raw poultry lasts just two days.
- Packaged deli meats stay fresh for several weeks in their vacuum-sealed packaging, but once opened, they’re good for only about four days. Store cut-toorder deli meats in zip-top plastic storage bags; eat within two days.
- To freeze meat, keep it in its original packaging and wrap a second layer of airtight plastic around it. Or divide into individual portions, wrap tightly in double layers of plastic, and store in freezer-storage bags. Label, then freeze for up to six months.
The Seafood Case
How to Shop
- Choose fish with a deep rose-pink color, such as tuna and salmon. They provide the most omega-3 fatty acids, which protect against heart disease. Shrimp, shellfish and white fish are all high in protein and low in calories, but they don't supply as much heart healthy fat. (Avoid tilefish, king mackerel, swordfish and shark, because of the risk of mercury contamination. For more information, go to cfsan.fda.gov.)
- Select whole fish with clear eyes, moist, shiny scales and a clean, ocean scent. They'll always be fresher than precut fillets or steaks; a good fishmonger will portion a whole fish into fillets for you. When buying all other seafood, rely on the smell test: If it smells fishy, avoid it. Oysters and mussels should be displayed with origination tags, which indicate where the seafood was harvested. (Eating raw seafood is risky, especially for pregnant women or those with compromised immune systems.)
How to Store
- When you bring it home, store it in a large bowl and cover with ice until you’re ready to cook. Use all fresh seafood within a day. Frozen seafood can be stored in the freezer, but the texture of fresh seafood will be adversely affected by freezing at home.
The Frozen Foods Section
How to Shop
- Stock up on fruits and vegetables, especially if you live in an area where locally grown items are hard to get. "Frozen produce is often just as nutritious as fresh, because it's picked when it's fully ripe and processed immediately," says Newgent. A freezer full of a variety of vegetables helps ensure that you get your five-a-day.
- Double-check sodium and other nutrient counts. Choose frozen entrées with less than 800 milligrams of sodium per serving. Also, look for a balance of lean protein (chicken, seafood, soy) and carbohydrates, plus at least one serving (preferably two) of vegetables.
- Squeeze containers: The food inside should feel solid, and the box shouldn't be torn or bulging. Beware of ice crystals at the corners or seams, which could indicate improper storage.
How to Store
- Set your freezer to 0°F and keep it at least two-thirds full but not overflowing. (An overstuffed or empty freezer is inefficient.) Place an open box of baking soda inside to absorb odors.