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People often ask me for a "master" grocery list. But in my eyes that's a toughie because I believe variety is key to ensuring that your body receives a broad spectrum of nutrients. After all, the antioxidants and protective nutrients in asparagus are different from those in tomatoes or onion. That’s why my grocery list varies by season, and I try to mix things up a lot — red quinoa and barley one week, wild rice and whole wheat penne the next… But there are some go-to ingredients I love to "keep in stock." Each offers important health benefits and can be enjoyed in a variety of ways:

Frozen Spinach
Most of the produce in your supermarket was harvested over 1,500 miles away and traveled by truck to get there. That’s not so great because produce starts to lose nutrients the moment it’s picked – in fact some vitamins can plummet by 50 percent in one week's time. But frozen veggies usually wind up on ice the same day they're harvested, which locks in the good stuff. That means they often contain more nutrients than fresh. Plus they're inexpensive, don’t go bad, and they’re easy to use — no washing, peeling or chopping required. Stocking spinach in my freezer ensures that I always have dark leafy greens on hand, and there are a million ways to use it. 

How to Eat It: I toss small amounts of spinach into fruit smoothies (trust me, it whips right in — you won’t even know it’s there) and sauté it over medium heat with extra virgin olive oil, minced garlic and crushed red pepper for a quick and easy veggie side dish. I’ve even thawed, pureed and folded spinach into brownie batter to add moisture and kick up the nutritional value. 

Almond Butter
Almonds are among the most decadent foods on the planet, but they're also among the most researched when it comes to weight loss. One study found that a low-calorie, almond-enriched diet helped overweight people shed more pounds. Both groups of dieters ate the same number of calories and equivalent amounts of protein, but after six months, those on the almond-enriched diet lost more weight and had smaller waistlines, less body fat, and lower blood pressures. Almonds are bursting with minerals, B vitamins, and vitamin E, one of the body’s key antioxidants, plus fiber and protein. And numerous studies have also shown that they help slash "bad" LDL cholesterol to lower the risk of heart disease. Just tops in my book!

How to Eat It: I find almond butter (simply ground almonds with no other ingredients) to be incredibly versatile. I spread it on whole grain crackers, swirl it into cooked oats, add it to smoothies, and use it as the base of a simple almond satay sauce by folding in savory seasonings like ginger, garlic and crushed red pepper. The latter is amazing tossed with mixed vegetables and a lean protein (chicken, shrimp or edamame) over a bed of brown or wild rice.

Avocado
Avocado is nature’s butter, but per tablespoon it packs 3/4 fewer calories. And while butter is loaded with saturated fat, avocados contain heart healthy-MUFAs (monounsaturated fats), vitamin E (a major anti-aging antioxidant), and potassium, a key nutrient for heart function and muscle contractions that acts as a natural diuretic (aka major de-bloater).

How to Eat It: I spread ripe avocado on whole grain toast at breakfast, add it to fruit smoothies (like the Avocado Mango Mint Smoothie from my newest book), of course mash it into guacamole for tacos and fajitas (yum!), and I’ve even used it in place of butter in baking. One of my favorite tricks is to place a garden salad, finely chopped avocado and a splash of citrus juice (like tangerine or blood orange) in a sealable container, close the lid and shake — the avocado "melts" to coat the greens and veggies and create a creamy, delicious dressing.

Vinegar
Vinegar is a wonder condiment shown to help control blood sugar and curb fat gain. One study found that people who consumed a tablespoon of vinegar before lunch and dinner lost an average of two pounds over four weeks — without making any other changes — and they felt more satiated. It’s also low in sodium (many varieties provide 0 mg per serving) as well as calories, about 15 per tbsp.

How to Eat It: Vinegar is the foundation of my homemade salad dressing and stir-fry sauce and I drizzle straight balsamic over everything from cooked, chilled lentils to organic baby greens and strawberry avocado tacos. I even fold it into dark chocolate truffles. I like to keep an assortment in my fridge, from balsamic (my favorite) and Japanese rice vinegar to red wine, cider, and fruit-infused varieties like raspberry, fig, or pomegranate. It’s a simple way to add flavor and juiciness to just about any dish. 

Tofu
OK you might be thinking, “Ewwww” but I always encourage even my non-vegetarian clients to give tofu a shot — even my hubby, born and raised in Texas on BBQ brisket, has grown to love it. If you’re not familiar with what tofu is it’s basically soy milk in solid form. An acidic ingredient (usually nigari, from sea water) is added to soy milk, which causes it to coagulate, much like a cooked egg. It’s then pressed into blocks. Firm tofu has more of the water pressed out, so it holds its shape better and can be sliced, cubed or crumbled. Silken or soft tofu retains more watery, making it a better choice for smoothies and dips.

How to Eat It: I always keep organic, plain, extra firm tofu in the fridge. It’s a great source of high quality protein and I can eat it as is or cook it. Tofu is fairly tasteless on its own, but it takes on the flavor of whatever you pair it with. I like to add a slice of cold tofu to an open-faced sandwich made with toasted whole grain bread spread with pesto or olive tapenade. I also use hand-crumbled tofu in place of cottage cheese, grill marinated tofu triangles (chili lime, yum) and stir fry tofu cubes in fresh ginger sauce with veggies and sliced almonds. Such an easy breezy protein option. And by the way my hubby now orders in Chinese or Thai dishes, even when I’m out of town. 


Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.

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