Kathleen Zelman: What's in My Fridge?

Our expert spills her secrets for a well-stocked refrigerator

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

I love to cook, but with the demands of a busy life, most meals at my home are whipped up from the contents of a well-stocked refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. Leisurely cooking is reserved for weekends and special occasions.

A well-stocked refrigerator isn't just for dietitians -- it saves time and money and promotes healthful eating for everyone. It starts with a well-thought-out grocery list, based on weekly menus and a once-weekly trip to the market. The savings come from less-frequent trips to pick up forgotten ingredients, and from planning the creative use of leftovers. And, of course, trips to fast-food restaurants are less likely to happen when the refrigerator and cupboard are full of healthy and delicious food.

My family's style of eating is simple. I rarely make casseroles, sauces, or other foods with lots of ingredients -- except salads. What could be easier than a salad entree bursting with summer's bountiful fruits and vegetables?

Most of my meals use lots of fresh ingredients, including herbs from my garden, and are quickly prepared. We eat small portions of fish, poultry, low-fat dairy or lean meat, along with lots of vegetables, salads, and fruit. At least once a week, we have a vegetarian meal centered on vegetables and low-fat dairy. Cold, fresh, and nutritious soups such as gazpacho (see recipe below) are staples, for snacks, meals, or side dishes.

Something that's usually not in my kitchen: enticing foods that test my resolve. If I buy candy bars and cookies, chances are I'll end up eating them. My strategy is to purchase sweets for my family that I can resist, along with allowable treats -- like low-fat frozen yogurt and popsicles -- that I can enjoy guilt-free.

A Dietitian's Refrigerator

We eat most meals at home during the week and have nailed down our eating patterns so there is little waste but lots of healthy options. On any given day, you will find the following foods in my refrigerator:

  • Skim milk and low-fat vanilla yogurt.
  • Fat-free half-and-half, my favorite cream alternative in cooking.
  • Assorted cheeses: Jarlsberg Swiss, Laughing Cow light, Cabot 50% light jalapeno and cheddar, fat-free cream cheese, blue, and parmesan.
  • Light sour cream, fat-free plain yogurt, and light mayonnaise.
  • Lemons, limes, apples, oranges, grapefruits, and bananas, along with seasonal fruits such as blueberries, strawberries, peaches, mangoes, and melons.
  • Assorted mixed greens, avocados, baby carrots, mushrooms, red bell peppers, tomatoes (grape and beefsteak), and jalapenos, along with fresh picks such as asparagus, corn on the cob, green beans, and sugar snap peas.
  • Orange, light cranberry, and tomato juices.
  • Pickles, olives, assorted light salad dressings, jams, bottled marinades.
  • Eggs, butter, and trans-fat-free soft margarine.
  • Hummus and gazpacho for easy snacks between meals.

The freezer is full of frozen vegetables that substitute when fresh are not available. Frozen boneless chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, salmon, and tilapia are mainstays, to defrost for easy dinners on the grill. I also keep single packages of already grilled chicken breast handy, along with frozen pizza crusts, to whip up super-quick meals.

To satisfy my sweet tooth, my freezer is stocked with novelty treats with less than 100 calories each, along with frozen low-fat yogurt. I also keep a variety of light frozen dinners, for those times when no family meal is planned.

The pantry supplies nuts, canned beans, pasta, rice, whole grains, cereals, sweet potatoes, tomato sauce, etc., to complete the list of ingredients needed for nutritious and quick meals.

Keep a Running List

Sometimes I fantasize about living in a city like Paris, where refrigerators are tiny and people make daily visits to the market to purchase fresh ingredients for that night's dinner. As romantic as that seems, who has time to go the market each day? My goal is to create a smart grocery list and visit the market only once a week -- twice at the most.

Attached to the side of my refrigerator is the perpetual grocery list. Whenever a staple food item is used up, I or one of my family members adds it to the list. After all, how am I supposed to know the yogurt is finished if I didn't finish it?

Menu Planning

I have lots of cookbooks, subscriptions to cooking magazines, and recipes that inspire me to expand my repertoire of regular dishes. On Sundays, I select at least one new recipe to try, and draft a rough outline of the meals for the week based on everyone's schedule -- and including a well-deserved night out of the kitchen for myself.

These weekly menu plans take into account market specials promoted in the weekly advertising circulars, creative use of leftovers, and ingredients I have on hand. For example, I love the roasted chicken sold at my grocer's. We'll eat it hot with healthy side dishes one night, then use the leftover meat for an entree salad with greens and veggies the next night.

Planning ahead ensures that I have all the ingredients I need on hand and takes the guesswork out of what to have each night.

Keep It Safe and Clean

You will definitely find thermometers in all compartments of my refrigerator to ensure safe temperatures. If you don't already have one, I highly recommend purchasing a thermometer that can be easily hung from a wire shelf or attached to the side wall, and is visible when you open the compartment doors.

Be sure to keep your refrigerator and freezer clean, by wiping up spills and debris whenever they happen. This will minimize bacterial contamination to fresh food. Once a week, wipe the interior down with a mild bleach solution to keep it sanitized.

And to help keep things yummy, here's an easy recipe for the veggie-lover's summer standby, gazpacho.

Easy, Super Nutritious and Low-Calorie Gazpacho

1 64-oz. container low-sodium tomato juice
1 64-oz. container spicy (or not) vegetable juice
2 12-oz. cans low-sodium beef broth
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Juice of 2 fresh lemons and 1 fresh lime
1 bunch scallions, finely chopped
2 red bell peppers, finely chopped
4 tomatoes, finely chopped
3 large seedless cucumbers, finely chopped
1 or 2 jalapeno peppers, finely chopped
Optional: Avocado and light sour cream for garnish

  • Chop all vegetables by hand or pulse in a food processor.
  • Mix all ingredients together except garnish and chill several hours.
  • Serve cold with or without a little chopped avocado and a tablespoon of light sour cream as a garnish.

Yield: 12 servings

Per serving: 100 calories, 4.5 g protein, 18.5 g carbohydrate, 0.6 g fat, 0.1 g saturated fat, 2.8 g fiber, 512 mg sodium.

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According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.” See Answer

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