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Healthy eating begins with your shopping list

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Learning to shop is as important as learning to cook. If you don't believe that, consider: I was following a reality series called My 600-Lb. Life. It is a study of several morbidly-obese people who have bariatric surgery and try to normalize their weight. Besides being an extensive study of some amazing ordinary people, you can learn a lot just by watching it.

Here's an example: one of the men lost his father to obesity, followed by his older sister. All along his obese mother was cooking for all of them (yes, as they died one by one). Confronted by the doctor, she revealed tearfully that she honestly did not know any other way to cook than the style that was killing her family. Apparently she didn't know how to make a dinner salad or serve any beverage other than soda, or at least that's what she said. This kind of an enabler will drive her son right over the brink of death (that sounds harsh, but she has done it twice already).

The former heaviest man in the world, Manuel Uribe, died last month from liver failure. He was 48 years old. In a few programs about him you could not help noticing that the people who were feeding him (because he was bedridden) did little to resist his requests for food. Why didn't they offer him tea? That's what I have when I am hungry late at night. Now he is dead and his struggle is over.

So when you walk through that store door, are you aware that you are entering an area that is fraught with life-affecting alternatives? The first thing to do is to give yourself an interval for adjustment, and break the habit of doing your primary shopping in a conventional supermarket. You may have to get used to driving a bit more; you may have to learn not to stop and shop after work (a bad habit in any event). Find the most convenient health-oriented store near you and start the transition to making it your primary marketplace.

Parenthetically, I am increasingly annoyed by the apologists for the food industry who write articles about why you don't have to bother with organics, or how to save money on what organics you don't need to buy because they are "expensive." Doctor bills are more expensive! What is your health worth?

Here is some information about foods you buy that can make a difference. To begin with, there are many types of vinegar. Your basic everyday vinegar should be organic apple-cider vinegar. In Tucson you can find Bragg's, which has a "mother" inside the bottle that contains vital nutrients that other kinds of vinegar don't have. There are other kinds of "living" vinegar that you can buy, and as you learn to read labels (it took me quite a while) you will find the ones that display that information proudly. When you use this vinegar in your Big Six salad dressing, you will be consuming trace nutrients that will have a noticeable effect over time.

Oils are similar in their importance to the body. Extra-virgin olive oil is wasted on cooking, so use it just for salads and topping; buy conventional olive oil for the cooking you intend to use it for (like baking bread) and when you are looking for EVOO, get the greenest and fruitiest you can find. Learn your brands by checking the aroma when you first open the bottle and you will find your favorites.

The same goes for coconut oil. Some of them have an intense perfume of coconut, and others are almost odorless. There is solid-state coconut oil and bottles of liquid, and that is not an indication of the aroma. Coconut oil is suitable for high-heat cooking, like grape seed oil, and it makes a curry to die for.

Your typical inventory of oils would include coconut, grape seed and olive oils (EVOO and for cooking). Tucson's olive oil shop, Alphonso's in the St. Phillips Plaza, will provide you with as much information as you can take in if you stop by there.

I recommend another item, canned beans, as a staple for your salads and side dishes. They are always recommended, but beyond baked beans it might seem difficult to find something to do with them. Well, you can always make baked beans as a side dish for dinner, especially with a salad and bread, because the beans will be your protein dish. And if you like brown rice, serve beans with it or over it and you are in rice-and-beans territory, one of the life-sustaining combinations to be found all over the world.

But drain the beans and you can put them on salads, make garbanzos into hummus, add them to soup for a minestrone, and look into exotic things like bean jam that is consumed quite a bit in Japan (bean jam buns). A can of beans on your kitchen shelves won't do you wrong. Start with kidney beans for salad, cannelloni for soup, garbanzos for hummus and small white beans if you want to make your own baked beans. Use small red beans for the beans-and-rice recipes that call for a savory bean mixture poured over rice.

I don't know how long it will take, but if you do these things you will begin to notice a change in how you feel. And it isn't just shopping for superior organic ingredients--it's the cooking that will make itself felt in your well-being. Making a loaf of bread on your day off, a quick salad dressing in the blender that will last for several salads, soup that you put together from healthful ingredients that you have on hand: those are the things that make you feel "better" as in more competent to feed yourself, and better as in your actual health.

Personally, I am relentless in eating yogurt or another probiotic every single day. It is an issue for me because as the commercials remind us, 70% of your immune system lives in your gut. If your digestive system is happy, life is good and I plan to keep mine rocking as long as I live. It is simply amazing how your days go when you feel good and energetic all the time.

If you would like another recipe that you can work on the day before and tend to the next day, here is a very good way to make Red Beans and Rice using your slow cooker. The overnight treatment of the beans can be done using the slow cooker's pot, and in the morning you just prepare the rest and go off to work or do other things. Then you do the final countdown in the late afternoon, splitting up the cooking chores.

SLOW-COOKED RED BEANS AND RICE

Ingredients:

2 Tablespoons cooking olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 sweet bell pepper, chopped (any color)
2 cups dried small red beans, soaked overnight and drained
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Hot cooked brown rice (3 to 4 cups)

In a frying pan, sweat the onions, garlic and green pepper until the onions are translucent. Transfer them to the slow cooker and stir in the beans and broth. Season to taste, with salt and pepper. Cover and cook on low heat until the beans are tender, about 7-1/2 hours (on high it will take about 4 hours).

Remove 1/4 cup of beans from the slow cooker and mash them until they are smooth. Stir them back into the slow cooker and continue to cook for another 30 minutes on low. Remove the beans from the cooker to a serving bowl and serve them over the cooked brown rice.

Two cups of brown rice will give you four cups after they are cooked; it's easiest to place them in a covered baking dish with four cups of water or broth and bake them in a 350-degree oven for one hour. Fluff the rice as soon as it is done and it's ready when the beans are ready.

This recipe does not include meat, but if you wish you can add cooked chicken, sausage or pork. As it is, it makes a great Meatless Monday. Now, as I looked over recipes for this dish, I found that many of them go into great detail with long lists of ingredients. Just keep in mind that beans and rice are sustaining life in the poorest areas of the world, and let's not get silly. I believe that the simplicity and nutrition of ordinary food stands on its own. It doesn't need to be prettied up (or in an old phrase, don't gild the lily).

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