When I teach cooking classes in people’s homes, one of the most popular questions I get asked, aside from how to not cry while chopping onions, is what to buy at the market to be a better, healthier cook.
I love seeing how items that were once relegated to the bottom shelves of the health food store are now making waves in the more mainstream wellness arena. But with listicles landing in your inbox every hour with 10 reasons why maca powder or acai berries are the key to unlocking our health, it becomes all too easy to return from the store having spent beyond your means, with a bag full of items you don’t know how to and, therefore, may never use.
So, I’ve outlined below the most important things to splurge on in the beginning stages of cooking healthier meals for yourself at home. If your honey isn’t raw, you don’t need to go out tomorrow and replace it. This checklist will help you begin swapping out your existing items for healthy alternatives that are worth the premium you spend on them.
1. Organic meat and poultry.
Eating livestock that has been raised in a humane way, without feed that’s been laced with hormones and antibiotics, is better for your body and the environment. While a lot of labels will say antibiotic-free, buying organic guarantees that there are no hormones added anywhere in the process.
The mark-up can be steep, usually around $3 - $4 more per pound. The best way to navigate this is to simply not eat as much meat. You can offset the cost by purchasing half a pound less meat than you would normally and bulk up your meal with vegetables — or you can go completely meatless once a week. You’ll be doing your diet a double favor by eliminating hormones that disrupt your endocrine system and adding in more nutrients in the form of plants on your plate.
2. Almond milk.
The hormone issue is equally worrisome with dairy cows. An alternative to splurging on organic milk is substituting almond milk in your morning cereal, smoothies and coffee. It’s slightly pricier than organic milk but has the benefit of being dairy-free and gentler on your body.
While it doesn’t offer as much calcium as cow’s milk, almond milk is low calorie and high in fiber, healthy omega fatty acids, and Vitamins D & E. It also doesn’t need refrigeration, which means if there’s a sale, you can take advantage and stock up.
Unlike soy milk, which is often made from GMO crops, you don’t have to worry as much about the labels with almond milk, which should make that portion of your shopping trip that much less stressful.
Note: Some almond milk contains sugar and additives. Look for those whose ingredients are as close to just almonds and water as possible.
3. Organic, cage-free eggs.
If you’ve ever bought eggs from the farmer’s market that are fresh (and potentially dotted with chicken feathers and poop), you know how different they look and taste from conventional eggs. Regardless of the ramifications on your health (similar to those mentioned above with other animal products), you should choose organic, cage-free eggs on taste alone. The yolks are yellower, meaning more nutrients given to the embryo, and they have a beautiful flavor that you don’t get from rubbery, white eggs.
4. Fresh vegetables and leafy greens.
People get really bogged down by the idea that they have to buy organic all the time. Of course avoiding harsh chemicals and pesticides whenever possible in your diet is a great step towards better health. But the fact of the matter is that most of America doesn’t eat enough vegetables in the first place.
Eating vegetables (even if not organic) is better than eating no vegetables at all. Start by integrating more ingredients from the produce aisle into your cooking and reducing the cheap fillers on your plate like white rice and pasta. You will see an increase on your grocery bill, but it will be a far more worthwhile expense than that fad superfood of the month. If you’re worried about pesticides, learn about the dirty dozen and invest your money in organic with these items.
Skip the $20 a month on expensive probiotic supplements, and get that good bacteria from your diet. Kefir contains just as much probiotic power in one tablespoon than you’ll find in a pill. It also usually has upwards of 10 strains of bacteria, which is important for balancing your gut. Greek yogurt doesn’t have that kind of variety and can cost more than $1 per container.
Best of all, kefir is 99% lactose-free. At $5 for a 32-ounce bottle that can last up to a month in your fridge, kefir is a much better investment than a kombucha drink, which costs nearly that much at my corner deli.
Note: Try and find plain kefir — some flavors have added sugar.
6. Wild salmon.
Salmon gets an amazing health kudos for its high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids and amino acids. Unless the fish counter specifies wild, it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of the salmon you buy is farm-raised. In the U.S., that means the fish is usually packed into dense pens and infused with antibiotics to combat the unsanitary conditions.
Farmed salmon is still high in Omega-3’s because it tends to be fattier than wild. But to avoid toxic man-made chemicals, it’s best to buy wild at a premium and save it for special occasions. Since wild salmon is at risk for over-consumption, the price tag should keep you from over-eating and further decimating the population.
7. Raw honey.
In avoiding the harmful effects of refined sugar, my favorite natural sweetener is honey. It contains plenty of antioxidants, enzymes, and minerals that can sooth the gut and add nutrients to your diet. Buying raw, unrefined honey ensures that you’re getting the full breath of these health benefits.
8. Super seeds.
Hemp and chia seeds are some of the trendiest wellness items out there. But for good reason! Seeds pack a lot of punch in the nutrition department and a little goes a long way. A bag of hemp seeds could last you months. Start with one variety at a time (pumpkin, sunflower and sesame are also great) and sprinkle a teaspoon a day into your cereal, salads, and smoothies.
9. Cold-pressed extra virgin coconut oil.
It’s great to diversify your fat intake whenever possible. Coconut oil is an amazing source of good fat and is also perfect for cooking as it maintains a high heat without burning. Since it’s a medium chain triglyceride, it’s metabolized differently than saturated fats and has been known to increase energy.
Make sure to buy cold-pressed, extra virgin coconut oil as minimally refined products (like raw honey) tend to retain more nutrients. Just keep in mind that cold-pressed versions will have a hint of coconut flavor to them.
10. Fresh spices.
Investing in your spick rack is one of my first tips for beginning cooks. Not only will it help you create incredibly flavorful meals straight from your pantry, but many spices like turmeric, cinnamon and coriander have ancient medicinal purposes, including reducing inflammation in the body. Make sure you use or replace your spices every year, as they tend to lose both their flavor and their efficacies over time. To find cheaper spices, go to an ethnic grocer, buy in bulk, and purchase your jars separately.
11. Green tea.
If you’re a tea drinker (and even if you’re not), integrating a good quality green tea into your diet is a great way to get your morning pick-me-up and help your kidney and liver function. It’s fresher, less processed and less high in caffeine than black tea.
Tea is grown at a high elevation, making it a crop that’s unlikely to be sprayed with pesticides, especially if produced in a country where tea is part of the culture. If you buy a traditional green tea brand made in Japan you can assume it’s organic by nature and avoid paying a premium for those who have been officially certified.
Now that you have my grocery tips, remember that cooking in and of itself is the healthiest choice you can make. Learning how to make shopping affordable for your lifestyle is the first step. Adding things like coconut oil and raw honey to the mix will just be the cherry on top of your (dairy-free almond milk) sundae.