If you stock your kitchen well, eating healthfully can be as simple and easy as reaching for what’s at your fingertips. As we discussed in last week’s article, 4 Essential Tips for Cooking Healthy on a Budget, keeping plenty of healthy items in your pantry not only improves your diet—it can also go a long way in stretching your food budget. Keeping your kitchen well stocked also saves you lots of time, which is often in short supply in today’s busy world.
Think of your grocery needs in two basic categories: perishables (foods that need to be refrigerated) and non-perishables (foods that will keep in the pantry for weeks and months). While perishables like fresh fruits and vegetables are a cornerstone of a healthy diet, non-perishables like whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit are equally important.
Take stock of what’s in your cupboards right now. How do they look? Bare? Bursting at the seams? Peppered with junk or brimming with nutrient-dense foods? Studies show that each of us has a finite amount of willpower in making day-to-day decisions. So if you want to eat healthfully and reap powerful health benefits, then it helps if what you see in your kitchen is both appetizing and healthy. When we are tired, stressed, or pressed for time, our willpower will be even lower than normal and we’ll generally seek out the quickest and most appetizing food available to us.
So the first step in creating a healthy kitchen is to clear out your pantry of refined, processed, and sugar-laden foods. These foods not only don’t provide the nutrition you need to look and feel your best, but also rob your body of stores of nutrients you already have, leaving you in a nutrition deficit.
An empty pantry is not the solution, however. So what can you put in its place? Here are some guidelines:
- Beans and Legumes: Dried beans and other legumes can be stored almost indefinitely. Many can be whipped up into a delicious and hearty dish with little preparation. Red lentils are very helpful to have on hand as they don’t require any soaking and take only 20 minutes to cook. Green lentils and black-eyed peas can also be cooked without soaking. Other beans, such as black beans, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, red beans, and white beans, need to be soaked ahead of time, so you’ll need to plan your meal the night before—or just soak the beans in advance, strain, rinse, and freeze them for easy preparation whenever you need them. In a pinch, you can have some canned beans on hand for quick and easy meals that provide the sustained energy legumes offer. (Try to find beans in cans that are BPA-free.)
- Nuts, Seeds, and Nut Butters: Organic peanut butter, almond butter, and tahini are essential ingredients for many gourmet dishes. Hemp seeds, chia seeds, and flax seeds are taking the health world by storm due to their superfood status. Of course, nuts and seeds are an integral part of a healthy diet and can be used as a topping on salads, as a healthy snack, in homemade trail mix, as a base for blended sauces, and so on. Raw nuts and seeds will stay fresh much longer than roasted and they are healthier too. It’s always a good idea to store your nuts and seeds in the refrigerator or freezer, if you have room, in order to keep the oils in them fresh.
- Whole Grains: Whole grains have been the foundation of the diet of many cultures for thousands of years and are thus known as the “staff of life.” With a variety of whole grains at your fingertips, you can make many healing, grain-based dishes. Organic cornmeal, oats, quinoa, brown rice, popping corn, buckwheat, and spelt flour are just some that are great to have on hand. Whole grain pastas provide a wholesome alternative to traditional pasta, which is refined, and they are more filling, so you’ll eat less.
- Healthy Oils: Research has thoroughly debunked the “low fat” myth. It’s now clear that it is more important to eat healthy oils and fats rather than eliminate them. Oils are an essential part of a nutritious diet; they even help you better assimilate the nutrients in your food. Focus on wholesome oils like extra virgin olive oil, cold-pressed coconut oil, hemp oil, sesame oil, avocado oil, and flax oil. Of these, coconut oil is the most heat-stable oil, so it’s the best one to use for broiling, stir-frying, pan-frying, etc. Ghee (clarified butter) is also very heat stable and is renowned in the ancient science of Ayurveda for its healing properties.
- Herbs and Spices: It’s no fun having to run out to the store every time you want to try a new recipe. By having an abundant and varied supply of herbs and spices in your kitchen, you can make a variety of delicious dishes. Many herbs and spices have more beneficial phytochemicals and antioxidants than even fresh fruits and vegetables. For example, spices like cayenne, cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric all have proven health benefits. Herbs like basil, parsley, sage, cilantro and fenugreek are also beneficial.
- Condiments: Condiments are frequently called for in recipes, and they can add just the right touch for a tasty meal. Different varieties of mustard, organic ketchup, Vegenaise (egg-free mayonnaise), barbeque sauce, and soy sauce are all “must haves” for a healthy kitchen. Apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar, and balsamic vinegar are also useful and nutritious.
- Quick and Easy Foods: Every healthy kitchen needs a good supply of foods that make it easy to make a healthy meal fast—for example, whole grain wheat, rice, or corn tortillas; whole grain and sprouted grain breads; and whole grain wheat, rice, or corn pasta. Marinara sauce and jarred tomato sauce or tomato paste are great for quick meals. If you like dried cereals, make sure they are whole grain (look for the word “whole” in the ingredient list; otherwise it’s refined), and avoid refined sweeteners.
- Baking Items: Nothing is more heart- and hearth-warming than homemade baked goods. Have you ever gotten to a certain stage of a recipe only to find you are missing an ingredient? How frustrating! So it helps to keep plenty of vanilla, baking soda, baking powder, and other baking ingredients on hand.
- Unusual Items: Many healthy recipes have an ingredient or two that are available only online or at a natural foods grocery. For example, nutritional yeast and coconut milk may or may not be available at your local grocery. Vegetarian egg replacer is another hard-to-find item for your healthy kitchen. You may also consider stocking things like carob powder, carob chips, stevia, and unsweetened shredded coconut. Other unusual items include vegetarian Worcestershire sauce, vegetarian oyster sauce, wasabi powder, nori sheets, and powdered kelp.