What's That Growing In Your Fridge?
A nutritionist peers into three Iowa kitchens and assesses what's good, what's bad, and what could be better

By Brooke Foster

What if someone came into your home, opened up your refrigerator and kitchen cupboards, and closely examined everything inside (yes, even that hunk of three-month-old Brie way in the back)? Even worse, what if that someone were a nutritionist? Gulp. Delicious Living did just that, enlisting a registered dietitian to analyze, scrutinize, and essentially redesign the diets of three Iowa families. The result? Smart, practical advice on how to restock each family's kitchen—as well as your own—with natural, healthy, wholesome foods and develop more satisfying and sound eating habits. Read on for tips on how to make over your own kitchen pantry and fridge for your healthiest year yet.

Stacey Abel

Status: Single, no children.
Profession/Age: Stacey, 38, is a transplant unit care coordinator for the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
Nutritional Goals: To eat more well-balanced meals, with foods that offer a full complement of vitamins and nutrients.
Health Concerns: Migraines and tension headaches.
Biggest Food Weakness: Chips and salsa.

Stacey Abel's days at the University of Iowa's medical complex are long and grueling, sometimes lasting 10 hours. Noting the difficulty in balancing a healthy lifestyle with a high-pressure career, Abel admits that she's come to rely on foods that can be prepared quickly. "I'm pretty health-conscious," she says, "and I always have been. But I know that I should cook more well-balanced meals for myself."

Taking a look inside Abel's refrigerator, Cukiernik applauds the amount of fresh vegetables and fruits. However, the nutritionist is immediately concerned with some of the foods that Abel, who doesn't eat a lot of meat, relies upon for protein.

"Stacey keeps hummus in the refrigerator, and this can be a good source of protein, if consumed in moderation," Cukiernik says. "What people need to keep in mind, however, is that hummus is not the best choice, calorically speaking. The oil content is pretty high since it's made with tahini [ground sesame seeds]." It's better, then, to spread hummus on fruit or vegetable sticks than to eat it with calorie- and carbohydrate-laden flatbread or pita.

As for the nonhydrogenated peanut butter in Abel's refrigerator? "Nonhydrogenated peanut butter is a better choice than hydrogenated peanut butter, but it still contains a lot of fat," Cukiernik points out. "But the best choice is nonprocessed freshly ground peanuts. If you want to try a nut spread that has even better health benefits, try an almond or a walnut butter. Both are thought to actually lower LDL cholesterol."

Cukiernik also warns of "gimmicky" products, such as the egg substitute found in Abel's fridge, which she uses in omelets. "There is no need for this product," Cukiernik says. "Eggs don't necessarily raise cholesterol when consumed in moderation, meaning no more than four or five a week." However, Cukiernik recommends purchasing only organic eggs, which are free of the antibiotics and hormones present in the nonorganic variety.

Taking a look at the types of cheeses in Abel's fridge, Cukiernik recommends keeping the Brie (yay!), but tossing the domestic processed cheddar. "I prefer European cheeses rather than domestic cheeses, from both a taste standpoint and a health standpoint," she explains. "Europeans, particularly the French, make their cheeses with considerably fewer additives and stabilizers." As with hummus, Cukiernik recommends eating cheese with fruits and vegetables, rather than with bread products, to cut down on carbohydrates.

To address the problem of Abel's migraines, Cukiernik believes they may or may not be a result of diet. "Migraines are rather mysterious," she says. "The food links that we know of right now are molded cheeses, chocolate, and caffeinated beverages, but these headaches could also be brought about by stress or hormonal imbalances. My best recommendation is to keep careful documentation of foods consumed and dietary patterns, and then see when the migraines occur."

For women in their mid to late 30s, like Abel, Cukiernik recommends eating six small meals a day, rather than three large ones, to regulate blood sugar levels and keep the body in balance. She also emphasizes the importance of consuming foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids. "As many of us know by now, omega-3 is a wonderful fatty acid with multiple health benefits," Cukiernik says. "It helps with a range of health issues, from high blood pressure to menstrual discomfort." Cukiernik recommends fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines, and flaxseed as excellent natural sources of omega-3.

Additionally, Cukiernik suggests that women in their 30s supplement with probiotic bacteria (or "good bacteria") acidophilus. Found naturally in yogurt and available in capsule form, acidophilus improves digestion and helps to prevent constipation, gastric distension, and urinary tract infections (UTIs). For women who experience discomfort before and during their menstrual period, Cukiernik recommends bromelain, which is found naturally in pineapple or can be taken in supplements, to reduce the swelling and tenderness brought on by premenstrual syndrome. To soothe cramps, she suggests valerian root, which can be obtained in capsule form, as a fluid extract, or in tea; and for general premenstrual symptoms and discomfort, as well as hot flashes, Cukiernik points to black cohosh.

"Of course, one of the simplest ways to alleviate premenstrual syndrome is to exercise and drink plenty of water," Cukiernik says. "But adding these herbal supplements is a great way to treat your own particular symptoms." As is true with all dietary supplementation, Cukiernik adds, "the most important step is to clean up the diet first. Look at your whole nutritional scenario, and then choose supplements to target your specific needs."

Susan And Rick Zollo

Status: Married with two grown sons.
Profession/Age: Susan, 57, is a conference coordinator for the University of Iowa's Continuing Medical Education Division; Rick, 58, is a writer and an editor for an independent educational publishing company.
Nutritional Goals: Eat more well-balanced meals with portions that are small, yet satisfying.
Health Concerns: Rick has high blood pressure and high cholesterol; Susan has acid reflux.
Biggest Food Weakness: "Comfort foods," including cookies and pastas with rich sauces.

A healthy, well-balanced diet should be one of life's constants. Rick and Susan Zollo, both in their late 50s, recognize the importance of eating well in all stages of life. "My diet includes a lot of fresh vegetables and fruit, and I drink ten glasses of water a day," Rick says. "But I also eat a lot of cheese, peanut butter, and pasta."

Indeed, Cukiernik immediately noticed the boxes of dried fettuccine and rigatoni in the Zollos' pantry. "There has been a strange sort of 'license to eat pasta' in this country over the past decade or so," she says. "But really, most pastas are quite processed and high in carbohydrates." To counterbalance this, Cukiernik encourages people to pare down the portions of pasta they consume and make sauces, such as ratatouille, that are full of fresh vegetables, rather than cream. Knowing that many people like to sprinkle cheese on top of their pasta, Cukiernik recommends fresh Parmesan as opposed to the prepackaged version that can be high in additives and solidifiers.

Cukiernik suggests that families keep bowls of fresh fruit in the house, so kids will grab fruit as a snack or dessert rather than looking for sugary, prepackaged substitutes.

Looking into the Zollos' pantry, Cukiernik also finds both olive oil and nonfat cooking spray. "The olive oil is good," she says, "but the cooking spray is not. Not only is the aerosol can highly unfriendly to the environment, but the spray itself is completely artificial—it's just an amalgamation of different nonorganic ingredients." Cukiernik recommends using first-cold-press olive oil or cooking with titanium pans, which eliminate the need for a nonstick substance.

"It's great to see oats in their pantry," Cukiernik says. "Oats can reduce cholesterol levels, which is a concern for Rick." Cukiernik recommends Scottish oats or oat bran from organic sources, if possible. Oat bran, she says, is good to have on hand to mix with other cereals. There are quite a few other natural choices to help Rick lower his cholesterol. For example, Cukiernik suggests incorporating small amounts of cholesterol-lowering apple pectin into the diet. She also highly recommends supplementing with coenzyme Q10, which processes fat, removes toxins from the bloodstream, and improves circulation. To lower high blood pressure, also a concern for Rick, Cukiernik suggests watching the high sodium content in many prepackaged foods. To help lower his cholesterol levels, Rick should supplement his diet with omega-3 fatty acids and garlic.

To help Susan with the discomfort related to acid reflux, Cukiernik recommends reducing the amount of starchy foods in Susan's diet, which may be the cause. She also recommends taking comprehensive digestive enzymes and acidophilus, found in yogurt or in capsule form, to clean up the bacterial floor of the intestines and prevent reflux.

Overall, Cukiernik believes that the most important part of a nutritional makeover is to find a diet that leads to health and satisfaction. She recommends that the Zollos eat foods they enjoy in reasonable portions so that eating will be pleasurable, not just necessary. "Always look for the best quality, no matter what food you're buying," she says. "Think about what will please you the most. When we really pay attention to what we are eating, we feel satisfied and healthy."

The Knebel Family: Doria Knebel and children, Carsyn and Max

(husband Daniel not pictured) Status: Married with two toddlers. Profession/Age: Doria, 37, works part-time as an editor for an educational publishing company; Daniel, 35, is general manager of a family-owned door and window business. Nutritional Goals: The Knebels want to incorporate more fresh fruits and vegetables into their everyday meals, eat fewer prepackaged foods, and become better nutritional role models for 3-year-old Carsyn and 1-year-old Max. Health Concerns: Max has recurring respiratory problems and is prone to catching colds. Biggest Food Weakness: Carbohydrates (especially potatoes) and salty snacks.

Doria and Daniel Knebel are faced with a dilemma familiar to many busy parents: preparing meals that are fresh and healthy versus preparing food that is quick and convenient. Medical nutrition therapist Susan Cukiernik, RD, says that freshness and convenience do not have to be mutually exclusive. "There is a big misconception involving fresh foods and lengthy preparation time," Cukiernik says. "For example, the Knebels have prepackaged macaroni and cheese in their cupboard. This might seem more convenient, but really it isn't." Instead of buying the boxed macaroni and cheese, which is loaded with additives and preservatives, Cukiernik suggests preparing a homemade version with durum semolina pasta and freshly grated cheese. The difference in preparation time is negligible, but the health benefits are significant.

"Preservatives, additives, and artificial coloring and flavoring can be quite toxic," Cukiernik says. "I encourage families to maintain a chemical-free diet, a diet without any processed or refined foods. Chemical additives can slow down the body's natural processes, including the functioning of the immune system."

Also in the Knebel's pantry? A variety of cereals, which the children eat for breakfast and as a midday snack. "Both Max and Carsyn like cereal," says Doria, "but I worry about the sugar content." Indeed, while cereal can be a great source of nutrients for kids, Cukiernik explains that most supermarket brands are too high in preservatives and refined sugar. Cukiernik recommends that instead of buying presweetened cereals, parents should try to purchase organic cereal alternatives found in most natural foods stores and then add their own healthy sweeteners, such as raisins or honey. "Kids don't naturally love super-sweet cereal," Cukiernik says. "It's just a matter of conditioning. Once they try cereal with fresh bananas, chopped nuts, or even applesauce, kids start liking that just as much." As an alternative, Cukiernik suggests creating your own cereal with a mixture of flavorful grains, such as oats, amaranth, quinoa, and millet.

Another possible problem in the Knebel's cupboard is canned tuna, which should be avoided by pregnant women and young children due to its possible mercury content. In fact, the FDA currently recommends that women of childbearing age who are pregnant or are trying to become pregnant limit fish consumption to 12 ounces a week, and avoid consumption of four large fish—shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish—altogether. (If you are pregnant, be sure to get an adequate supply of essential fatty acids, especially DHA, from other sources, such as flaxseed and omega-3 enriched eggs.)

As for the canned fruits and vegetables that line the top shelf of the cabinet, these are much less nutritious than their fresh counterparts. To take advantage of fresh produce, Cukiernik suggests that families seek out the best market in their area, the store that gets the freshest food, and visit it as often as possible. She also encourages parents to include children in the process of cooking because kids will be more likely to eat something that is their own "creation." Parents should always keep bowls of fresh fruit in the house, advises Cukiernik, so kids will become accustomed to grabbing fruit for a snack or dessert rather than looking for a sugary or prepackaged substitute.

To get kids to eat their fruits and veggies, valuable sources of vitamins and antioxidants, Cukiernik suggests parents get creative. "You can 'disguise' vegetables by cutting and cooking them differently," she says. Or, incorporate sweeter vegetables, such as carrots and beets, into homemade juices, which can be drunk as they are or frozen to make all-natural ice pops.

In addition to the nutrients that can be found in whole foods, Cukiernik also recommends particular vitamin supplements for children: vitamin C for bolstering the immune system (especially for kids who, like Max, are prone to wintertime ailments) and a good multivitamin. While the Knebel's pediatrician prescribes a liquid multivitamin for Max and Carsyn, Cukiernik suggests adding an antioxidant chewable.

For parents interested in Ayurvedic medicine, Cukiernik highly recommends amrit kalash nectar, an herbal supplement and powerful full-spectrum antioxidant that is both mild and thought to be effective in preventing and treating many common childhood and adult ailments. Since each child's dietary needs are as unique as he or she is, parents should check with their own physician or nutritionist before giving their child any type of supplement.