The Nutrient Dense Kitchen – on a Shoestring
Does a nutrient dense kitchen have to come with such a high price? Food is essential to our survival and yet when it comes to figuring out the household budget, the weekly cost of groceries are often the first line item to come under scrutiny. Whatever your circumstances, being budget conscious when it comes to food selection is understandably a significant consideration. We need to eat every day! But do we really need to buy organic produce or select grass-fed, pasture-raised animals, that often carry a premium price tag?
Why does Quality Matter?
If you’ve been purchasing cheaper produce or subsisting off mostly packaged and processed foods for a while, you might be wondering why buying fresh, high quality produce is so important. I mean it’s a valid question because if you’re reading this then clearly you’re still alive! Sure, just surviving day-in and day-out may seem like a victory, but if you don’t know what it feels like to truly THRIVE in your sense of wellbeing!? Well, then you’re missing out. High quality foods can do that for you. They can take your every-day existence from just OK or kinda “blah”, to something that feels pretty magical. That’s what whole-body health & wellness should feel like.
How do I know this? Because I know how I used to feel when I was a poor student, and how dramatically different I felt when I made the change to care more about where I was sourcing my food from. My energy sky-rocketed, my mood improved, my skin cleared up, I lost weight without conscious effort and my belly bloat completely disappeared! It wasn’t a radical overnight transformation, but the changes in my body and how I felt were noticeable to me and those around me too.
Nutrient Density & Health
Anecdotal stories are great, but I know some of you might be questioning the science, so let me give you a little more insight into why nutrient density plays such a significant role in our lives. As identified by the NTA (BON, 2020) there are 6 nutritional foundations required for optimal health; digestion & elimination, blood sugar regulation, fatty acids, mineral balance, hydration and a properly prepared, nutrient-dense, whole food diet. Let’s take a closer look at four of these:
1. Digestion & Elimination
A whole food, nutrient dense diet allows are bodies’ digestive system to operate as it should as it’s able to break down and absorb nutrients that it recognizes. These nutrients are then used to fuel and build every single cell in our bodies. When we eat foods that are man-made and contain artificial ingredients, our bodies do not obtain the vital nutrients they need (Nutritional Therapy Association [NTA] Basics of Nutrition [BON], 2020).
2. Blood sugar regulation
Nutrient dense, high quality foods that are appropriately prepared can slow the rate of digestion and absorption of glucose into our blood stream. Highly processed foods are commonly loaded with sugar to make them taste better and so can often cause our blood sugar levels to spike. This often leaves us feeling tired and can also increase our sense of appetite again shortly after eating (NTA BON, 2020).
3. Healthy Fats
Healthy fats found in animals and plants play numerous roles in the body, including: providing building blocks for cellular membranes & hormones; acting as a calorie dense energy source; regulating inflammatory response; increasing satiety; and making food taste better! Low-fat products that are mass-marketed as a means of weight loss, often contain added sugars, so not only are you depriving your body of essential fats, but you’re also introducing more sugars into your diet which can be harmful to your health and your weight loss efforts (NTA BON, 2020).
4. Mineral Balance
Minerals are not only critical for every human system to function, but we cannot make them on our own. We must consume them from our food and drinks. Minerals like sodium and potassium are needed to transfer nutrients across cell membranes, build healthy bones, regulate nerve signaling & contract and relax our muscles. The best way to introduce more minerals into your diet is to consume properly prepared whole foods and drink plenty of clean, mineral-rich water (NTA BON, 2020).
These four foundations, along with properly preparing a whole food diet, are instrumental in our consideration of how to improve the nutrient density of our diet.
The Hallmarks of Nutrient Density
As nutritional pioneers such as Weston A. Price & Dr. Dame Harriette Chick discovered in the past, nutritional deficiencies correlate with poor health (NTA, Evolution of the Modern Diet [EMD], 2020). Today, we are also discovering that a nutrient dense diet can not only help to preserve wellness, it can also help reverse the effects of some of our modern day diseases like diabetes, heart disease & some cancers (Kresser, 2018).
We are so disconnected with the production & sourcing of our foods and constantly being bombarded with food marketing, that it has become incredibly challenging to distinguish between “healthy vs unhealthy” and “nutrient dense vs nutrient poor”. Just because something is labelled “high protein” or “gluten free” does not necessarily make that food item rich as a source of nutrition. So how do we go about identifying the best quality foods if we can’t rely on advertising or labelling claims?
Well let’s consider the key hallmarks of a nutrient dense diet as outlined by the Nutritional Therapy Association:
- Consume minimally processed, unrefined foods that are close to how they would appear in nature;
- Eat a diverse range of local, seasonal, organic fruits & vegetables;
- Soak and/or sprout seeds, nuts, legumes & grains when appropriate to maximize nutrient availability;
- Purchase grass-fed meat, pasture-raised poultry & eggs & wild-caught seafood
Following these practices can help us to safeguard the six nutritional foundations, therefore preventing disease, and preserving whole-body health.
I realize that education and cost both play a vital role in your food choices. So let’s take a closer look at how we can go about sourcing high quality foods in an economical way.
Sourcing High Quality Foods Economically
1. Shop the Perimeter
As I already mentioned, an easy way to feel more confident that your food choices are nutrient dense, is to shop the perimeter of your grocery store. Most stores keep fresh produce and animal products along the outsides and fill the aisles with processed foods that have a longer shelf-life. As Michael Pollan puts it: “There are a great many food-like items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food…stay away from these!.”
I found this Supermarket Map on the Precision Nutrition website and think it provides a great visual & explanation of how to attack your grocery store!
2. Buy organic, local & seasonal produce
Buying organic, local & seasonal produce is great for many reasons. When foods are organic they are a powerhouse of nutrients because they have not been compromised by synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, they contain no hormones or antibiotics & no GMOs.
If you can’t afford to buy fresh organic for all your produce, then at least beware of the so-called “Dirty Dozen”. This is a list by the Environmental Working Group that identifies specific fruits & vegetables that tend to have the most pesticide residue. Click here for a recent list.
Sourcing your produce locally & seasonally ensures optimal freshness as the vegetables or fruits have not been picked earlier than they’re ready in order to be transported. This enhances the quantity of nutrients available in these foods. When we eat produce that is in season, we experience a much fresher product that has not been picked before it had the opportunity to ripen and that has been grown in its natural environment, which helps to keep the cost of production down & therefore by extension, it’s retail price too. In addition, we reduce our exposure to contaminants that might be used in the transportation process to extend shelf-life or that might be commonly used in agricultural practices overseas for crops that are in season in other parts of the world.
Both buying produce in season and locally is likely to be cheaper as farmers need to sell what they have in abundance.
3. Purchase grass-fed, pasture-raised & wild caught
Grass-fed meat, pasture-raised poultry and wild caught seafood, ensures you are consuming animal produce that has been raised in its natural habitat. When cows and chickens can roam outdoors, eating their natural food source and absorb sunlight, the quality of their meat is vastly increased. Conversely, animals raised exclusively on feedlots are often packed in tight quarters, with little to no access to sunlight and are fed a diet of corn, grains and commercial feed that they have not evolved to eat.
While this has the benefit of making the animal gain weight quickly, the health (and welfare) of these animals is more than questionable, with many frequently suffering from diseases that require antibiotic intervention. Make sure your animal produce is free from hormones and antibiotics so that you are not ingesting these as a by-product. For similar reasons, wild-caught seafood is far superior to farm-raised, where fish are often kept in small enclosures and fed an unnatural diet. Again as Michael Pollan (2009) puts it, “You are what you eat eats too!”
4. Ideas for Economizing
Here are some great ideas for maximizing the amount of high quality food you consume, while keeping costs down:
- Frozen produce – if you can’t afford to buy all your produce fresh and organic then consider buying frozen organic produce. These fruits and vegetables actually retain a lot of their nutrients and are typically picked at peak freshness so they may even be more nutrient dense than fresh produce that is out of season.
- CSA shares – find a local farm that provides shares as a form of investment. You may pay a weekly or monthly sum to the farm in exchange for a monthly box of produce. This is a fantastic way of supporting your local community, shopping seasonally & ensuring your produce is either organic or grown in a sustainable way following organic procedures. Get to know your farmer and enquire about their farming practices.
- Farmer’s markets – these are another great method of gaining access to local, seasonal produce that may be grown organically. They can be very economical because farmer’s are keen to sell produce they have in abundance. Actually turning up to a farmer’s market towards the end is a great way to buy produce at discount when stall owners would rather sell their produce than have to take it home with them.
- SNAP – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a Government benefit scheme to help supplement the food budget of families in need. Many places will accept your government benefits, including some farmer’s markets. Find out more about the program and your eligibility here.
- Buying in bulk – stores like Costco and Sam’s Club provide fresh produce & pantry staples in bulk, offering great savings in exchange for a membership fee. This is a great place to buy organic products like oils, nuts, grains & pulses. In addition to shopping at warehouse style stores, consider bulk buying your meat. For example, you may wish to get together with some friends and purchase a whole cow between you. You can find wholesalers online or reach out to local butchers in your area.
- Thrive Market – this is an online, membership-based market that sources high quality, healthy and sustainable products. You can buy everything from groceries, to pantry staples & other household items saving 25-50% off retail prices on 6,000+ organic, non-GMO, and sustainable products.
Need a handy little guide to make sure you remember all these tips next time you head to the store? Download our FREE 3 page Superfood Shopping List now!
You’ve gone through the difficult process of sourcing the best quality foods at a reasonable price. Now you want to make sure you prepare and store those foods appropriately so as to maximize their nutrient availability.
At a simple and sustainable level, it’s best to combine a mix of raw and cooked vegetables each day to ensure your body receives the most bioavailable forms of nutrients in the greatest quantities. (NTA CW, 2020).
Let’s take a look at some general preparation and serving tips.
General Preparation Tips
These tips are all with nutrient density in mind. For meal prep tips you might enjoy our article Meal prep 101 – Protein Prep Strategies.
- Pair vegetables with fats – most vegetables contain fat soluble vitamins, so to make them more bioavailable, cook or serve them with a healthy fat.
- Pair iron rich foods with vitamin c – foods rich in iron like a steak, pair well with vitamin C rich vegetable options, like broccoli, carrots, spinach or peppers. The vitamin C in these foods will increase your body’s ability to absorb the iron in the meat.
- Peeling – peel any vegetables that are not organic or unsprayed and wash away any surface dirt too.
- Uniform chopping – uniformity is important to ensure you don’t overcook some pieces while undercooking others.
- Preserve freshness & nutrients – chopping some fruits and vegetables too soon before you need them, while time efficient, can cause a loss of nutrients and increase the rate of decay as they start to oxidize. Try to hold off chopping until you need them, or in the very least, store chopped vegetables in water and fruit in acidulated water (water mixed with citrus juice or vinegar).
Sprouting & Soaking
Chemical compounds known as phytonutrients are usually contained in the skin of a plants. These are a powerful line of defense for plants, protecting them from their environment (NTA BON, 2020). Unfortunately for us, some of these chemicals, like lectins, are not always tolerated well by humans. They can actually inhibit the absorption of other key nutrients and cause digestive issues such as gas, bloating and leaky gut. But this doesn’t mean that grains, nuts, seeds & legumes should be excluded from our diet. Instead, we should look to traditional methods of preparation used by our ancestors such as sprouting, soaking & fermentation, to neutralize the antinutrient effect of these chemical compounds so as not to compromise the nutritional diversity of our diet.
For more specific information on how to soak and sprout legumes and grains, check out the NTA’s Soaking & Sprouting Guide. In short, these techniques are cost-effective & straightforward to follow.
When it comes to cooking with fats and oils, the smoke point of those fats should be taken into consideration because heating above the recommended smoke point can produce unfavorable flavors and unhealthy compounds (NTA, CW 2020). I caution against using vegetable oils because they are not traditional fats that are pressed like olive oil or rendered like beef tallow. Instead, they are extracted and refined through an industrial process and unlike traditional fats, are very high in fragile Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Too much Omega-6 consumption relative to our Omega-3 intake is known to be a cause of inflammation in the body and chronic inflammation is thought to be at the root of most diseases (Dr Axe, 2019).
As vegetable oils are typically the cheaper option, I know it may seem like a splurge to invest in some of these other fats and oils. As previously mentioned however, places like Costco or Thrive market are a great way to acquire healthier cooking oils at a lower price. You can also render your own fat from meat that you cook or if you’re friendly with your local butcher, see how much beef muscle fat they’ll give you. They most likely have more than they want to keep! Watch this short tutorial by Glen & Friends Cooking on how to make your own beef tallow:
I also stumbled across this really handy smoke point chart on Pinterest from the Dr. Axe website. Of the cooking fats/oils below, oils colored red are those that you should not consume, yellow-colored oils are great to consume but not always best for cooking (especially not at high heat) and green-colored oils are great for both cooking and consuming without cooking.
Cookware & Storage
The more time you spend in the kitchen, the more you will come to rely on certain cooking utensils and storage containers. It’s important that you’re choosing safe materials to cook and store your food so as not to expose your food or yourself to harmful toxins.
To minimize your risk of exposure, the NTA (2020) recommends avoiding the following:
❌ Teflon coated pots and pans
❌ Aluminum or copper pots and pans
❌ Plastic storage containers, wrap, bags, bottles etc.
Instead, recommended materials are as follows:
✅ Cast iron or stainless steel pots and pans
✅ Ceramic coated cast iron or stainless-steel pots and pans
✅ Glass or stainless steel storage containers & bottles
✅ Parchment paper or beeswax wrap
Don’t worry about switching everything out all at once! To manage cost & reduce exposure to toxins at the same time, you can started by doing the following:
- Buy one quality cast iron skillet and one non-stick ceramic pan
- Buy a few different sized glass food storage containers. If you still have some plastic ones around, make sure they’re BPA free and allow food to fully cool before storing. Also reheat the food outside of the container if using a microwave.
- Swap out foil for unbleached parchment paper when lining baking sheets or use beeswax wrap when storing food.
Check out this brief (11 minute) video by FlavCity with Bobby Parrish, “The safest and best non-stick pans…and why to avoid Teflon!” for a little more insight on pan selection and which foods to cook in non-stick pans.
I hope you enjoyed this resource to help you in your quest for a nutrient dense kitchen! I know there’s a lot of information and you may feel overwhelmed on where to get started. My best advice is to start with something that seems the simplest and most sustainable for you right now. Changing even just one thing can have a major impact on improving your nutrient intake, making a huge difference to how you feel. Once you’ve consistently implemented this one change, come back to this post as a resource so you can keep adding on more tips and tricks to make your kitchen practices even more nutrient dense!
A little note: Some of the above links are affiliate links, which means we earn a small percentage from any sales. We use this affiliate revenue to support the continued growth of our blog. Thank you!
Dr Axe. (2019). How is Canola Oil Bad for You? Plus 4 substitutes. Retrieved from https://draxe.com/nutrition/canola-oil-gm/
Dr Axe. (2018.) Ghee Benefits: Are they better than butter? Retrieved from
Environmental Working Group. (2020). EWG’s 2020 Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Retrieved from https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php
FlavCity with Bobby Parrish (2020, August 10). Video format. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/Vur9D8huJmI
Glen & Friends Cooking (2018, July 4). How to Render Beef Fat – Beef Tallow. Video format. Retrieved from
Kresser, Chris (2018). The Power of an Ancestral Perspective on Diet. Retrieved from
Nutritional Therapy Association. (2020). Evolution of the Modern Diet Student Guide [PDF Document].
Nutritional Therapy Association. (2020). Basics of Nutrition Student Guide [PDF Document].
Nutritional Therapy Association. (n.d.) Soaking & Sprouting Guide. Retrieved from
Pollan, M. (2009). In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York, NY: The Penguin Group