Is your kitchen making you fat? The May 2008 issue of ShopSmart, from the publisher of Consumer Reports, reports that you actually may be able to blame the way your kitchen is set up for those hard-to-budge pounds. And food is only part of it. The style of your plates, glasses, and bowls can seduce you to overeat; so can lighting and temperature.
Whether you're struggling to lose weight or just want to eat healthier, here's how to reorganize your fridge, freezer, and pantry to make your kitchen work for you:
1. On the ceiling
Instead of bright lights around the eating area, use dimmer switches to turn it down a notch. Very bright lights can arouse the appetite, making you race through meals. Low lighting helps you relax and slow down, but don't linger over a fattening dessert. Also, go easy on the A/C. The cooler the room, the more you'll eat.
2. In the fridge
Instead of keeping fresh fruits and veggies in the crisper, where they keep a little better, put healthful foods — salad fixings and cut-up fruit for smoothies — at eye level. That way they'll be the first things you see when you open the fridge. Keep all the high-cal and fattening stuff in the crisper or tucked behind those more nutritious choices.
3. In food containers
Instead of wrapping all leftovers in foil or storing them in opaque containers, use see-through containers to store good-for-you table scraps, like the last few roasted veggies, a leftover ear of corn, or bits of grilled chicken. By giving them the most visibility, you're more likely to reach for them. Store high-cal, tempting foods in opaque bowls so that you don't see them.
4. In the freezer
Instead of stocking up on nukable pizza, mac and cheese, and other multiserving, high-cal entrées, use see-through freezer bags to store portion-controlled snacks and low-cal meals. Also, frozen fruit (grapes, cherries, sliced bananas) is like a naturally sweet, single-bite ice pop.
5. In the pantry
Don't buy cookies, chips, candy, sugary cereals, and other diet undoers by the case. If you must keep such things around, buy them in smaller packages. The more you buy in bulk, the more of those foods you'll eat. But you can stockpile to your advantage by buying healthful things — cans of low-fat soup or fruit salads, for instance — and by moving them to the front of the cupboard within easy reach.
6. On your plate
Instead of eating family-style with help-yourself bowls and platters on the table, serve from the stove to make seconds harder to reach. To scale back calories even further, downsize your place setting: Big, 12-inch dinner plates and standard dinner forks invite larger portions. Also, studies show that you'll probably drink a lot less from a tall, narrow glass than from a short, wide one.
7. At the table
Instead of watching TV or reading while you eat or prep food, watch the clock. With a clock within view, you can time your meals. Getting lost in a book or TV show can cause you to lose track of how much you're eating. TV programs can also make you crave fatty, high-cal foods (blame the commercials!).
8. On the table
Instead of using a bouquet of flowers as the centerpiece, artfully arrange a bunch of seasonal fruits or veggies in a bowl. That will remind you to nibble between meals on healthful stuff. You can also keep a bowl of fruit on a clutter-free countertop or centered on a kitchen island.
Shape magazine (www.shape.com) has nine typical kitchen blunders that negatively impact the quality of our diets. Here they are:
Mistake 1: You're Overloading On Produce
Sure, making one big grocery run at the start of the week seems like a no-fail way to get your five a day. After all, if those carrots, greens, apples, and berries are around, you'll eat more of them and therefore get more nutrients, right? Wrong. The vitamins and minerals in fruits and vegetables begin to diminish the moment they're harvested. That means the longer you store produce, the fewer nutrients it will contain. After about a week in the fridge, for example, spinach retains just half of its folate and around 60 percent of its lutein (an antioxidant associated with healthy eyes. Broccoli loses about 62 percent of its flavonoids (antioxidant compounds that help ward off cancer and heart disease) within 10 days. You're better off buying smaller batches at least twice a week. If you can't shop every few days, pick up frozen produce. These fruits and veggies are harvested at their peak and are flash-frozen immediately. Because the produce isn't exposed to oxygen, the nutrients stay stable for a year. Just be sure to avoid frozen products packed in sauces or syrups.
Mistake 2: You're stashing foods in see-through containers
If you're still buying your milk in clear plastic jugs, consider switching to cardboard cartons. Milk is rich in the B vitamin riboflavin; when exposed to light, a chemical reaction is kicked off that reduces the vitamin's potency. Other nutrients, such as amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and vitamins A, C, D, and E, are also affected. And because lowfat and nonfat milk varieties are thinner than whole milk, light can penetrate them more easily. This process, known as photooxidation, can change the flavor of the milk and create disease-causing free radicals. Since grain products (especially whole grains) are also high in riboflavin, they too are susceptible to this breakdown of nutrients and production of free radicals. Avoid the practice of storing dry goods like pasta, rice, and cereals in clear containers on your countertop. Instead, keep them in their original boxes or in opaque containers and stash them in your kitchen cabinets, where they'll be shielded from light.
Mistake 3: You're too quick to cook your garlic
Legend has it that these pungent little bulbs can ward off vampires, but science shows that if you cook them correctly, they may have the power to fight off an even more frightening villain: cancer. Chop, slice, or crush your cloves, then set them aside for at least 10 minutes before sautéing. Breaking up garlic triggers an enzymatic reaction that releases a healthy compound called allyl sulfur; waiting to cook garlic allows enough time for the full amount of the compound to form.
Mistake 4: The only time you eat avocados is in guacamole
Adding this green fruit to salads and sandwiches is an easy way to raise your nutritional bar. Avocados are exceptionally rich in folate, potassium, vitamin E, and fiber. It's true that they're also high in fat, but it's the heart-healthy monounsaturated kind. And half an avocado has just 153 calories. One novel way to work them into your diet is to use them as a fat substitute in baking. Many of us have been using applesauce or puréed prunes in place of butter and oil in brownie and cookie recipes for years. Researchers looked to see if avocado could work in the same way without affecting the taste. They replaced half of the butter in an oatmeal cookie recipe with puréed avocado. Not only did this swap cut the total fat count by 35 percent (avocados have fewer fat grams per tablespoon than butter or oil), it also made the resulting treats softer, chewier, and less likely to crumble than cookies made according to the original recipe. If you're still wary of using such a nontraditional ingredient in sweets, try adding it to savory baked items, such as quick breads and muffins.
Mistake 5: You skimp on seasonings
Herbs and spices not only enhance the flavor of your cooking without adding fat or sodium, many of these fragrant ingredients also protect you from food poisoning. After testing 20 common seasonings against five strains of bacteria (including E. coli, staphylococcus, and salmonella), researchers found that the higher the antioxidant value of the spice, the greater its ability to inhibit bacterial activity. Cloves, cinnamon sticks, and oregano were the most effective at fighting off these food-borne pathogens. A separate study shows that rosemary, thyme, nutmeg, and bay leaves are also antioxidant-rich. Of course, you can't ignore standard food-safety practices, but adding half a teaspoon of herbs or spices to salads, vegetables, and meats can give you extra peace of mind and boost your intake of disease-fighting antioxidants
Mistake 6: You're a serial peeler
Most of the antioxidants and polyphenols in produce are located very close to the surface of the skin or in the skin itself. Most fruit peels exhibited two to 27 times more antioxidant activity than the pulp of the fruit. Many of us remove the skins from eggplant, bell peppers, peaches, apples, and nectarines while preparing recipes, but we're really just tossing away nutrients and fiber. Gently scrub potatoes and carrots rather than removing their skin, and using a vegetable peeler or sharp knife to pare away as thin a layer as possible from fruits and veggies that must be peeled.
Mistake 7: You're simmering away vitamins and minerals
Boiling may seem like a simple, no-fuss way to prepare vegetables without adding oil, but this cooking method can cause up to 90 percent of a food's nutrients to leech out. Minerals like potassium and water-soluble vitamins like B and C end up getting tossed out with the water. To keep these essentials from draining away during the cooking process, try steaming (use a minimal amount of water with a steamer basket), microwaving, or stir-frying. A study showed that when certain vegetables were prepared using these techniques, most of the nutrients they contained were spared. And stir-frying scores even more points when you're cooking dark green or orange vegetables. These are rich in beta-carotene, and the oil you use in stir-frying them can increase the amount of the antioxidant you absorb by up to 63 percent. You don't need to use a lot of oil; even just a tablespoon will do.
Mistake 8: You don't wash all your produce before eating it
Most of us remember to rinse plums and berries before noshing on them, but when was the last time you doused a banana, orange, cantaloupe, or mango with water? It may seem strange to wash peel-and-eat produce, but harmful bacteria lingering on the surface could be transferred to your hands or even to the inside of the fruit when you cut into it. To clean produce, simply run each piece under the tap and gently scrub. Using your hands to rub fruits like oranges, bananas, and peaches under water is sufficient. When you're done, dry the items with a clean cloth or paper towel. It's important to wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before and after you handle the items to further reduce the spread of bacteria. Also, throw out the outer leaves of greens like cabbage and lettuce before washing, as they've been handled the most and can have the highest levels of bacterial contamination.
Mistake 9: You're not pairing foods properly
Many of us think about getting enough iron only when we feel lethargic or fatigued. But we should pay attention to our iron intake every day, before symptoms occur. Our bodies absorb about 15 to 35 percent of heme iron (found in meats and seafood), but just 2 to 20 percent of non-heme iron (from beans, whole-grain cereal, tofu, and dark, leafy greens). We can maximize how much iron we take in by pairing the latter group with vitamin C–rich foods and beverages, such as citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, strawberries, and melons. On the other hand, drinking tea or coffee at meals can inhibit how much iron we absorb by up to 60 percent. That's because these beverages contain compounds called polyphenols that bind to the iron. Wait until you've completely finished your meal before putting the kettle on to boil.
DO use lots of spices (but not salt). They can turn up the flavor in anything for zero calories, so make sure you have a robust supply within easy reach when you cook.
DO keep measuring cups and spoons near your cooking oils. Never eyeball as they do on a lot of TV cooking shows. Every tablespoon is about 120 calories!
DON'T reserve veggie platters for parties. Buy (or make) one a week and keep it in the fridge for lean and crunchy snacking.
DON'T nosh while you cook. Keep a pack of sugarless gum in the kitchen and chomp on that instead of nibbling.
DO enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, but not before. Sipping an alcoholic beverage can stimulate the appetite and tempt you to eat more.
DON'T forget to drink enough water for healthy hydration. Plus it's a good appetite suppressant. You might drink more if you keep a pitcher of flavored water in the fridge. To add flavor but not calories to your water, try mint sprigs, cucumber slices, a few berries or a squeeze from a citrusy fruit.