Considering that this time of year many people are doing or thinking about doing a ‘cleanse’ I thought I’d write about a ‘cleanse’ for pantry and fridge. After all, if you continue to have less-than-healthy food products around, the cleansing of you won’t have long lasting effects! I have a friend who dislikes using the word ‘clean’ when talking about food – he says he expects all the food he eats is clean, meaning not dirty. Of course, in the world of better eating/good nutrition ‘clean’ means something else and he knows that. I get his point but haven’t found a better word to describe what is meant. So I want to talk about cleaning your food choices up. Cleansing your kitchen may mean replacing some food with better choices, removing some altogether, and adding in some new items. It many also mean switching food storage containers to avoid certain elements.

So what is ‘clean’ food? Generally it means food as close to its origins as possible, optimally organically grown. Minimal processing, few added ingredients of unknown purpose. Raw, plain nuts rather than those covered with questionable flavor coatings. Applesauce made from apples, period; no need for sugar, salt, preservatives. Pure sea salt, not highly-refined salt with anti-caking additives and stripped of trace minerals.

Let’s start in the pantry. Because I like to cook my pantry has a lot of basic ingredients –nuts & seeds, various grains and beans, flour, cocoa, honey, oils, vinegars. Not too much in the way of prepared foods but a few things. If you are like me, there are products you grew up with, that your mom trusted to feed you and that you buy for your family. A certain peanut butter, specific saltines, a particular soup brand. Maybe you buy it just because of its history in your family, maybe you tried some other brands and they never lived up to the one. Even so, chances are the formulation of that tried-and-true brand is not the same as it was when you were 10. I know I have been disappointed when returning to an old favorite only to find it was very changed, or my tastes had outgrown it. Well, products can change and your tastes change too. So let’s look at what you have. Does the peanut butter contain palm or peanut oil? Sugar? Why? Don’t peanuts produce oil; is there a need to add oil? Why would sugar be added – to feed our addiction to sweet? Heck, you’re gonna put jelly on the sandwich anyway. (Just kidding, of course!) Look for a brand that is made from peanuts, maybe with salt. Personally I prefer it unsalted, but if you are more accustomed to salt in your peanut butter, go ahead and get that one. You can always ease into unsalted peanut butter. How about the salsa? (Yes, I know fresh, homemade is better, but it’s not always tomato season.) Is there sugar added to the salsa? Again, why? Isn’t salsa supposed to be spicy? The tomatoes have naturally occurring sugar; adding sugar just feeds the craving for sweet things, and increases the sugar load in your day. I just noticed the tomato soup I have in my pantry has added sugar! Had not looked at the list carefully, but guess I’ll re-think this brand in the future. At least it doesn’t have: High Fructose Corn Syrup, Potassium Chloride, Flavoring, or Monopotassium Phosphate like a common national brand. Do you buy canned tuna or salmon? Hopefully you buy it packed in water not oil. Fish has its own oil, doesn’t need vegetable oil for flavor or stability. Again, I like it without added salt but that can be hard to find. Do you make your own pasta? No? Neither do I! What’s in the packaged pasta you buy? More than the durum wheat or grain it’s made from, and water? That’s really all pasta needs. I grew up with what I think is an iconic saltine cracker – crumbled in tomato soup, buttered with chili, smeared with peanut butter. That brand at least has unbleached flour although it is enriched, meaning the wheat is stripped of the bran and germ so has to have nutrients added. Yet they use soybean oil (GMO?) and cottonseed oil. I never buy products using cottonseed oil as it is not a food crop so who knows what it was sprayed with? Have chips? Some are better than others as far as being clean; taste obviously is too subjective for me to make any claims on it. But if the chips you buy are made from corn or contain soy or canola, even as oil (“… and/or vegetable oil”), be sure they are organic chips to avoid genetically engineered ingredients. Whole grains or potatoes, oil, salt and maybe sugar – all that’s needed for tasty chips. Obviously your pantry may have more items than these few, but hopefully you get the idea of what to watch for. So take an hour or so to review what you have and which may need swapping for a better choice.

Turning to the refrigerator, what’s hiding in there? Mine is packed pretty full but I keep a pretty good mental inventory. Mostly right now, a few days after market day, it’s got a lot of produce. This I have to monitor carefully so it doesn’t spoil on me.  What’s the rest? Condiments, almond milk, soy creamer, white wine, and some jelly, among other things. What am I looking for in these products? For starters, I avoid carrageenan, which is prevalent in non-dairy products like plant milks and creamers. I don’t understand the need for sugar in most condiments, but confess that the ketchup and the barbeque sauce I have both have sugar added. I recall not finding a single offering of ketchup without sugar when I last looked, and do not feel like making my own! I do skip those that still use high fructose corn syrup, and would always stay away from any with artificial sweeteners.  See ‘Sweet Addictions’ for more on why. Currently there are no pickles in our fridge because I am on a quest for good tasting, well-made pickles with basic pickle ingredients – cucumbers, vinegar, spices. Some brands have so many preservatives, which is what I thought the process of pickling did – preserve foods. Why add chemical preservatives? If you buy cheese, be sure to get real cheese and not “processed cheese food”; if you buy non-dairy varieties watch for carrageenan and non-organic soy and corn (starch).

Last thing to think about, in both pantry and fridge, is the containers foods come in or that you use to store foods. Use glass bowls or jars to store extras or leftovers, or use stainless steel. Avoid canned foods unless the can is labeled ‘BPA-free’. Some companies have moved away from BPA linings in canned foods, which were put in to protect the food from corrosion on the metal can and extend its shelf life. While some claim there is little or no risk to humans from BPA, many studies point to it being an endocrine disruptor and possible cause of cancer. Not worth the risk when there are products without the risk. Avoid buying foods in plastic containers, especially numbers 3, 6, and 7. Avoid re-using plastic water bottles – invest in a stainless steel bottle you can refill as needed. Throw out your old plastic bowls that melted in the microwave and are flaking, and don’t heat food in plastic or covered with plastic wrap in the microwave. Also be careful of storing or cooking food in aluminum foil. I know, I know, we’ve all done it. But it can leach aluminum into the food, especially acidic foods or those cooked at high temperatures, and too much aluminum in our bodies is considered a health risk.

I am not telling you to throw away what you currently have on hand, but as you need replacements, keep this in mind. It could mean having raw ingredients on hand to make your own spaghetti sauce for instance, or being more discriminating when buying ready-made. Read the labels, and if you aren’t sure what an ingredient is, look it up. You may need to move on to a different choice. Even if you aren’t doing a ‘cleanse’ of your food intake, cleaning up what you keep around the house will help you stay healthier.

20161025_autumn-treeWe don’t really have four seasons here in the Valley of the Sun. We have two: nice weather and summer (which most people don’t consider “nice”, LOL!). It’s late October and our afternoons are still in the mid-90s although overnight lows are in the upper 60s to low 70s – nice and cool in the mornings! I spent the bulk of my life in the Midwest so I feel like I should be wearing jeans, sweaters, and boots this late in the year but I’m still wearing shorts and sandals during the days. I loved autumn in the Midwest and miss those crisp, fall days. What to do?

To start with, I follow my long-time fall routine, just maybe a month or so later than I used to. That means – heavy duty cleaning. True, the house was mostly closed up all summer with AC on so not much dust got in. It just seems the air must be stale, so I open the windows and clean! Once upon a time I was really ‘scrubby Dutch’ but that time is past and I really have to have a reason for this now. Like, company coming from out of town to stay a few days – that gets me moving! They will be here in two weeks so I better get rolling.

Heavy duty cleaning means I move a lot of things around to clean in, under, and closer, and that means I find things that really, we don’t need. “Why did we keep this?” I wonder. There’s not a lot of storage room in our condo so space for needless things just doesn’t exist, and have I ever mentioned that I don’t like clutter? Someday I will get up a lot of motivation and clear out the garage, but that day is not here yet! Still, I’ll end up with a bag or box or two to donate, and probably a fair amount to toss. So I find this a good time to de-clutter.

While I’m taking a break from all that cleaning I might browse a new magazine or the web and come across recipes for soups and stews and chilies that sound delicious and warm and cozy and cold-weather satisfying. But it’s still too hot for those dishes, I tell myself! That doesn’t stop me from saving the recipe for ‘later’ although by now I have dozens of these recipes saved and few of them actually tried. Still, a few will get tested, a few will get tossed without trying (why did I save this one??), and a few more will morph together into one brand-new recipe. I do make some soups in the summer but they tend to be lightweight, like a cool gazpacho or a nice, light cauliflower soup that is good hot or cold. My cool weather soups are heartier, with heavier flavors, bigger chunks of veggies, and more beans and/or grains. I also do more baking in our cooler season, for obvious reasons!

Another habit that came with me from my roots is stocking up the pantry as the weather changes to winter. Who wants to go out when it’s cold, windy, snowy, or icy? Not me! So I’d make sure I had plenty of ingredients on hand for the days I didn’t feel like getting out. Not that we encounter many of those days here in the valley; it’s just habit. And now that habit seems to last all year, because who wants to have to run to the store when it’s 114? I try to always have staples on hand – onions and garlic, dried and canned beans, plant-based milk, frozen veggies, canned tomatoes, spices, dried pasta, and nuts and seeds. Summer meals usually mean lots of fresh salad veggies and ingredients for dressings. Winter meals also have lots of fresh vegetables but I make fewer salads.

My last transition activity is shifting clothes. Like I mentioned, not a lot of storage here so sweaters, heavier pants, long sleeved items get packed in boxes in spring and brought out in fall; shorts and sleeveless tops and summery skirts go into the boxes. This year I need to take a really critical look at my wardrobe because really, I have too many clothes. Since I gave up corporate work, I don’t need all the clothes I did before but it’s been hard to get rid of perfectly good items. Now I think I’m ready to let some go to a better home. Still not time to pull out the heavier sweaters and switch to wearing boots, but it will be soon!

Living here has simplified my seasonal transitions for two reasons. One, I only have to switch twice, from hot to cool, and cool to hot. I used to have to adjust to four seasons. Two, no daylight savings time – that change always hit me hard and I love not messing with adjusting my internal clock to arbitrary clock changes.

What are your seasonal transitions like?

20160524_clutterwarsI am what some might call a “neat-freak”. I’m not as obsessive as I once was; a busy life and getting older changes one’s perspective on many things. But I do have limited space in the condo in which I live, so neatness still matters. People who visit will say “your house is so clean!” as if they are surprised about that for some reason, but what they really mean is that it is so neat. Yeah, it’s pretty clean too, but not as “scubby Dutch” clean as I once would have kept it. (The term “scubby Dutch” refers to southside St. Louis Germans who called Germany Deutschland and spoke Deutsch, or German. The housewives were very clean and neat, and scrubbed everything. The word ‘Deutsch’ became ‘Dutch’ when non-German speakers said the word. Yes, those women were my ancestors! In the past I tore my whole house apart twice a year and cleaned everything – every light fixture, vent, piece of furniture, drape, every square inch. On top of regular cleaning.)

Now, I was not like this as a teenager, no way. My room was as messy as it could be. Fortunately, the obsessive-neat gene bypassed my mom and she just ignored my mess, as long as it was in my room and didn’t draw bugs! She knew I’d get tired of it sooner or later and clean up, and periodically I did. Then I got married and our first apartment was small, with minimal storage space. Plus we had a baby, with all the stuff that comes with one. Keeping things picked up was essential if we didn’t want to trip over things in the dark when the baby awoke! Even as we moved to larger homes, I realized the more stuff we had on shelves, tables, and floor, the more work I’d have cleaning, not to mention packing and moving it all. So even though I had knick-knacks and decorative items, I tried to keep those minimal.

Time goes by, and I become more conscious of the environmental impacts we humans cause. Think of the trash, wasted resources, and energy usage and pollution from shipping long distances the ‘stuff’ we buy. Stuff to decorate, or to try that nifty new appliance that only gets used a couple of times, or to keep up with fashion trends. Stuff that replaces other stuff, except the other stuff is still perfectly fine so we don’t get rid of it. Or it holds sentimental value. And pretty soon, the stuff overflows the closet, the garage, the basement, the cabinets. And you have clutter! And I hate it. It makes me nervous. I have to reorganize it until it seems uncluttered, and if that won’t work – time to purge.

However, some people celebrate clutter! We call them ‘pack-rats’ or sometimes, ‘hoarders’. I think it depends on the depth of their clutter collections. Everyone’s tolerance for clutter is different. Not to say all clutter is BAD – research has found that some people need a bit of a mess in their surroundings to feel inspired. If you are in this category, the next section may be painful to read! Because I’m going to point out why you should de-clutter and give some tips on clearing the clutter.

Why de-clutter? When your surroundings are cluttered, it’s hard to de-stress and decompress from the clutter in your mind. It’s more difficult to find things. You lose track of what you already have, like discovering you own three of the same kind of shovel. It allows for more dust and dirt to hide, adding to allergy symptoms. Clutter fosters procrastination; if it’s hard to find a starting place, it’s easy to give up the task or project. Clutter can stop you from moving forward and getting passed the past. Clutter competes for your attention and overloads your senses, resulting in increased stress and impairing your ability to think creatively. Maybe multi-tasking is not the problem! And of course, clutter can be a safety hazard, like tripping over one of the three shovels on your way through the garage!

So how does one go about clearing this up? Well, there are those who insist organization first is key, and others who promote a ‘just do it’ method. The latter feel that organizing 1) takes too much time for the truly cluttered and is daunting; and 2) promotes keeping things, albeit neatly, that should really be tossed out. Yet without some organization or at least a systematic approach, time will be wasted and interest lost when tackling the big projects. One suggestion is to have a bag or box for five groups – things for the trash, things that already have a place but aren’t in it, things that have no place but should, things that you will donate or sell, and things that you don’t use, can’t wear, or haven’t looked at in years yet are reluctant to get rid of. This latter group should be labeled with a date, say a year or six months from the time you pack it, and if you do not need to retrieve anything from it in that time, out it goes. Take these five bags or boxes to each area to be de-cluttered and begin. Once you have finished that area, take care of the five bags/boxes as soon as you can. Carry the stuff to the trash. Arrange to go by the charity drop off point or plan a date for the yard sale. Take the things with a place back to it, and find a place for those that have none. Store the box with the date out of the way. You may want to limit your first forays to 15 or 30 minutes, to reduce the stress of getting started. But once you see that now clear area, it will be so inspiring you will want to tackle the next area and work longer at it! Another suggestion is to start with a really cluttered area that is in your face daily – like the place where everything coming in the door stops and jumbles up: keys, shoes, mail, dog leash, etc.

Once you clear the clutter, or at least the bulk of it in your main living areas, it is important to keep things neat. If you let it all pile up again, you will be frustrated about the time you had spent cleaning it and feel way less motivated to tackle it again. No need to become a drill sergeant, but try to make a habit of putting things away. Maybe make a rule that if a new XYZ comes through the door, an old XYZ has to go. Or no buying new XYZs unless it is really needed and has a place to be kept out of the way. And, you must engage the others in the household to stick with the new habits and rules.

Most of all, freeing yourself of clutter simplifies your life and that’s what I’m all about, right?!