So, where do you start? With the basics of course! Make this simple and choose to enjoy it!
1) Menu Plan. Do what works for you taking a good look at your week. On the busier nights, think crock-pot, on the calmer nights you've got some time to prepare. I recently went through all of my cookbooks and recipes and made a list of my family's favorites. I also noted a few recipes that looked good that I hadn't tried yet. I had enough meals to create a new meal each night for over three months. I use this list now as a very quick reference guide to plan out one or two weeks of meals (including lunches) and create my grocery list. When I try something new, I ask the family to weigh-in on whether or not it makes the list or gets the axe forever. Naturally it took some upfront time but it has been great to have on hand ever since. I go for simple, tasty and nutritious.
2) Become a Savvy Shopper. Stick the outside edge of the grocery store for the fresh produce, lean meats and dairy. Frozen produce is also a great way to go as most of the nutrients are preserved in the flash-freezing process. Now, as far as dairy goes - I continue to hear miracle stories from people that have gotten 'off-the-sauce.' I LOVE my cheese. Truly, from the depths of my heart, I have a terrible love affair with cheese. I have simply chosen to not give it up and I feel okay about that, however, I have it in moderation and have made a few simple switches to reduce my dairy. Unsweetened Vanilla Almond Milk is a favorite. I also look for raw, organic cheese where I can which is pricier but manageable if I don't include it on a daily basis. As for the packaged, processed scary stuff that lurks in the heart of your local grocery store, the key to this is becoming an expert label-reader.
Look first at the list of ingredients and if it makes the cut, then examine the calories, sugars, fat and protein. Sugar is the true culprit in what is making us as a society fat - not fat. In all honesty, I don't often look at the fat content in foods; if the ingredients are good, I'm good. Not to mention, our bodies NEED fats and complex carbohydrates to function. Keep sugars down, calories down (although I don't believe in calorie-counting - who has the time and energy for that garbage?), protein higher, fat moderate. If the ingredient list is ridiculously long, don't even bother scanning through it - it's an automatic no-no. I've also provided a substitutions list for many of your regular cooking staples. Yes, going real is more expensive but what you spend at the store, you will save in health care expenses.
High Fructose Corn Syrup and Corn Syrup
Partially or Fully Hydrogenated Oils
MSG or monosodium glutamate (including Autolyzed Yeast)
Artificial Flavors (Anything using 'artificial' means it is a fake food)
Preservatives - sodium benzoate, TBHQ, BHT
Anything you can't pronounce on a food label
GMO's or Genetically Modified Organisms - Look for foods that are labeled GMO-free. Canola oil, corn oil and sugar are often genetically modified. When we eat these foods, the chemicals that have altered them, will alter us.
Basically work to avoid anything 'white.' I know - this seems extreme. Read up on it! All sorts of all-things-scary happen to our products that end up white. Most products in this category are genetically modified and our bodies don't know what to do with this. Look for non-GMO products always.
Umbrella statement to label-reading:
If you don't know what it is or what's in it, don't get it.
Now DON'T PANIC! There are tremendous substitutions for all of your favorite foods and recipes. In fact, my absolute favorite ranch dressing is vegan and so much tastier than that Hidden Valley Ranch stuff. No wonder it's hidden in a valley somewhere - they don't want you to know everything that goes into it!
3) Swap Out Old For New. Most of these swaps can be found at your regular grocery store and Costco. Sometimes you may have to search out a Whole Foods or Trader Joes; Amazon has almost anything you could possibly want except for raw organic nuts. I only trust those from a local spot.
*Granulated White Sugar
Swap this out for Evaporated Cane Juice Sugar, coconut palm sugar or raw, organic honey. Evaporated Cane Juice is a straight across swap 1:1. It is also available at Costco in large bags for a good price. Honey is actually a superfood and has trace minerals and other properties that are good for our bodies. The only caveat here is that it is still a sugar and calories can add up quickly here. Other sweeteners that are good are Grade B Maple Syrup, Brown Rice Syrup, Coconut Sugar, Raw Agave, dates and stevia. Stevia is a no-calorie sweetener that comes from the stevia leaf. Trickier to bake with but the drops are great for smoothies and other drinks, yogurt, etc. You want to look for sugar replacements that have a low-glycemic index factor.
Swap this out for Whole Wheat Flour or better yet, spelt, barley, or other whole grain flours. I just found some big bags of unenriched, unbleached flour consisting of whole wheat and barley. Friends, a minimally processed unbleached white flour is still pertinent to have on hand; I have not been successful in various recipes using nothing but whole grain flours. I simply try to go half and half when making desserts or breads. Experiment, do your best and moderate.
Swap this out for brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, amaranth, farro
* Oils to include Canola, Corn, Vegetable Oils
Swap these out for Grapeseed, Teaseed, Olive, Coconut and Palm oils.
Grapeseed and Coconut oils are the only oils that are not heat-sensitive or have what is called a high 'smoke point.' All other oils, including olive oil, become trans-fats at high temperatures; the molecules actually 'flip' in the heating process and become the very harmful oils we are trying to avoid. Coconut oil is great to cook with but will have that slightly carribean flavor when using it to sauté foods. However, it is great in cookies, breads, cakes and other baked goods actually giving foods greater moisture. Don't be alarmed when you purchase it as it is a solid at 97 degrees. Grapeseed oil is great for canola oil replacements; I enjoy grapeseed oil in salad dressings as well (even more so than olive oil).
*White Table Salt
Swap this for Real Salt, Himalayan Sea Salt or an Arctic Sea Salt. Real salts have many of the trace minerals and iodine that are bodies actually require and are beneficial. Now, if the label claims that it is a sea salt and it is gorgeously white, avoid it as it has most likely been bleached. And as with everything, use moderation - it's still salt.
*Hersey's Cocoa Powder
Swap this for Raw Cacao Powder (A superfood and fabulous to the taste!)
Swap this for fruit or vegetable colors or just go without! Who ever said that peppermint frosting had to be green or pink?
Swap for Newman O's
Ha! Maybe not a staple but just wanted to let you know that you can find better alternatives for almost all of your favorite goodies. In this case though, start baking your own goodness!
And for the ambitious newby, here are a few other great pantry items:
Bragg's Apple Cider Vinegar (amazing health benefits)
Nutritional Yeast (great substitute for cheese)
Unsweetened Shredded Coconut (staple ingredient that I must always be on hand)
Chia Seeds, Flax Seeds, Hemp
Quinoa, Millet, Buckwheat, Oats
All manner of nuts! Almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, brazil nuts, sunflower seeds
There you have it, the basics. On that note, here is my little disclaimer as you make your way back from the dark side of the force, you always have more to give; you just have to believe in your ability to achieve and rely on your intuitive knowledge of what is best for you. I believe that we have to know our bodies and know what we can handle. My body sends me strong messages when I've tried too hard to be superwoman. The point is, you have to find what works for you and your family and be good with it. I've been on my journey for several years now and I've spun my wheels plenty but I've also made and continue to make great breakthroughs.