Forget spring-cleaning: fall is the perfect time to spruce up your kitchen. Now that you’ve recovered from the laziness of summer (maybe I’m projecting a bit here) but before the craziness of the holiday season, there’s a perfect window for tossing those mystery items in the back of your fridge, replacing that gray-looking sponge sitting by your sink and cleaning those drips from the ceiling of your microwave. And while you’re scrubbing your cooking area to make it look nicer, you may as well do a few things to make it healthier too. Here, I’ve compiled some of the best, simple tricks that we’ve published in EatingWell over the years that will help make your kitchen a healthier place for you and your family.
1. Print out a list of the Dirty Dozen. Pesticide exposure is linked with diseases of the nervous system and problems with cell growth, including reproductive problems and some cancers. By keeping a list on hand of “the Dirty Dozen”—the 12 fruits and vegetables the Environmental Working Group has identified as having the most pesticide residues—you can curb your pesticide exposure. (Find out which fruits and vegetables you should buy organic here.) Keep in mind, though, even conventionally grown fruits and vegetables deliver important vitamins and other nutrients. So, if buying organic is not an option for you, don't sweat it—it's more important to eat fruits and vegetables than to shun them because they're conventionally grown.
2. Turn down the heat on nonstick pans. High temperatures can cause the nonstick lining on your skillet or saucepan to release fumes that contain PFCs (perfluorocarbons). PFCs are linked to liver damage and developmental problems. Remember to use wooden utensils in your nonstick pans too. They’re less likely to scratch than metal utensils, which could lead you to ingest the PFCs in the nonstick lining. As an alternative to nonstick, try using cast iron. Find out how to season your cast-iron skillet here.
3. Choose skim or low-fat dairy and lean meat. At EatingWell, we consider meats and dairy to be great options for getting protein and essential nutrients. But animal fat can contain dioxins—chemicals that are stored in animal fat and have cancer-causing properties. More than 90% of your exposure to dioxins is through food, mostly meat, dairy, fish and shellfish. To make sure that your next meal is safe and healthy, opt for lean meat and low-fat dairy products and take the time to skin your chicken or trim the fat from meat before cooking it. (Check out the best and worst protein sources for your health and the planet here.)
4. Tackle your plastic container collection. Many plastic containers contain BPA (bisphenol A), a chemical that’s a known endocrine disruptor, which could be linked to prostate and breast cancer, infertility, heart disease and diabetes. Set aside containers marked with recycling code “7” and not labeled BPA-free and retire them from food-storage duty. And when it’s time to clean them, take the time to hand-wash any plastic food-storage containers. A 2003 study found that plastic bottles released more BPA after they were cleaned in the dishwasher. (Find out 9 green must-have items for your kitchen.)
5. Find a new fish that’s low in mercury. Fish can be a fantastic source of omega-3s and a delicious protein to serve for dinner. But watch out for mercury! In high doses, mercury can harm the nervous system, heart, lungs, kidneys and immune system (and even low levels can affect the brains of young children). Print out a pocket guide of low-mercury seafood choices in your region from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Find a new fish that’s low in mercury to try for dinner this week.
6. Filter your tap water. You might not think of water as a source of toxins, but tap water can in fact contain up to 315 pollutants, including arsenic (a heavy metal) and pesticides, according to a 2009 analysis by the Environmental Working Group. And bottled water can contain the same contaminants as tap. Fortunately, there's an easy fix: filter your tap water. Look for a filter for your sink, a pitcher filter or even one in a water bottle. Just make sure it’s certified by the Water Quality Association (wqa.org) or NSF International (nsf.org) to screen out pesticides from farms and golf courses that can leach into well water. In most cases, a $15-20 PUR or Brita pitcher filter will do the trick.
7. Clean out your cleaning products. Take 5 minutes to look under your kitchen sink and read the labels on your cleaning products. Toss ones that contain synthetic fragrances, which contain phthalates. Phthalates act as endocrine disruptors, interfering with the body’s hormone systems and potentially leading to reproductive abnormalities, problems with fertility and increased risk for diabetes.
What are your best tips for making your kitchen healthier? Tell us what you think below.