There is no better time than now to take a look at our pantries- and see if they need a makeover! To start this off, we are going to use the term pantry loosely; meaning that this is going to include your fridge, freezer, those weird cupboards in the kitchen, and your actual pantry. Now this list is most definitely not limited to these items, but in my own belief, these are great items to always have on hand. The age old question is “What should we have for dinner tonight?” Well, with a pantry stocked with these few items, I think anyone can manage to whip something up in no time. If you aren’t very comfortable in the kitchen or don’t think you can cook well, here is great place to start. Gather these ingredients, find some recipes that intrigue you, and get to cooking. A major belief of mine is that healthy and delicious cooking comes only with kitchen confidence. With some time exploring with new ingredients and a little success with delicious dishes, I am positive that healthy, home-cooked meals will continue to follow. So without further ado, here is my list of the top 10 pantry essentials.
Grains are a great base for any meal; whether it is breakfast or dinner. Yes, I know that Grains is a very broad term for this list, which is why I chose to put it first. Now we all know that eating whole grains is more beneficial to our health, but why? Well whole grain means exactly that. The grain can be divided into three different parts, which includes the bran, germ, and endosperm. Products that are refined, not whole grain, are processed without the bran and germ. This means that there is decreased fiber, iron, and B vitamins. Most refined grains are enriched then to include many of those nutrients that are lost in processing. According to MyPlate, at least half of our grains should be whole grains. Whole grains which are processed with the entire grain, are great sources for magnesium, selenium, dietary fiber, folate, B vitamins, and iron. It might be difficult for many people who are used to refined grains to incorporate whole grains, but there are plenty of products in the market that don’t necessarily taste like cardboard. We’ve actually come a pretty long way since that. If completely switching over isn’t in your cards, then you can start out by changing to whole grain bread, then maybe to doing half and half pasta, and trying out different grains other than white rice or pearled barley.
There are many different types of grains which include breads, pasta, rice, barley, quinoa, etc. I know it seems daunting to start cooking with some grain that you’ve never used, much less can pronounce, but you might find something that you really love. I encourage you to use Google and find out the exact ratios and cooking times for specific grains, even I forget most of the time. Try making some quinoa salads to bring to work with you, or substitute some barley for dinner instead of white rice. For breakfast, you can start making things on toast, which I absolutely love. I use a sprouted whole grain bread, add some ripe avocado, an egg over easy, some spices, herbs, and red onion. It is the perfect start to my day that keeps me going and keeps me full. Just like I stated earlier, there are many different types of grains, but as long as you have an open mind and keep some in stock in your pantry, you’ll be able to create some nutritious meals.
Having stock on hand at all times is extremely valuable; honestly, it’s uses are numerous. You can utilize it as a base for soup, to create a multitude of sauces, when cooking grains to provide more flavor, or just in the crockpot for stews or braised meats. When purchasing stock from the store, one thing to always be wary of is sodium content. Many of the products we see on the shelf have almost 1,000 mcg of sodium, which is approximately 40% of our daily recommended allowance! With that said, look for options that are low sodium and have no salt added. If you are feeling adventurous and want to have more control over the sodium content of your stock, then you can even make it at home. Trust me, it’s simple, easy, and cheap. All you need are some basic vegetables and scraps, fresh herbs, and meat bones (if you want a vegetable stock then just forget about the bones). Scraps or undesired pieces can be used from vegetables such as onions, carrots, celery, and garlic are typically used. Just be wary of the types of vegetable scraps you are using; sometimes certain colors will change how your stock looks and starchy vegetable scraps will make it cloudy and do not impart much flavor. All you need now are leftover herbs and roasted bones from chicken or beef. Just add cold water, in a proportion to your other products, and let simmer. Let it simmer for hours to develop good flavor and depth, and then add salt if necessary! That’s it!
Everyone knows that eggs are an excellent source of protein. But besides containing 6 g of protein in a single egg, they also contain 13 essential vitamins and minerals. These include choline, selenium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, phosphorus, and riboflavin. They are also rich in the essential amino acid leucine, which helps stimulate muscle protein synthesis. In the past, we have had some notions that eggs were not very “healthy” for us and that the cholesterol from the yolks were silent killers. However, the current research shows that dietary cholesterol does not have as much as an impact on our body’s total cholesterol, as previously thought. Now don’t think that eggs have to be limited to just breakfast, even though it is my favorite time of day to eat them. They can be hard-boiled and brought as a high protein snack to fuel you through the day, or added to a salad or sandwich. They can even be soft-boiled and added to soups like ramen or curry. Since they are only about 20 cents per egg, then just start adding them wherever you see fit. You never know if you’ll like them in something, unless you try it!
“Beans, beans, the magical fruit.” Well, unfortunately, beans are not classified as a fruit, but rather a legume; however, I do think they are pretty magical. Beans are an excellent source of fiber, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, while also being very low in fat. Since beans come from a plant, they are a great protein alternative to meat for those who are vegetarian, vegan, or just want to lower their meat consumption. They also contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, which is beneficial for gastrointestinal health and overall cholesterol levels. They are jam packed with phosphorus, magnesium, iron, copper, and manganese, which are some nutrients that most Americans do not consume enough of. In general, beans are quite magical and the inclusion of at least 3 cups per week in our diet will ensure that we meet the U.S Dietary Guidelines for Americans. If you have the time to commit, then purchasing dry beans is a quite a money-saver. A 2 lb. bag can cost less than two dollars, while a 15 oz. can could range from 1-2 dollars. All you need to do before preparing dry beans is soak them in water overnight, which will soften them and decrease their cooking time. If you just aren’t quite at that stage, then canned beans are still great. In my pantry, I keep several cans of black beans, garbanzo beans, red kidney beans, and pinto beans. A great go to meal with beans, is always going to be chili. Just take a few cans of beans, like black beans and kidney beans, make sure you rinse them off after opening, and then throw them in the crockpot with some chicken stock, diced tomatoes, and spices. The reason why I said to rinse them off is due to the high sodium content of canned beans. They are packed with the sodium to help preserve them and add some flavor, but if you just rinse them off before using them, you can actually lose about 40% of that excess sodium. You can also make some great side dishes and dips with beans. Garbanzo beans, otherwise known as chick peas, can be blended with some oil, lemon juice, tahini, and spices to for some home-made hummus. Pinto beans can also be cooked down, mashed, and re cooked with some spices and oil to make “refried beans.” You can also throw some black beans with eggs, peppers, onions, avocado, and either a tortilla shell, for a delicious and well-rounded breakfast burrito. There are so many fun different ways you can incorporate more beans into your diet, just make sure you have them on hand in your pantry, and you are good to go.
Nuts are always great to have in the pantry. They are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, omega 3 fatty acids, and protein. They also contain monounsaturated fatty acids, which help increase our HDL “good cholesterol,” and lower our LDL “bad cholesterol.” Not only are they rich in energy and nutrients, but they also impart wonderful flavor. They have a crunchy yet buttery texture, with a toastiness that only comes from nuts. You can make a delicious pesto for dinner with a handful of pine nuts or walnuts or make some banana pancakes with some pecans. I love to just throw them on top of my morning oatmeal! They add depth of flavor and a richness to each bite you take. They are also great because they are travel size and not easily perishable. Just pack a little baggie of mixed nuts and you are good to go. You can even use them at home to make your own granola for a delicious breakfast or snack to take while at the gym or in class.
While I have an arsenal of vinegars in my pantry, one or two of them on hand, can give your dish a big flavor upgrade. My typical go to vinegars are apple cider, rice, balsamic, and white wine. The choice of vinegar I use just really boils down to its application, no pun intended. The main uses I have for vinegar includes vinaigrettes, marinades, pickling, and sautéing vegetables. Making vinaigrettes are a super easy, cheap, and a healthy option, especially compared to store bought dressings. The ratio for making is 1-part vinegar or acid to 3-4 parts oil. All you have to do is whisk in the oil in a steady stream, and add any other flavors you would like. This could include honey, herbs, and spices. Besides making vinaigrettes, I love to sauté leafy greens and other vegetables in apple cider vinegar. Just a little bit of it goes a long way, imparting a tangy and acidic flavor. You can also make a homemade pasta sauce with some tomatoes, garlic, onions, and balsamic vinegar. Balsamic has a very robust and sweet flavor, and when cooked down in sauce with those other ingredients, it’s a perfect addition to some whole wheat pasta and fresh basil. While these are just a few ways to use vinegars, there are thousands of recipes online for quick pickling or delicious marinades. With just a couple of different vinegars in your pantry, you are bound to wow with whatever you make.
HAND FRUIT of CHOICE
The title of this pantry item is a little strange, but it really just means, have some type of fruit on hand at all times. You do not need to have every type of fresh fruit in your pantry, but it is beneficial to have at least one. We are always on the go, running around and doing errands, and getting important vitamins and nutrients can sometimes go forgotten. In case you didn’t know, eating a variety of colors is beneficial to our health, as different colors correlate to different vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Orange and dark leafy green foods are high in beta-carotene which benefit our immune system, vision, and skin and bone health. Red foods, like tomatoes, red peppers, and watermelon, contain lycopene which is beneficial for prostate cancer and heart health. Many leafy greens also contain lutein which supports eye and heart health. Blue or purple foods contain anthocyanin, which helps with memory and aging. As you can tell, eating a rainbow of colors is beneficial for our overall health. Having that fresh fruits available is just one way you can actively think about eating the rainbow and getting the nutrients you need.
I would like to think that I have an upper hand when working with different spices when cooking. Going to culinary school allowed for me to explore a multitude of cuisines and experience spices from throughout the world. That ability to work with these spices, that I had otherwise never known about, has given me the knowledge to create delicious dishes full of flavor. In our kitchens today, those spices we are usually pretty limited, and that is mostly from a lack of knowing flavor profiles and application, but also from our dependence on salt. So many of us have a taste preference that is attuned to saltiness. However, our food doesn’t need to be laden with salt to be delicious. I urge you to try out new spices and research on how to use them; just really see the things you like. There is also a book that I recommend called the Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. This book is a little intimidating and confusing, however, it can teach you a lot about flavor profiles and how to pair spices, all of which without the addition of salt.
Not only do spices expand our palette, but they also provide a variety of health benefits. They contain essential oils, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. While they all have some different properties, they mostly have the same benefits. These include anti-inflammatory properties, blood flow stimulation and blood pressure regulation, ease of gastrointestinal distress and digestion, and many more. All these spices can be purchased whole and you can grind them yourself, however, this form is usually more expensive. If I know that I like to use to whole, then that is the form I purchase it in, but if not, then buying them already ground is perfectly fine. Just make sure you store them in airtight containers and keep them out of direct sunlight so that they don’t oxidize and become rancid. Otherwise, just have fun with it!
FROZEN FRUITS and VEGETABLES
I absolutely love having a bunch of frozen fruit and vegetables stocked up in my freezer. It is a great way to save money and always have something to cook with. You can also freeze your own produce as well. If you notice something that might be going bad, or you know that you won’t be able to utilize something, then just package it in freezer bags yourself, label and date them, and store them for later. You can also do this with items that are seasonal. What I do during the summer is load up on delicious strawberries and then pack them away for the year. Whenever I want to make a smoothie or jam, or just have some delicious strawberries on the side of my pancakes, then I can just take them out of the freezer and they are just as fresh as the day I picked them. There may be some negative connotations with purchasing frozen, but it just isn’t true. Fruits and vegetables that are frozen have been picked at their peak ripeness. With little processing, they go from the farm to the package. This means great flavor and high nutritional value. If you are always busy and don’t necessarily have a lot of time to prepare a bunch of vegetables for dinner, then you can open up a bag of frozen vegetables and stir fry them up in a second. Frozen produce is an excellent source to make sure you are consuming the recommended intake of 2 servings of fruit and 2-3 servings of vegetables per day.
Last, but not least: oil! To me, oil is a very necessary staple in my kitchen. But before I get into some uses, here is just a little bit of some important information on oil. They are fats that are liquid at room temperature. Some of the most common ones are vegetable, canola, olive, sunflower, safflower, and soybean. Most oils are high in monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, and low in saturated fat. However, some plant oils are very high in saturated fats, meaning they are solid are room temperature. Also, knowing the ratio of monounsaturated fat (MUFA) to polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) is key when deciding which oil to use in a particular dish. That ratio is relevant to understanding the smoking point of that oil when cooking, which is important to retaining the overall health and flavor of it. When oils are cooked to or past their smoking point, they begin to produce free radicals and other harmful fumes. Therefore, different oil types should be used in for different applications. For instance, extra virgin olive oil, which has great flavor and richness to it, has a very low smoking point with a high ratio of MUFAs to PUFAs; this means that it is much better used as a dressing or finish for a dish, rather than being used to cook with. On the other hand, flaxseed oil holds up excellent to heat due to its ratio of 73% PUFAs to 18% MUFAs. Now, everything I make is cooked with some type of oil, whether it is canola or sesame. I use it for making dressings and marinades, but I mostly use it for actual cooking. A serving size is 1 teaspoon, so when cooking, I use about 3 servings which is 1 tablespoon. This is normally enough to coat the pan I am using or enough to coat the vegetables I roast in the over. The amount to use is subjective to the dish, however, there is a such a thing as too much. Unless you are shallow frying something, your vegetables shouldn’t be drowning in oil. With more experience and time in the kitchen, you will get a feel for how much a dish requires.
Below are some resources to learn some more nutrition information on some of these products and also some links to help you continue to build your perfect pantry!
Let's Move! STL Dietitians