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How to Stock a Healthy Kitchen
Here's a New Year's resolution worth sticking to: Take inventory of your pantry, fridge and freezer and then banish any no-nos, replenish good-for-you items and stock up on all the healthy ingredients discussed below. Even if you already follow a healthy, wholesome diet most of the time, you can benefit by giving your shopping habits and routine a careful once over so you can start off the year with a clean slate.
Better Basics: 14 + Essentials for a Healthy Pantry
With a well-stocked pantry, healthy and delicious meals are always within easy reach.
- Whole grains: Oats, barley, wheat berries, bulgur wheat, farro, freekeh and more are the basis of breakfast porridges, grain salads, and delicious side dishes. Rice is a whole category to itself, but if you are looking for the most nutritional variety, stick with brown, which offers more fiber than other varieties, including basmati, jasmine, Arborio (for risotto) and sushi rice (the starchiest). Though technically not a grain, quinoa is used that way and is available in white, black or red varieties. Buy grains in bulk when possible to save money and ensure freshness.
- Beans and legumes: Beans and lentils add heft to soups, stews, salads, casseroles, you name it. Dried beans make economical options, but it's hard to beat the convenience of canned beans. Look for no-salt or low-sodium varieties, preferably in non-BPA cans. Chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, black-eyed peas, soybeans and lima beans are all fairly easy to find. When it comes to quick-cooking lentils (no soaking required), stick to dried; you'll find many varieties to choose from, including regular brown, tiny green (dePuy), black and red lentils, as well as similar yellow split peas.
- Heart-healthy oils: Extra-virgin olive oil is an excellent all-purpose oil. Neutral-tasting oils such as safflower, sunflower, grapeseed, and canola are your go-to oils for high-temperature cooking and also in baking. Dark sesame oil and nut oils lend flavor.
- Vinegars: Red wine, white wine, and champagne vinegars are the workhorses of the kitchen, while cider, sherry vinegar and balsamic have more pronounced flavors. Use them in vinaigrettes and other salad dressings, dips and spreads, really anytime you need a kick, including in certain dessert recipes. Lemon juice serves the same purpose.
- Canned fish: Anchovies, tuna, sardines and mackerel are all protein-rich additions to salads, spreads, sandwiches, pizzas, pastas and more. Watch the sodium count and buy those that are packed in water or extra-virgin olive oil. Salt-packed anchovies can be rinsed off, leaving them less salty than those packed in oil.
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, and pecans make healthy snacks out of hand or can be sprinkled on salads, added to homemade granola and muesli or baked into muffins or other wholesome treats. Same goes for pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds and sesame seeds. Nut and seed butters are also worth keeping around for sandwich spreads and also using in cooking (think Asian noodles).
- Canned tomatoes: With even more lycopene than fresh tomatoes, canned tomatoes are an excellent year-round option. They're also a must for making lusty tomato sauces to toss with pasta, spread over pizza dough or to accompany meats and vegetables in a range of dishes. Canned tomatoes are also used in soups and stews. As with all canned goods, read the label for sodium counts. The less processed the tomatoes, the better the quality of the tomatoes; choose whole peeled tomatoes over crushed unless you trust the brand. Tomato paste is a shortcut to depth of flavor and body; avoid store-bought tomato sauces, which often contain added sugar (and flavorings).
- Whole-grain pasta and noodles: Whole-wheat pasta has more fiber and less starch than that made with white flour, and you can also find brands that supplement pasta with protein. When choosing Asian noodles, stick with soba that's made with 100 percent buckwheat and brown-rice noodles. Not all gluten-free pasta is the same; for the best bet, buy pasta made from lentils, quinoa or brown rice (and skip the kinds made from corn or white rice).
- Broth: Low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth can be purchased in cartons, making them convenient for storing in the fridge once opened.
- Seasonings: These go a long way to building flavor, instead of relying on salt and fat. Make coarse or sea salt and whole peppercorns that can be freshly ground your default seasonings. While fresh herbs are always the best option flavorwise, certain dried herbs like bay leaves, dried oregano, crumbled sage and thyme are convenient throughout the year. Cayenne and other chile powders add fiery kicks, while cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, coriander and ground ginger can be used in sweet and savory cooking, as can fennel seeds and anise seeds. Cumin, paprika, mustard seeds, curry powder, turmeric, saffron, sumac and regional blends like ras el hanout and za'atar make it possible to cook a range of ethnic dishes. Pure vanilla extract (or whole vanilla beans) is naturally sweet and fragrant and can be stirred into plain yogurt (rather than buying the sweetened products) and baked into all kinds of wholesome sweets.
- Natural sweeteners: Honey and maple syrup are better options than refined sugar, as is coconut sugar, raw (turbinado) sugar and dark-brown sugar. Because these are all flavorful, to begin with, you can get away with using less than white sugar, too. Stevia and sugar alcohols like xylitol are also sweeter than regular sugar and they don't actually contain any sugars.
- Wholesome flours: White flour has less fiber and nutrients than flours made with whole grains, including whole wheat, rye, oat, and buckwheat. You can also use nut flours like almond flour, and hazelnut meal in place of grain flours. Coconut flour is yet another healthy option.
- Condiments: Mustards (Dijon and grainy) are essential for vinaigrettes and some sauces, and makes a low-fat dip or sandwich spread on its own. Asian fish sauce, miso, chile sauce, low-sodium soy sauce (preferably tamari), curry paste and Worcestershire sauce all add tons of flavor and no fat (but watch the sodium!).
- Storage vegetables: Garlic, shallots, and white or yellow onions can all be kept in a cupboard or other dark, dry place and used to build flavor into practically any savory preparation, from vinaigrettes to warming stews.
- Satisfying snacks (optional): Rice crackers, corn tortillas and chips, spelt or kamut breadsticks or pretzels and dried fruit (raisins, apricots, apples, and prunes) and dark chocolate are much better when you have an energy slump than sugary treats.
- Sea vegetables (bonus): Japanese seaweed, such as wakame, nori, hijiki, and dulse are among the most nutrient-packed foods you can find, and they are now more easily found than ever (even at large supermarkets). You can prepare them according to the package instructions, or simply toast them (optional) and eat as a snack, or crumble into salads, soups, roasted vegetables and much more.
Pick up these perishable items as needed to round out the pantry basics, above. Always buy organic eggs, poultry, meat and dairy products when possible, as these will be raised without hormones and antibiotics.
- Eggs: It's worth paying more for eggs that are pasture-raised or at least free-range; you can now find eggs that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids (among other nutrients), too.
- Fish and seafood: Wild salmon, tuna, and trout are all rich in heart-healthy fatty acids, as are shrimp and oysters. Other sustainable fish such as halibut, cod, red snapper, grouper, and flounder are other good options.
- Chicken and turkey: The breast meat is much lower in saturated fat and calories than dark meat. You can also buy ground turkey instead of beef for making burgers, chili and meat sauces, and sausages made from turkey or chicken rather than pork. Watch out for cooked cold cuts, which can be high in sodium and contain additives. Better to buy fresh poultry and cook it yourself.
- Beef and other meats: Eaten in moderation, beef, lamb, pork, and veal can be included in a healthy diet. Opt for leaner cuts, like flank steak rather than a well-marbled rib eye and ground sirloin instead of chuck. Pork tenderloin is very lean, too.
- Tofu: Water-packed tofu is available in silken, firm and extra-firm varieties, depending on what you plan to use it in. Silken tofu is a great way to add protein to smoothies, while extra-firm tofu holds up well when broiling or grilling. Firm tofu is good for stir-frying and dicing and adding to salads or sandwiches.
- Plain yogurt and/or kefir
- Low-fat or skim milk
- Unsweetened soy milk, almond milk or other non-dairy milk
- Unsalted cultured butter
- Low-fat cottage cheese
- Fresh cheese, such as goat cheese and part-skim mozzarella
- Grating cheese, such as Parmesan and pecorino Romano
Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
- Shop seasonally: In general, buy whatever is in season, when it's in season, as the flavor and nutritional quality of these fruits and vegetables will be at their best. If it's not in season, you can buy certain types of frozen fruit or vegetables (if you want the antioxidants of berries or the convenience of frozen peas, spinach, and edamame, for instance); because they are flash-frozen at their peak, frozen fruits and vegetables have been shown to retain all or most of the nutrients as when just harvested.
- Buy organic: Whenever possible, it pays to purchase fresh produce that has been grown without harmful pesticides, and this especially important for the so-called dirty dozen. For a list of all 48 fruits and vegetables that have been found to have pesticide residue, click here; this way you can make informed decisions about when it's worth seeking out (and paying more for) organic products. It pays to know the produce on the Clean 15 list, too, for the same reason.
- Eat the rainbow: Color can be an indication of the specific nutrients in a fruit or vegetable, so eat a variety to make sure you are getting the full spectrum of nutrients. Think red berries, cherries, ruby red grapefruit, beets, red peppers and potatoes, rhubarb and tomatoes; oranges, cantaloupe, carrots, peaches, yellow and orange peppers, sweet potatoes and winter squash; kale, spinach, collards, arugula and other greens, plus broccoli, green beans, brussels sprouts (among so many more); blueberries, blackberries, Concord grapes and purple carrots, potatoes and peppers. Don't overlook white and brown vegetables, too, including cauliflower, pears, kohlrabi, mushrooms, onions, parsnips, and white potatoes. For a helpful chart that explains what each color offers to your health, click here.
In need of some delicious motivation? Try this recipe for a hearty, warming chili that uses canned beans and other pantry basics. It's guaranteed to boost your mood and your health.