MHLbannersmallGet ready for a no-cost and potentially healthy kitchen makeover

It's interesting to think how something that is essentially part of the human historical record continues as a tradition even when its original purpose may no longer exist. Take spring cleaning for example. The origins of this particular activity go back thousands of years to a time when people in a number of ancient cultures cleaned their homes in anticipation of a personal or community-wide religious observation.

In the more recent past, spring cleaning became a functional necessity when families in homes that used candles or oil for illumination along with coal or wood for heat needed to clean up the dirt and grime that inevitably accumulated over the long winter. With that goal in mind, people would often drag beds, linens, carpets and furniture outside for a thorough dusting and cleaning while they opened all the doors and windows to let in the fresh, warmer air of springtime.

Despite the fact that most people now have central heating and electricity that is a lot cleaner than burning whale oil, the tradition of spring cleaning lives on as evidenced by an uptick in the advertising budgets of home cleaning product manufacturers in April and May, as well as large numbers of magazine and online articles offering a wide range of cleaning tips.

Spring-CleaningThe fact is, spring cleaning can be a good idea regardless of the season, because there are advantages to a cleaner or better organized home environment. These include health benefits as well as an upgraded visual appeal. One place to start, and
it doesn't involve any decorating guides or heavy lifting, is in the pantry.

For most people, whether it's a walk-in room or a much smaller space, the pantry is where you store foods that are packaged, canned, non-perishable – and most likely processed. Another way of looking at it is the pantry is where you keep the food that is least likely to be beneficial to your health. So maybe it's time to consider these three steps that can help you stock your pantry in a way that makes healthier eating more convenient.

Step 1

Start by taking everything out of the pantry. It's the only way to get a full inventory of what's in there (including those packages that sometimes stay hidden behind other packages) and the best way to identify the less than healthy foods that have accumulated. As an added benefit, you can clean shelves and see if there's any minor remodeling needed, like adding shelf space or additional hardware that makes the pantry more attractive and functional.

Step 2

It's tough to make yourself throw away food, especially when it has never been opened. But you definitely want to toss anything that's gone beyond its use-by date as well as anything that has sugar or some variation as the first or second ingredient. To encourage optimum health, you should also do the same with high sodium products of which many canned soups are major offenders. If there's something that isn't the best of choices but doesn't quite fit the "toss it immediately" category, at least store it in a less visible place and who knows, maybe by next spring you can just get rid of it.

Step 3

ORGANIZING-THE-KITCHENNow, here's the fun part, or at least the part that will do you and your family a lot of good. Start restocking the pantry with better food, including healthier versions of the old standbys. For example:

  • Pastas, rice and grains – Brown rice, whole grain (higher fiber) pastas, whole grain flour and actual grains like oatmeal, quinoa, buckwheat and barley are good nutritional choices to replace some of their less healthy counterparts (non-whole grain or white rice).
  • Vegetables, legumes and fruit – Generally available in cans or glass jars, these products can offer a good option when they're served with a little thought. For example, there are low-sodium options for vegetables and beans that can be made even healthier by rinsing in cold water before cooking. You can improve canned fruit, like peaches, pears and pineapples by avoiding the syrup and choosing products that are packed in their own juice.
  • Oils and spices – There are quite a few choices when it comes to heart-healthy mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated oils, but if you're looking to simplify your decisions in the supermarket you can't go wrong with olive oil or canola oil if you want a little milder taste. Both can be used in baking or cooking. As far as spices and dried herbs are concerned, they generally have a shelf life of a year or even two in some cases. While older spices won't have the flavor you're looking for, they also don't cause any health risks.
  • Nuts and seeds – Unlike certain fine wines, nuts and seeds don't improve with age. To avoid that distinctive rancid taste, be sure to toss anything that's past its sell by date. Other than that go for the reduced salt varieties of peanuts, cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds, walnuts and pine nuts. As you're repacking your pantry, stay away from beer nuts with their sugar and other additives and the mixed nuts "party can" that will most likely be especially high in sodium. As a good rule of thumb, nuts are going to be healthiest when they're raw or dry roasted.

These simple pantry "renovations" are a good step in the journey toward better family nutrition and the improved health status that can go with it. Granted, we said this is a "no cost" improvement and most people will have to spend a bit on getting in some new food items. Eventually, however, you'd have to purchase food anyway, so you might as well pursue the healthier course. Once you've cleaned out and restocked the pantry it may be time for the refrigerator. But that's another spring cleaning story.