Although they look appetizing and may even taste great, restaurant take-out and grocery-store prepared meals are often full of unnecessary sugar, sodium, toxic vegetable oils (such as soybean and cottonseed oil), and factory-farmed meats and dairy. We know that home-cooked meals are almost always the more nutritious option, but given our jam-packed schedules, making the time to shop and cook, (and clean up afterward!) can be daunting. Healthy home cooking inevitably involves sourcing fresh produce — something you can aim to do monthly.
Once you make the commitment to reducing your consumption of take-out and prepared meals, a cabinet or pantry full of flavorful and nutrient-dense non-perishables will make cooking at home quicker and more manageable.
- Oils: Extra-virgin olive oil is a pantry staple for good reason; its health benefits and versatility make it a go-to choice for dressings and light-heat cooking. Additional oils to keep on hand include sesame oil, for its delicate, excellent flavor; avocado oil for its healthy fats and resistance to heat-induced oxidation, which makes it an excellent choice for cooking; and coconut oil, a stable fat (solid at cool temperatures) which is great for baking and for roasting vegetables or for stir-fries.
- Vinegars: Having a selection of vinegars on hand allows you to quickly dress your salads and vary the taste of your salad from day-to-day. Try apple cider vinegar, a healthy favorite with a rich flavor, as well as a good quality balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, and champagne vinegar.
- Sea salt, herbs and spice blends: High quality salts and herb blends can quickly make any meal shine. There are many advantages to natural salts vs. chemical table salt (NaCl), not to mention the allure of the taste and texture options from salts such as flaky Maldon sea salt, Himalayan pink rock salt, French fleur de sel and sel gris. Use a mortar and pestle to grind your salt with herb blends such as Herbs de Provence to flavor fish or chicken, or Garam Masala for Indian-style vegetables. Bring home herbal blends from your travels or from specialty stores to remind you of meals savored abroad. Popular blends include Chinese Five Spice Mix; Middle Eastern Za’atar; and of course, a variety of curries, which include the antioxidant-rich turmeric.
- Seeds and nuts: For a deliciously crunchy topping for salads and soups try toasting magnesium-rich pumpkin seeds in the oven or sautéing them in coconut oil or olive oil. Omega-3-rich walnuts are excellent for a quick protein-packed snack; almonds and pecans are also great raw or toasted for added crunch and flavor on salads and main courses, or for on-the-go snacking.
- Beans and Legumes: French or Beluga lentils have a delicate flavor and are relatively quick-cooking for a soup or a protein source to add to salads. Dried or canned cannellini beans or garbanzo beans can be used to add protein to a salad or to whip up a bean salad. Blended with garlic, olive oil and herbs and/or tahini and lemon juice, white beans make a great dip.
- Nut and seed butters: Almond butter, cashew butter, tahini, and sunflower seed butter (aka sunbutter) are a convenient and quick snack when spread on sliced apple or gluten free crackers; one tablespoon or two adds a tasty protein hit to smoothies. Tahini and lemon juice make an easy salad dressing or dip.
- Tomato and anchovy pastes add bold flavor to sauces and soups and keep indefinitely in the fridge, once opened.
- Asian fish sauce, wheat-free tamari and coconut aminos can be used to make a quick stir fry (with coconut and/or sesame oil) before those formerly fresh veggies in the fridge start to sag.
- When purchasing ketchups, look for corn syrup-free versions and/or no or low sugar options (such as Sir Kensington brand) and seek out mayonnaises with the best quality oils available, such as Primal Kitchen, made with avocado oil.
- Coconut milk adds a richness and creaminess to soups, stews and curries, and can be used for a simple dessert with fresh fruit or blended into smoothies for heft and taste. With all canned foods, look for BPA-free linings such as Native Forest coconut milk.
- Unsweetened canned pumpkin is a great addition to smoothies and baked goods and can be used in soups and stews for a smooth and delicious taste and texture.
- Canned wild salmon or sardines make a quick meal when blended with lemon juice and olive oil to add to a salad or they can be mashed and turned into patties with chopped onion to be sautéed for dinner. Although mercury can be a concern, canned line-caught tuna on occasion is also a great addition to salads when you need a quick hit of protein and don’t have any fresh fish or meat in the house.
- Almond flour is a delicious and protein-rich ingredient for grain-free baking; although it cannot be substituted cup-for-cup for wheat flour, there are many great cookbooks and online resources for almond flour baking, such as Elana’s Pantry.
- Coconut flour is naturally sweet and full of healthy fiber and fats; it soaks up moisture in recipes and is used sparingly in baked goods — so a little goes a long way.
- For thickening gravies, sauces, and for baked goods, arrowroot flour and tapioca flour are excellent alternatives to cornstarch, which is refined and processed and offers zero nutritional benefit.
- Baking powder is essential for most baked goods; look for aluminum-free brands such as Bob’s Red Mill.
- Unsweetened cacao powder makes a lovely hot beverage with nut milk or adds flavor to a protein shake or smoothie. Enjoy Life makes allergen-free mini chocolate chips which add sweetness to no-sugar desserts such as pumpkin muffins or zucchini quick breads.
- Sweeteners: pure maple syrup and raw honey are your best option for sweeteners in small amounts. If you haven’t tried the herbal sweetener stevia yet, you can buy it in liquid or powdered form to be used in very small amounts for baking or to sweeten smoothies, chia seed puddings and other desserts.
Frozen Pantry Items:
- For super nutrition and gut-healing benefits, incorporate Bone Broth into your routine; it can be purchased frozen from a variety of online vendors and some specialty butchers and shops; heat on the stove for a simple soup with leftovers or veggies and keep in the fridge to make sauces and gravies.
- Fruit: frozen berries, cherries, and peeled, sliced bananas can make any healthy breakfast smoothie delicious and also make a great dessert, topped with canned coconut milk.
- Grassfed butter: keep Kerrygold brand butter on hand for your dose of healthy fats and to improve the taste of almost anything. Savor the taste of summer by making your own herb butters with chopped fresh herbs mashed into grass-fed butter and stored in an ice cube tray or other small container. Use the butter to sauté vegetables, cook fish or meats, or as a dressing on cooked dishes.
- Frozen green peas offer a simple way to add color and flavor to grain salads, stews or to make a simple side dish with herbed butter (see below) or olive oil and flaky salt.
- Store grass-fed meats, pastured chicken and wild salmon and seafood in your freezer so you can defrost and make a protein-rich meal with a bit of planning-ahead. Niman Ranch for meats and Vital Choice for seafood offer online shopping and excellent quality.