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March 18th, 2011
10:58 AM ET

How can I eat healthy if I have to buy in bulk?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Friday, it's Dr. Melina Jampolis, a physician nutrition specialist.

Asked by Nate, Yellowstone National Park

I live in a very remote location: Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. I have a hard time buying groceries that are healthy. There is no way I could get to the store even once a week. I end up buying in bulk: frozen (limited space), cans, dry just-add-water type stuff. Any suggestions for better eating?

Expert answer

Hi Nate. I answered a similar question not too long ago from a woman who could not get to the store often due to physical limitations, but I feel that this is so important, particularly with so many nutrition professionals encouraging us to eat fresh fruits, vegetables and meats from the local farmer's market, that it is worth discussing in even more detail.

I don't mean to imply at all that there is anything wrong with eating fresh and local. It is without a doubt incredibly healthy and environmentally friendly. It is just not practical, affordable or even possible for many people in this country like you who still wish to eat as healthy as possible.

Here are a few ideas for bulk frozen, cans, and just-add-water type stuff.

Frozen fruits and veggies are great

As I've mentioned before, they are loaded with nutrients as they are often frozen very quickly after being picked. Just avoid boiling vegetables in water, as this could deplete some of the nutrients. Try microwaving with only a couple of tablespoons of water or steaming.

Frozen fruit could be used to make smoothies (even though it's cold out) by adding protein powder that could be bought in bulk and would not take too much room while adding high-quality protein to your diet.

Cans are OK too

Canned beans are a terrific source of fiber and a good source of protein. Drain the water and rinse the beans to remove a good deal of the sodium. Other canned vegetables such as green beans, tomatoes, corn, peas, carrots, even pumpkin (and more) are good too.

Just try to choose lower-sodium options if possible and drain when you can. Here is a great link for ideas on using canned vegetables. Canned fruit is a healthy, nutrient dense choice too, as long as you choose varieties that are canned in their own juice without added sugar.

Finally, canned chicken is a good lean protein option, and canned tuna and salmon packed in water are an economical way to get protein and heart healthy omega 3s twice a week as recommended by the American Heart Association.

Remember nuts, seeds, dried fruit

These can be stockpiled in bulk and provide healthy fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, all of which are essential for optimal health. They work great as snacks (or toppings for oatmeal or cereal). Just watch portions sizes (consider pre-portioning out several servings) as they are calorie dense and could lead to weight gain if over-consumed.

Try shelf stable milk

Non-fat dry milk is an option as are shelf-stable milks like almond milk and soy milk. Just make sure to avoid those with added sugar for optimal health.

Whole grains are great

Whole grain pasta, barley, brown rice, oats, and whole grain cereal (make sure the word whole grain is first on the ingredient list when it comes to cereal) can all be bought in bulk, so make sure to stock up on these to get your minimum daily three servings of whole grains.

If you want to add protein to breakfast and can't get to the store to buy eggs, try adding the protein powder I mentioned above to your oatmeal (plus a little extra water) to boost your morning protein intake.

So as you can see, even if you can get to the store only once a month and don't have access to fresh food very often, you can still eat a healthy, balanced diet full of whole grains, a variety of vegetables and fruit, lean protein, healthy fat and low-fat dairy. And if you want to throw in a little dark chocolate for a small after-dinner treat, you'd be following this doctor's orders (even with your shopping limitations) quite well.

Follow Dr. Melina on Twitter


soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. Yrag Elok

    Dehydrated food is a fine and light way to store food. Dehydrated beans are available. These are first cooked and then dehydrated. Black, red, lentils and others are available.

    March 18, 2011 at 12:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. veero

    Not even going the extent of dehydrated beans.... dry beans/lentils of a great variety are available at any grocery store and will stay good for months, avoid the BPA in canned beans, and cheap and good for you... sprout them for even greater nutritional benefits. If you are getting nuts in bulk, it is ideal to get in-shell this will keep them more stable and not let the fats become rancid.

    March 18, 2011 at 12:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • D

      I think you should have written the article. These are much better suggestions. It is NOT difficult to cook dry beans!!!

      March 18, 2011 at 14:16 | Report abuse |
    • Dr. Melina Jampolis

      This is a terrific suggestion. Thank you so much for your input. D, i'm sorry you were so disappointed with my response. I gave some ideas and welcome ideas from the community that I may not have thought of. I have never cooked dry beans so I didn't think of it but it's a great idea and lower in sodium too so even healthier. Regarding the nuts, also an excellent suggestion. Nuts can keep in the refrigerator for about 4 months and in the freezer for up to 9 months but with limited space that may not be an option for some people. Again, I really appreciate the input from everyone! It makes this column even more useful.

      March 18, 2011 at 15:18 | Report abuse |
    • JH

      >I have never cooked dry beans

      Seriously? I understand that not everyone can know everything, but to be a nutrition specialist and to never have cooked dry beans, this is really shocking to me. Try it, you'll like it! Dry beans can be found online (and in many stores) for roughly $1/pound, and can serve as a primary protein source on a low budget or in a vegetarian diet. Properly-stored beans (and other legumes, like peas and lentils) can have a shelf life of 10+ years. A nearly-complete and healthy diet can be made up almost exclusively of dehydrated (and possibly organic) foods like this. The rest of your healthy diet can be filled out with non-hydrogenated oils and as many fresh greens and vegetables as you can manage.

      March 18, 2011 at 23:49 | Report abuse |
    • Dried Beans...funny.

      I tried cooking dried beans once. I soaked them for an hour and tossed the water then cooked them in fresh water. They took forever and ever to cook, and the worst part is, I could not digest them at ALL. Never had so much gas in my life. I prefer jarred beans, well rinsed. Of course, dried beans are much less expensive. Put you pay in other ways.

      March 19, 2011 at 05:48 | Report abuse |
    • JH

      You likely had old beans, which will eventually get soft enough to eat, but reasonably fresh (or properly-stored) beans will cook in a reasonable amount of time and will taste better. As for the gas, if you cook them right (it sounds like you did) and eat them reasonably often, the issue may disappear as your intestinal flora adjust to handle them.

      March 19, 2011 at 10:09 | Report abuse |
    • Emmaleah

      I really recommend a pressure cooker, if you can afford one. They'll run about $100 new and can be used as a regular stock pot as well. The new ones have an excellent high-density wax safety port, so none of that explosion business your Mamaw worried about. When the wax gets hot enough, it just falls in and out comes the steam.

      A pressure cooker can help you process dried beans quickly (and they're easier to digest) and can also be used to quickly cook whole chickens, tough roasts, and ribs. Once cooled, the meat can be chopped and frozen in small, flat packets in your freezer. I can fit a whole chicken of meat and stock into a tiny space.

      I second the sprouting option if you have trouble digesting beans. Sprouted lentils taste like fresh peas, only slightly starchier. You can grind sprouted beans for breads or you can steam them, marinate them, or just eat them raw.

      If you have enough light, try growing some French carrots (they are perfectly round like beets) in a window box. They grow fast and take shallow soil. We did this when I was a kid–fresh carrots all the time. As soon as we pulled them we put the new seeds in. You can grow fast-growing chard and lettuce like this as well, year-round. I was raised in the hippie era and some of the ideas from back then are still good ones!

      March 19, 2011 at 13:16 | Report abuse |
  3. BMW

    Although this does not fall under the "just add water" category, many winter squashs, root vegetables and cabbage will keep for several weeks to months, depending on storage conditions. These are a good way to have at least a few fresh veggies in your diet between trips to the market.

    March 18, 2011 at 13:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • D

      Another great suggestion. I was very disappointed with the original article here.

      March 18, 2011 at 14:17 | Report abuse |
  4. CR

    I would go further and add in the summer months when access to fresh fruits and vegetables are available- can them yourself.
    It is very easy and economical. You can adjust the flavors and sodium contents to your own tastes. My family has done this for decades. Plus the jars are reusable! No waste.

    March 18, 2011 at 14:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. FirstResponder

    There is another obvious and simple answer: Grow your own food. If you cannot do so where you live, then move to a place where you can grow your own food. You can easily sell the extra food to pay for the seeds for next year's crops.

    March 18, 2011 at 14:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • CloverGirl

      So your answer is to move? That is so not helpful.

      March 18, 2011 at 16:11 | Report abuse |
  6. Teri

    Frozen vegetables are generally just as nutritious as fresh and can either be purchased already frozen or you can purchase them from the grocery/farmer's market by the bushel and freeze them yourself. This is how my grandparents lived. They had a garden and frozen what they could not use in a timely manner, therefore they had what were essentially fresh vegetables all during the year. So, stocking the freezer with veggies is a very good idea. You can also make soups and gumbos to freeze. This allows you to use up any fresh supplies that you do have that will go bad before you can use them. I live close to grocery stores and even farmer's markets but still shop for groceries only about every 4-6 weeks. The only "tricky" things with that is bread and milk. In those cases, you can use powdered or shelf stable milk and make your own breads (bread will freeze, but I don't like it after it has been frozen). There is truly no excuse for anyone not to eat healthy.

    March 18, 2011 at 14:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. LittleRelief

    @FirstResponder – I would love nothing more than to grow my own food, or even purchase from the farmer's market. But where I live, there are too many tall trees, and selling my house would force me to take a $75,000 loss. I've tried to sell some of my trees, but even at that, the neighbors' tall trees would still create too much shade for my property. Farmer's markets here only run from May-November, so eating fresh is really only realistic when growing edible shade plants, or waiting for late Spring.

    March 18, 2011 at 15:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. ala-kat

    invest in a vacuum sealer. Buy frozen veggies in bulk, parcel out to serving sizes. The food will not get freezer burn and will last much longer in the freezer. I find the smaller vacuumed bags take up less room in the freezer than the large bag, freeing up freezer space. Same thing for buying meat in bulk, it will last mucho longer this way.

    March 18, 2011 at 15:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ala-kat

      also buying fresh produce when avaiable, blanch (making sure to drain well when done) and seal. While this requires a little more effort than frozen, it's lot less burdensome than canning. Will also extend the life of nuts, bread, and many other things. Air is the enemy and this solution works for me.

      March 18, 2011 at 15:44 | Report abuse |
    • ala-kat

      last, but not least. For just a hair over $100 I purchased a no-frills vacuum/sealer & two 8" rolls of cut your own size bags. I was getting tired of tossing freezer burnt food, and this thing is well on its way to paying for itself. Wanted to add this I thought they were too expensive, until I started really looking at what was going on.

      March 18, 2011 at 16:30 | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      The Vacuum/Sealer, is the only way to go. "ala-kat has the best idea's so far". I use mine so much I wear them out in a couple of years. I vacuum seal everything. Gourmet Chocolates, Diced Onions. I buy in bulk and when I get home, I spend the next day doing portion sizes and then vacuum sealing everything that I bought. I save a bunch of money, and I have very little waste.

      March 19, 2011 at 05:39 | Report abuse |
  9. Laura Wescott

    A much better discussion than usual. I have done all these things and they really work. My advice - try at least some of them. You'll eat better and feel better, too!

    March 18, 2011 at 17:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. beja

    Buy a dehydrator! Then when you can buy fresh veggies, fruits, herbs, etc you can dehydrate them at the peak of freshness. You can eat some things dried (dried fruit) and rehydrate others for various purposes. There is the upfront expense but it makes up for it in saving on the costs of (otherwise expensive) dried veggies. I have had one for a couple of years and love it!. No the veggies aren't exactly they same when you rehydrate them, but still delicious. Tons of info online- just google it!

    March 18, 2011 at 22:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ala-kat

      I've had a dehydrator for years and just never got the hang of it. I use it mostly for herbs. Another thing I do is take the trash from the veggies and make my own veggie stock for freezing. Do this with chicken carcuses also for chicken stock. It's already paid for, why not get the most from them? The only down side I can find is there is no consistency (especially with the veggie stock), but you know what is in it.

      Have a crappy bread machine (if someone is interested), but it is really super easy to make your own bread.

      All in all, these things take some time, but are well worth the effort. If you can find the time, you'll be eating better.

      March 18, 2011 at 22:34 | Report abuse |
  11. Chrome

    Just a comment about eating nuts. Many salted nuts (even lightly salted) use cottonseed oil as a binding agent to keep the salt on the nuts. Cotton is one of the most pesticide intensive crops and since it is not considered a food by the FDA, cottonseed is not regulated with the same standards as food crops are. As such, cottonseed oil has been shown to have high levels of pesticides and many health experts recommend not eating any food which has cottonseed oil on it or in it. Check the label before you buy and you'll find cottonseed oil is used in/on many products and avoid them.

    March 19, 2011 at 09:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Emmaleah

      Absolutely. Also, many nuts carry fungus/molds that can aggravate allergies and IBS. More reason to buy in-shell!

      Another benefit of getting nuts in the shell is that you don't eat as many and you have to slow down to eat. One of my favorite memories is sitting on the back step with my Grandaddy, shelling pecans that we'd just gathered from the tree. It can be very relaxing and the slow consumption aids in digestion.

      March 19, 2011 at 13:24 | Report abuse |
  12. Robin

    I am a vegetarian, and beans and lentils are my major source of protein. To cook beans such as kidney beans, chickpea, black beans, etc., soak them overnight in warm water. I use a pressure cooker to cook my beans and lentils, and it takes only 10-12 minutes to cook my soaked beans. I also prepare mung bean sprouts at home (caution: do not sprout kidney beans – they are toxic when sprouted) and those give me instant nutritious fresh food grown at home. Several types of grains, seeds and nuts (organic ones if preferred) may be purchased in bulk online, so with some planning and research, one may be able to live comfortably in a remote area.

    March 19, 2011 at 10:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JH

      I should point out that kidney beans *can* be sprouted, but you need to cook them afterwards to break down the bad-for-you chemicals in the sprout.

      March 24, 2011 at 06:31 | Report abuse |
  13. rosegarden

    As you know dry milk is more expensive than fresh, not an economical idea to store it, aside from the taste preference. Make your own soy milk or yogurt for better nutrition and save more money.

    March 19, 2011 at 12:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Finn

    Ultrapasteurized milk (like Parmalat) is shelf-stable but expensive. Fresh milk freezes well, although it sounds like the letter writer probably doesn't have enough room for that.

    I just cooked dried beans (garbanzos) for the first time this week, and they came out fine. I'm going to try dried navy beans next time I make chili.

    March 19, 2011 at 13:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. zenduane

    Join a food COOP. There are now large amounts of great organic food available inexpensively canned, frozen, and dried. It will generally be delivered to your door. Robin's suggestion of on-line is great. Try Amazon.com. They are big on everything but frozen. Plus they deliver to your door with free shipping.

    March 19, 2011 at 14:01 | Report abuse | Reply
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