TORONTO - Unpacking and putting away your groceries is one of those boring yet necessary tasks. But if you do it strategically, you can save prep time in the kitchen along with money on your food bill.
It will also help you organize yourself and save time later, said Carol Harrison, a registered dietitian based in Toronto who is a spokesperson for the annual Nutrition Month campaign spearheaded by Dietitians of Canada for more than 30 years.
Harrison, who has three children aged 15, 13, and 10, said she's been rethinking her own unpacking strategy.
"I'm good at the front end of planning meals, making my grocery list, buying in season, loading up on those healthy choices in the perimeter of the grocery store. It's the unpacking strategy I'm going to give more thought to."
It sounds like common sense, but moving foods that need to be used up to the front of the fridge and putting the new food behind helps you plan and saves on waste.
"It's also a great chance for a clear-out. See what's lurking in the back of the fridge that really needs to go into the compost," Harrison said.
While unpacking, put a pot on the stove and hard-cook half a dozen eggs for great grab-and-go snacks.
Chop vegetables and refrigerate in clear containers. Wash fruit and put it in a bowl by the front door where family members can grab some on the way out.
Buy bigger, more economical packages of meat — even split them with a friend — and repackage into smaller sizes. Refrigerate or freeze; thaw only what you need for a meal.
Pull skin off chicken before refrigerating or freezing. Start to marinate a package of steaks. Place them in a resealable plastic bag and freeze for a head start on a meal.
"What I love about this is it can help you waste less food," said Harrison.
Recognizing that people can use some tips on shopping, Dietitians of Canada is serving up online resources to help Canadians make over their grocery cart. You can check the website daily in March or download a free app, called eaTipster, for daily shopping tips.
A survey conducted in 2012 for Dietitians of Canada shows just under two-thirds of Canadians struggle with making healthier food choices in the grocery store at least half the time they shop while more than one-third struggle at least 75 per cent of the time. The Ipsos Reid poll of more than 2,000 adults across Canada also found only 37 per cent plan meals in advance.
"Healthy eating starts at the grocery store and I think we know that those healthy choices are around the perimeter," said Harrison, whose company Citrus provides counselling and communication.
"A lot of people know that these are the unprocessed whole foods, the vegetables, fruits, meat, the fish. Those are all great choices, but the inner aisles make it trickier for us, where we have to read labels, maybe you've got a multitude of choices. ... Where do you start?"
But there are gems in the inner aisles that can be teamed with foods from the store's perimeter, said Harrison.
You'll find whole grains, quinoa, pasta, barley, beans and rice. Whole grains are useful for reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer and help with weight.
"Explore some different things. If couscous or quinoa are new to you, give them a try," Harrison said.
Flavour boosters like vinegars, salsas, mustards and spices can make those wholesome foods taste terrific.
Turn to pantry staples such as soups, canned tomatoes and fish, nuts, nut butters and seeds toward the end of the week when you start to run out of fresh foods.
No-salt canned vegetables are becoming more widespread, Harrison said, and also suggested buying products containing few ingredients. "For peanut butter, straight-up just peanuts is the best."
Frozen vegetables and fruits, with no added fat, salt or sugar, are as healthy as fresh versions. They're picked at their peak state of ripeness and flash frozen. You'll waste less by removing only what you need from the freezer.
"Slow down in the produce section and really explore all the options that are there because more and more grocery stores are trying to acknowledge that people are looking for healthy convenient foods," said Harrison.
"So you will see the pineapple that's cored and cut up for you, vegetable platters you could put out for your family while you're getting dinner cooked, butternut squash that's ready to go, maybe into the oven or into a soup, so it's a great time saver.
"One of the barriers to healthy eating, people tell us, is time, so I think it's great to see any kind of shortcuts that help people eat more vegetables and fruit."
Be sure to check the best-before date.
Use shopping to teach kids how to make healthy choices and help them learn a life skill. Treat it like a field trip — perhaps a March break outing — and go when the store is not busy and they're not tired.
Give kids a task, such as picking out 12 mushrooms. Or ask what fruit they'd like to eat this week and have them choose one or two.
"It can be great for picky eaters or for people who don't like vegetables or fruits to get them into the grocery store and get them to touch the different foods," said Harrison.
Dietitians of Canada, dietitians.ca