Getting Started

Getting Started 1: First Principles

Here are some important principles to remember as you start your low sodium journey:

Know your target! Be sure you discuss your new low sodium diet with your health care provider and understand what your objectives are. Know how much sodium you should consume per day. In the beginning, it might be easier to set targets for each meal – something like 500 mg. sodium each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a 200 mg. snack. Also, know how much “wiggle room” you have to play with. Trying to lower your sodium intake a bit to prevent hypertension is not the same as coping with congestive heart failure. There's a big difference between a low-sodium diet of 1,500 mg. sodium per day and a restricted diet of only 800 mg. sodium, so you really want to understand the numbers to begin with. Also, ask your doctor about salt substitutes. They most often contain potassium chloride which can be problematic for those with diminished kidney function.

Don’t panic! Living a low sodium lifestyle is challenging but not impossible. You don’t have to be a master chef or a totally “from scratch” cook to survive. You will be able to produce and eat satisfying and delicious food.
Be patient! It will take a while to get used to the taste of lower sodium dishes, and there’s a learning curve. It will take time to become familiar with the lower sodium products available in your local grocery stores. It will also take time to transition from a “full salt” kitchen to a low sodium kitchen. Modifying favorite recipes and building up a repertoire of new recipes will also take a while, and developing techniques to enhance dishes will be an ongoing learning experience.

Fight one battle at a time! Don’t try to do too much. Just concentrate on lowering your over all sodium consumption. Don’t expend energy on anything else, and don’t jump on any bandwagons –  avoiding gluten, eating only whole grains, going vegetarian or vegan, eating local, avoiding carbs, buying organic and/or sustainable – the possibilities are endless. Give yourself ample time to tackle the low sodium lifestyle before worrying about any other food and diet choices.

“Know Thyself!” The ancient Greeks got this right. You’re the only one who understands your tastes, your schedule, your cooking abilities, your finances, what’s available in grocery stores nearby, and what you’re willing to do in order to eat lower sodium. Don’t beat yourself up because you miss the taste of salt. It’s normal. Don’t feel badly if you don’t want to bake your own bread or blend your own spice mixes. What works for others may not work for you. You are the only one who can develop a lower sodium routine that fits your unique personality. You can glean ideas and inspiration from a lot of sources, but everything you do needs to satisfy you and you alone.

  1. Lower the sodium content of the foods you eat and prepare
  2. Make food that tastes good (otherwise you’ll eventually give up your low sodium diet)
First things first...
  • Remove the salt shaker from the table.If it’s not within easy reach, you’ll be less tempted to use it. However, don’t toss it altogether. Save it for guests who might want to “perk up” your low sodium fare.
  • Remove the salt shaker from the stove top area. The lack of easy access means you’ll be less tempted to use it during cooking.

Getting Started 2: The Great Kitchen Clean-Out!

It's Kitchen Clean-Out Time!

Take a day, a week, or a month – but get it done! Be prepared for a thorough clean-out of your refrigerator, freezer, and cupboards. You may be amazed at your discoveries. Always keep in mind the cumulative effects of the hidden sodium in many food products. A little here, a little there, and pretty soon you’ve exceeded your daily allotment – and it’s only lunchtime! Grab a giant garbage bag and get ready. As you are tossing bottles and jars, bags and boxes, make a list of those “must haves” – foods you use frequently. Those items are the lower sodium versions you should look for the next time you go shopping. Also include a list of low sodium items you need to purchase in order to modify pantry staples you already have on hand. The clean out is a great learning experience: you’ll become more aware of hidden sodium in many familiar foods, and you’ll know which low sodium products you need to shop for.

Check out your refrigerator:

Check all your condiments for sodium content – ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, soy sauce, hot sauce, chutney, steak sauce, etc. Condiments can be an unknown source of sodium, especially if you usually use more than a single serving size. So be prepared to toss some of them. Chances are that when you last purchased condiments, you probably didn’t spend much time analyzing the nutritional label, and, as a result, you may have inadvertently brought home those with the highest sodium content. Now is the time to start afresh. Add your favorite condiments to your “must have” list and look for lower sodium versions the next time you go shopping.

Don’t forget butter or buttery-type spreads. If you’re using a “lite” spread, it’s probably got a high sodium level. Food manufacturers hide the unpleasant flavors of the various gums and stabilizers that must be used to compensate for lower fat content by adding more salt and/or sugar. You may need to toss what you’ve got on hand. Try to find a spread that’s around 70 mg or lower per serving. Get rid of salted butter cubes and remember to buy some unsalted butter next time you shop.

Also check salad dressings, mayonnaise, dips, salsas, and cheese spreads. Vinaigrette dressings are easily modified. Just add your own vinegar and oil – two or three parts oil to one part vinegar – add directly to the bottle or combine altogether in another container. That will lower the sodium content considerably. But watch out for “lite” vinaigrette dressings. They, too, have added salt, gums, and stabilizers and probably won’t take well to modification. You can adjust creamy dressings rather easily. Every time you plan to serve a creamy dressing, mix the amount of a single serving size with equal parts sour cream/plain yogurt and a bit of water. You can do the same thing with creamy dips.

Jarred salsa may not need to be tossed. Next time you go shopping, just pick up a can of no-salt-added diced tomatoes. Drain the diced tomatoes, reserving the juice, and add them to the salsa. If it’s too chunky, add a bit of the reserved tomato juice. Fresh salsa can be modified by buying some unsalted pico de gallo in the produce department and adding it to the prepared fresh salsa. You can always punch up the flavor of low sodium salsa at serving time by adding a squeeze of lime juice, some garlic, chopped onion, and chopped fresh cilantro.

Most grocery store mayonnaise brands range between 70-90 mgs. sodium per tablespoon. So you don’t have to toss your mayo jar – just remember to use it sparingly until it’s all gone and you can buy a brand with lower sodium content. That said, “lite” mayonnaise usually has more sodium, so it should be pitched. The same for Miracle Whip and its clones. Cheese spreads are difficult to modify and should probably be thrown out.

Check out your freezer:

Frozen dinners, pizzas, snacks, etc. are notorious for their high salt content. More than likely, you’ll need to get rid of all of those items or serve them only to other family members. To avoid waste, you might ask a friend or neighbor if they’d be interested in taking them off your hands.

Frozen vegetables should be OK as long as they aren’t prepared in a sauce. If the sauce is packaged separately, then simply throw it away and serve the vegetables plain. You may have bought frozen vegetables processed with salt – check the labels. You don’t necessarily need to toss them. Just cook them in 1½ - 2 times the water needed and drain. Be sure to rinse the cooked vegetables too. The excess cooking water and rinse should get rid of a lot of the sodium. Mark the packages of vegetables frozen with salt, so you’ll know which ones need special treatment. I usually stick a piece of blue painter’s tape on packages and write the word SALT with a Sharpie. Just remember next time you go shopping to read the labels on frozen vegetables more carefully.

Frozen uncooked chicken is a real problem. If you read the labels carefully, you’ll discover that most uncooked frozen chicken has been treated with a saline solution. There’s no really effective way to remove the salt. However, you can defrost the chicken, rinse it well, and then cook it without any added salt whatsoever – no packaged sauces, no spice blends that include salt, no breading mixes, etc. Then next time you buy chicken, read the label more carefully.

Check out your pantry:

Carefully go over all of your canned goods and mixes. The bad news is that canned soup, chili, etc. are high in sodium. They’ll probably need to go. The good news is food banks will appreciate these items. The other good news is that you could add unsalted chicken or beef broth to heat & serve canned soup or chili to make lower sodium (and very brothy) versions. You could also add some salt free vegetables or beans to lower the sodium content even more. Canned vegetables including canned beans can be treated like frozen salted vegetables – drain well and rinse thoroughly 2-3 times before serving. Believe it or not, canned tuna can be treated in a similar fashion. Drain the tuna, place in a fine mesh strainer, rinse well 1-2 times, and pat dry with paper towels. Next time you’re shopping, look for lower sodium products.

Canned spaghetti sauce is probably too salty to be used by itself, but there’s no need to toss it. Hold onto your jars, and pick up several cans of salt-free tomato sauce the next time you go shopping. Depending on how high the sodium content is, all you need to do is add 1-2 cans of salt-free tomato sauce to a regular jar of spaghetti sauce. That will bring down the sodium content considerably. Bump up the flavor by adding garlic and some fresh or dried herbs. Use up all the old jars of sauce and then carefully check labels before buying any new spaghetti sauce. And keep adding at least one can no-salt-added tomato sauce to any jarred spaghetti sauce you use.

Noodle, rice, and dry soup mixes may need to be given to food banks. It all depends on whether or not the sauce/flavoring mixtures are packaged separately. If they are, then you can either toss them altogether or use just ¼ to ⅓ of the packet. There are some low sodium versions of noodle/rice mixes. Look for them or just make side dishes from scratch.

Peanut butter is another hidden source of sodium. It’s best to remove what you have and purchase new jars of unsalted or very low sodium brands.

Canned and dry broth/stock products are notoriously high in sodium, but you may not have to throw out everything. Just remember when using liquid broth, to use half broth and half plain water. That will cut the sodium content considerably. Do the same with dry granules. Use 1/4 - 1/3 the recommended amount. Even grocery store low sodium broths can be too high, so cut them with water too. Next time you go shopping, look for no-salt-added broths.

Bread products can also be high in sodium. Rather than throw out the bread, bagels, and English muffins you have on hand, just be very careful with portion control. For example, if you’ve got a package of gigantic grocery store bagels, eat only half a bagel for breakfast. When you use up all your existing breadstuffs , then you can purchase lower sodium varieties.

Snacks like chips, pretzels, etc. are sodium busters. Because they’re so high in sodium, it’s best to just toss them or give away. There’s no way to easily bring down their sodium content.

Cereal is another product to watch out for. If your cereal has more than 250 mgs. per cup, you might want to toss it. If you chose to keep it, be sure to stick with the recommended serving size and measure carefully. You could also combine a favorite cereal with a salt-free cereal to lower the overall sodium content. The sweetness of most cereals is deceptive. Our brains tell us the taste is sweet, therefore no salt is involved. Of course, that isn’t the case at all.

Cakes and cookies are like breakfast cereals. They taste sweet, so we assume there’s little if any sodium in them. However, most baked products contain a lot of sodium. If it’s made from a yeast dough, then salt was used to regulate the yeast activity. If it’s a muffin or cake, then baking powder and/or baking soda have been used as leavening. Both those products rely on sodium bicarbonate, a salt. If the sweet baked goods are your favorite treat, then keep them and watch your serving size. If possible, lessen your serving size. Remember: the less you eat, the lower your sodium intake will be.

Check out your spice drawer:

This is another source of hidden sodium. Spice mixes or blends like chili, flavored “peppers,” steak or grilling seasonings can be horribly salty. Toss every mix that includes salt as an ingredient. Be sure to add your favorite seasoning blends to your “must have” list so you can look for salt-free versions the next time you go shopping.

CONGRATULATIONS! You’re done! Give yourself a pat on the back. It was a lot of hard work, but along the way, you learned the truth about hidden sodium in foods. You also are better prepared for low sodium shopping trips. It’s time to grab your list and head out to the grocery store.

To Be Continued...


Anonymous said...

Compliments to you for this excellent guide to getting your head around the challenge. I've been at it for 9 months now and figured out every single thing you mention in this post .... the HARD way. By making the mistakes, then backtracking to figure out what went wrong when I caused myself to have a bad reaction to ingesting too much sodium. I can't tolerate more than about 400 mg per day, so it was really hard in the beginning. I so wish I would have found your site sooner. Thanks!

shambo said...

Thanks for your kind comments. I'm glad you were encouraged. Your daily sodium limitation is quite extreme, and I wish you the best of luck navigating around it. Again, thanks for writing.