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How to Give Your Pantry a Healthy Makeover | A Couple Cooks

This post is the latest in our Healthy & Whole series to explore a healthy approach to whole foods eating; check out the entire series here.

When Alex and I first started trying to eat “healthy”, we did something a little crazy: we took a look at our pantry and fridge and threw out anything that resembled a processed food. Willingly. Microwave dinners, pancake mix, Oreo cookies, bottled Ranch dressing–all were dumped into the trash, or given away to friends. Why? We’d read a book that challenged us to try eating minimally processed foods (think 5 ingredients or less), and figured if we didn’t have it on hand, we wouldn’t be tempted to eat it. I’m still a little amazed that 1. we did it because we wanted to and 2. that it actually worked.

Turns out this is a “thing” called Pantry Rehab (or Fridge Rehab), and it’s the premise behind a new book called What the Fork are You Eating?, which examines how to get your kitchen chock full of whole foods. The book caught our eye and we both bought it and reached out to the author, Stefanie Sacks. We are so pleased to bring you this Q&A with Stefanie about whole foods eating and her new book. I spoke with her a few weeks ago and she is one of the most generous, humble, kind, and passionate people I’ve met in the industry. Stefanie is highly credentialed as a culinary nutritionist, certified nutrition specialist (CNS) and certified dietitian nutritionist (CDN), yet at the same time she’s extraordinarily down to earth in her approach to food. As she mentioned to me on the phone, she’s been passionate about healthy eating way before it was cool, so I credit her for helping start the momentum that got us to perform some Pantry Rehab in the first place. Here’s Stefanie!

Stefanie Sacks by Geir Magnusson  What the Fork Are You Eatin

What sparked your interest in food and health? Did you always eat the way you do today?

My love for food and cooking blossomed at age three. My 1970’s wooden play kitchen was my “toy” of choice. I spent hours in this pretend culinary haven acting out the role of executive chef and playing “restaurant” with my maternal grandmother. Without fail, she uncomfortably sat at my tiny table and chairs patiently (and lovingly) waiting for her inevitable tuna sandwich on white bread with a pickle.

Suffering from asthma, allergies, recurring bronchitis and pneumonia shaped much of my childhood thus finding an alternative to the multiple inhalers, allergy meds, steroids and antibiotics I regularly consumed was critical. At fifteen, during my Montauk summers, a job at the local health food market and café was a no-brainer. It was here that my eyes were opened to the idea of food as healing—a moment of down time meant a book in my hands and Food and Healing by Annemarie Colbin made a life changing impression confirming that food choice dictated health. Thus, feverishly focusing on everything food was central to my teenage existence—I became my very own lab rat as I experimented with not-so mainstream foods, fad diets and edible theories (from vegetarianism to macrobiotics) all with the hope of feeling better. And eventually I did.

What is Pantry/Freezer/Fridge Rehab? What are a few accessible pointers on how to start one without feeling overwhelmed (baby steps)?

We all need a “makeover” in some aspect of our lives. Who can be on top of everything? Given my passion for food and my knowledge and skills, I guide people through food lifestyle change. And a huge part of this process is the pantry/freezer/fridge rehab. While I may be highly opinionated about food and food choice, I am never judgmental as everyone has a different starting point for change and for me to be able to truly help those in need, I must understand what they can do and truly respect and honor what they can’t. What The Fork Are You Eating? really explores the many things people can do to change whether you’re the nutrition neophyte or maven.

Here are a few pointers to avoid feeling too overwhelmed:

  • Understand that the ingredients tell the true story of your food; so don’t buy into the labeling hype. If your ingredient list reads like a short novel or you can’t pronounce something that is in your food, don’t buy it!
  • If any of your ingredients read “artificial flavors”, ditch the bag, box or can and find a better alternative with the “natural flavor” version. Most every product has a not so evil twin.
  • Do away with the artificial sweeteners from aspartame to sucralose; there is enough research to question their true safety.
  • Toss anything with food dye in it as in Red No. 40 or Yellow No. 5 or 6. They are pervasive in everything from pickles to candy. Again, enough research to question their true safety and most anything that has the dye (other than many mainstream candies) can be swapped for better alternatives
  • If you opt into “lowfat” know that most often the fat is replaced with sugar and the sugar (too much of it) ends up turning into the fat anyway—so eat the healthy fat!

As a culinary nutritionist, certified nutrition specialist (CNS) and certified dietitian nutritionist (CDN), what does a healthy diet look like to you? 

Eating healthfully is all about moderation and variety. I like to aim for fresh whole foods 70-80% of the time. I am not a stickler for organic as much as I am hell bent on buying local and purchasing animal foods treated with the highest humane welfare. When I can’t find either, I tend to go USDA Organic using Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen as my guide to navigate produce and I very carefully pick and choose my animal foods looking for verifications like AWA (voted the highest humane welfare certification by Consumer Reports) or Certified Humane. Like most people, packaged foods are a part of our everyday—I am just super discerning about what foods I choose for my family (calling on many of the pointers noted above and in What The Fork).

And as I say in the book, “ninety percent of the time, I consume foods void of my Top Rated Terminators (chemical preservatives, artificial flavors and enhancers, artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, sugar and its many euphemisms, trans fats (hydrogenated oils), chemical pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs)), whether at home or otherwise. I leave the 10 percent for the occasional product that might have a GMO ingredient in it (hard to avoid), those eggs that I have to grab at the local supermarket that I know came from hens that were not humanely raised or for meals out (plus that Haribo gummy bear— hey, I’m human). So generally speaking, we eat everything from kale to candy, but most of our food is made with the purest ingredients (yes, this can be done).

When we are outside the home, I have learned to loosen the reins a bit. Birthday parties are a free-​for-​all. At this stage, my kids are making conscious choices for themselves. For school, I have no worries— healthy food is central to their place of education. As for summer camp, it can be a bit of an unsavory food fest, but I work with the camp director on what my boys can eat (the chicken-​like nuggets are not okay, nor are the incandescent ice pops) and help them navigate the choices themselves. When we go to the movies, all bets are off, and the kids go to the local candy store to get a small bag of whatever they want. What it boils down to is making educated choices—don’t let ignorance be bliss when it comes to your food consumption. Moderation is truly my mantra (I have done all the extremes and am over it).”

We love the recipes included in your new book! Do you have a few that stand out as favorites?

Most of the recipes in the book are our family favorites but if I were to pick a few loves they would be:

  • Golicious Granola
  • Greek Goddess Salad
  • Chicken and Rice Soup
  • Cowgirl Chili
  • Jack’s Banana Ice Cream

What does a day in the life of Stefanie Sacks look like in terms of breakfast, lunch and dinner? 

Breakfast is typically some version of my Power Green drink that I typically pack with nuts for some protein. If really hungry, I will have an egg wrap. Sipping green tea throughout the day is my “vice”. I have a weak spot for Starbucks iced green tea (with no sweetener and a touch of soymilk). Lunch is normally some form of salad with beans, cheese and maybe a spot of fish like sardines or tuna. I am a sucker for soup as well  whether hot or cold outside. Snacks include nuts and seeds, cheese and crackers, fruit, vegetables with hummus. And dinner is normally a balanced mix of greens, a grain (or other starch like a potato) and protein (either plant based, fish or poultry). Though I am a sucker for a good bowl of pasta doused with ghee, tomato sauce and Parmesan! For after dinner snacks, I am known to sneak a bowl of potato chips (I am a bit of a chipaholic) into bed while I decompress to a movie!

For More on Stefanie: 

More from Healthy & Whole Series

How to Give Your Pantry a Healthy Makeover | A Couple Cooks

About the authors

Sonja & Alex

Meet Sonja and Alex Overhiser: Husband and wife. Expert home cooks. Authors of recipes you’ll want to make again and again.

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  1. Really enjoyed the article. I am hopeful that it will get easier and easier for everyone to make better choices because there are more healthful options available.