Katie's Healthy Bites: Upgrading Fridge Staples

Our intern, Karen, shared a photo of what's inside her refrigerator. Hoping to help her and her roommate eat healthier despite their budget and busy schedules, I gave her some suggestions for upgrades.
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When Healthy Eats' intern, Karen, mentioned she'd love some tips on how to upgrade her refrigerator staples, I said, "Send me a pic! Stat!" Always obliging, Karen took a snapshot and then gave me the heads up on the usual items she and her roommate keep on hand. Karen's main comment was that she and her roommate are both recent college graduates -- so they're busy with new (or odd) jobs and have a limited budget and time. Here's the feedback I gave her from what I saw inside...

Hummus: Made from chickpeas, this middle eastern dip is packed with protein, carbohydrates and fiber. I was thrilled to see she keeps this on hand because it works great for between-meal snacks (just dip in some cut-up veggies) or as an easy appetizer if she has unexpected company. A simple upgrade would be to opt for an organic version. She could also save some money by making her own ( try this recipe) -- do it on the weekends to save time during the week.

Cottage cheese: This is a great source of protein and calcium but buyer beware, cottage cheese can be loaded with fat and sodium. Look for a low-fat and, if possible, no-salt variety. Pair with berries and granola for a hearty breakfast or satisfying snack.

Pasta Sauce: Jarred pasta sauces are convenient for the work week. To keep it as close to homemade as possible, stock up on low-sodium, simple sauces with no added sweetener. The fewer the ingredients, the better and avoid anything that has tons of extra, added flavors (Karen had a meat-flavored version). Stick to the basics: tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and herbs. You can also make your own -- do up a large batch (just start from crushed or diced tomatoes, tomato paste or plain tomato sauce), portion it out and freeze for later. To complete the meal, add some sautéed ground turkey, chicken, lean beef or bison for your own meaty flavor.

Peanut & Almond Butter: This is a go-to in my house. Like the pasta sauce, I'd look for a low-sodium, organic version with no added sugar. And again, while it's not as convenient, you can make your own. Just start with raw organic nuts and puree them in food processor for 2 to 3 minutes. You can add some water to achieve your desired texture and maybe a bit of agave nectar or honey for sweetness.

Yogurt: Though a great source of calcium, yogurt can also be loaded with sugar and fat. Opt for a low-fat, plain yogurt and add your own fruit or natural sweetener. Greek yogurts are my favorite, but again stick to the low-fat varieties. Avoid light yogurts that contain artificial sweeteners (they're all over the dairy case!). Karen and her roomie could save by buying the large container and portioning it out over the week -- they'll use it up before it goes bad.

Eggs: Looks like Karen just has the standard supermarket dozen. While more expensive, I always recommend upgrading to organic, free range eggs, which are free of hormones and antibiotics and (I think) taste better.

Flour tortillas: Excellent! She should continue to keep them on hand for fast, week-night wraps, burritos and fajitas. Look for flour tortillas in whole grain varieties to get more fiber.

String Cheese: A handy snack that travels well to work or the gym. Choose a part skim version and organic, if the budget allows. Some other great fridge stockers are light Bonne Bell cheese, Laughing Cow (great for spreading) and low-fat cheese -- both blocks and shredded.

Cream Cheese: Of course, low-fat versions are best, but a creative alternative to cream cheese is a low-fat farmer’s cheese. It has a texture similar to cream cheese but has more protein and less fat. Jazz it up with some herbs or lemon, and you’ll forget your run-of-the-mill cream cheese ever existed.

Fruit Cups: Lots of folks stock up on these packaged fruit snacks for their lunch boxes, but you can save some money and calories by buying the real thing. Packaged versions might have added sugar (often an artificial sweetener to keep calories low) or high-calorie syrup, whereas fresh has antioxidants, fiber and flavor galore -- plus, you can create your own combos. Sure, they won't keep for months in the fridge, but just buy what you'll eat at a time.

Bagged Lettuce: Bagged versions are convenient, but don't they seem to go bad fast? Plus, they're so pricey! Upgrade to dark leafy greens for added nutrition, and buy your greens or head of lettuce in its natural form to save some cash.

Milk: There are many types of milk -- cow, goat, soy, almond, hazelnut and rice to name a few. If you're a big milk drinker, look for a low-fat or fat-free, organic/hormone-free variety. Karen keeps a vanilla-flavored soy milk but flavored soy milks often have added sugar. Opt for the plain one -- or even no sugar added versions. Goat's milk, which has a high concentration of medium-chain triglycerides, is thought to be easier to digest then cow's milk. It's difficult to find in low-fat versions, but it is a good source of calcium and may be a good alternative for those with aversions to cow's milk. Here is more information on buying the best dairy.

Bread: Try to stick to whole-grain bread but don't get duped by the label's grand claims. Check out some of our favorites and get tips for finding the best kinds. Feeling adventurous? Try a spelt or sprouted grain bread.

Juice: Like with the fruit cups, eating a piece of fruit is best! Juices can be loaded with added sugars and artificial sweeteners and are missing their original fruit's fiber (the processing strips it out). If you can't live without juice, buy 100% fruit juice.

Butter: As you may know, butter is primarily saturated fat. Though okay in moderation, healthier options exist. I like Balade, which is a light butter, and also use trans fat-free margarine and a variety of oils such as olive and organic canola oil for cooking. I didn't see cooking oils in the fridge, but did you know keeping oils chilled can help prevent rancidity? Here is more information on butter alternatives.

Katie Cavuto Boyle, MS, RD, owns HealthyBites, LLC and competed in season 5 of The Next Food Network Star.

TELL US: What is in your fridge that you're proud of and what needs an upgrade?
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