How many times do you open your refrigerator door each day, peering in and hoping to be inspired? It stands to reason that if you keep your refrigerator stocked with appetizing foods that also happen to be good for you, you're much more likely to eat healthy meals and healthy snacks.
But keep in mind that the "out of sight, out of mind" principle applies to your fridge. Many of us, for example, have colorful fruits and vegetables on hand -- but keep them buried in the crisper drawers at the bottom of the fridge. You are more likely to see, eat, and enjoy healthy foods if they're in a ready-to-eat form, staring at you from the eye-level shelves in your refrigerator.
Here are nine must-have healthy foods for a diet-friendly refrigerator:
1. Fruit Salad
Take that fruit from your crisper and fruit bowl and turn it into a tasty fruit salad, drizzled with a high-vitamin-C fruit juice (to keep the fruit from browning), and packed in a see-through, covered container. You might also find bags of pre-sliced organic apples in your market that you can keep front and center in your fridge.
2. Crunchy Raw Vegetables
Try cucumbers, celery, zucchini, jicama, and carrots, cut into sticks or slices, rinsed, and kept in a see-through covered container.
3. Ready-to-Eat Green Salad
A salad made with high-nutrient spinach or romaine lettuce, and embellished with cherry tomatoes, beans, and even nuts, is more likely to be gobbled once liberated from the crisper. Looking for a healthy meal in seconds flat? This salad can quickly transform into an entree with the addition of grilled chicken breast, cooked shrimp, or lean steak slices.
4. Whole-Wheat Pita Pockets and/or Tortillas
Switching from refined (or white) grain products to whole grains is one of the most powerful dietary changes you can make. Research has suggested that eating plenty of whole grains may lead to an assortment of health benefits, including lengthening your life span, helping with weight control, and reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, metabolic syndrome, and some cancers.
Keeping a pack of whole-wheat pita pockets or whole-grain tortillas in the refrigerator can inspire quite a few quick, healthy meals or snacks. The pita or tortilla can serve as a base for quesadillas, pizzas, and hot or cold sandwiches or wraps. These items tend to get moldy fairly quickly at room temperature, but will last at least a week in the refrigerator.
5. Low-Fat Dairy Foods
I'll leave it to you which low-fat dairy items you want on your refrigerator shelf. I'm a yogurt fan myself, but you'll never see me willingly eat cottage cheese (I can't get past the lumpy texture). Other low-fat dairy options are fat-free or 1% milk and reduced-fat cheeses like part-skim mozzarella or reduced-fat cheddar or provolone.
Low-fat dairy products have impressive levels of two nutrients many of us need: calcium and protein. Just a cup of fat-free yogurt, for example, takes you a third of the way to your daily recommended calcium intake, and satisfies 17% of your estimated daily protein needs. A bag of pre-shredded, reduced-fat cheese also comes in handy for making many of the healthy snacks and meals mentioned in this list.
6. Jar of Marinara or Pizza Sauce
Armed with a jar of marinara or pizza sauce, you're on your way to several quick and healthy snacks or meals. Use it for:
- Design-your-own pizza using whole-wheat pitas, bagel halves, or tortillas.
- All kinds of pasta dishes.
- Italian-style hot sandwiches or panini.
- Topping for meat loaf or casseroles.
- Bread dip or enchilada sauce.
Tomatoes are packed with important nutrients, and your body can absorb more of their phytochemicals if the tomatoes are cooked and eaten along with a little healthy fat. That fits the description of most bottled marinara and pizza sauces. Tomatoes contain all four carotenoid phytochemicals: alpha- and beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene, which work together for even more nutritional pop. They also have three high-powered antioxidants thought to work together: vitamin E, vitamin C, and beta-carotene.
7. Prepared Pesto (Made With Olive Oil)
Pesto, made with basil, olive oil, Parmesan cheese and some type of nut, is a tasty way to work a little olive oil into your day. Along with the healthful monounsaturated fats, olive oil contributes more than 30 phytochemicals, many of which have antioxidant/anti-inflammatory action in the body.
Pesto makes a great spread for sandwiches and pizzas, or a tasty sauce for all your favorite hot or cold potato and pasta dishes (choose whole-grain pasta for added nutritional punch). You can even add pesto to goat cheese or light cream cheese and serve with whole-grain crackers for an impromptu appetizer. More good news about pesto: it's strongly flavored, so a small amount can help perk up your dishes while keeping calories under control.
8. Almond Butter
Nuts in general contain "smart fats" (mostly monounsaturated fat and a little polyunsaturated fat, including plant omega-3 fatty acids for some nuts). Most nuts also have phytosterols, which in sufficient amounts can help lower cholesterol and enhance the immune system, and may decrease the risk of some cancers. Some of the vitamins and minerals many of us are lacking, like vitamin E and magnesium, are also be found in nuts.
One of the most studied nuts is the almond. Almonds have phytochemicals that can help lower cholesterol; vegetable protein that may lower "bad" cholesterol (LDL); and monounsaturated fat that may increase "good" cholesterol (HDL). To top it all off, almonds are rich in antioxidants.
An easy way to work almonds into your day is with almond butter. Use it anywhere you would use peanut butter: spread on whole-grain toast, bagels, or crackers; as a dip for fruits and veggies; or for cooking everything from cookies to sauces and dressings. Remember, though, that nut butters are high in fat (albeit the healthy kind), so be sure to practice portion control.
9. Iced Green Tea
One of the best ways to cut calories is to avoid beverages that contain them. Your body will thank you even more if you choose no-calorie drinks that can also give you some health benefits. Here's where green tea comes in. Tea contains phytochemicals that are thought to have a host of health benefits. For example, tea has catechins, which are thought to not only have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity, but also to stimulate the immune system and possibly boost weight loss. Both green and black tea have healthy properties, but green tea is thought to be especially beneficial.
The phytochemicals in green tea have a half-life of just a few hours, so I make it a habit to drink a cup of green tea in the morning and another toward the end of the day. Having ice-cold green tea in the refrigerator makes it easy to enjoy a glass in the afternoon when you're looking for a little refreshment. There are all sorts of flavored green teas available (like tropical green tea, pomegranate green tea, etc.). Find a few flavors you like, and keep some brewed and ready to drink in your refrigerator.