To start taking charge of your health you need to change your habits and behaviors. A great place to start is your kitchen. If your kitchen pantry is stocked with high quality, nutritious ingredients, you are almost guaranteed to serve a healthy meal or snack. It also helps to have these areas steam-lined and organized so you can find things quickly and easily. This helps prevent overbuying or realizing halfway through a recipe that you are out of a key ingredient.
Stocking a healthy kitchen can be expensive to do all at once. It can be done gradually. Just add 2-3 items each week, or when you use up a “not so healthy” item, replace it with a healthier alternative. Your ultimate goal is to have your kitchen stocked with foods that support, not undermine, your health. Remember — You are not sacrificing your favorite foods, you are just upgrading them to better alternatives. Who knows, you may like the new version much better than the old one!
The first step to creating a healthy pantry is to get rid of as many unhealthy items as possible. I would recommend you do at least a big chunk of this all at once. Not only will it free up valuable space for new items, but it will help you control your cravings and late night temptations. You can box up all the items and donate them to a food drive or food pantry. If you have trouble finding a suitable place, you can bring me your box of items and I will make sure it makes it to a local food bank.
Foods or ingredients to clean out of your pantry:
Expired and Damaged items: Throw these away, you do not want to get yourself or anyone else sick
Refined/Enriched Grains: Found in white bread, white flour, white pasta, and many crackers, cookies, etc. If it doesn’t say ‘whole grain’ (ex whole wheat flour vs. just wheat flour), it’s refined. The term ‘enriched’ is also a giveaway.
Processed food: Cookies, crackers, cereals, soda, artificially flavored fruit drinks.
Artificial Colors: Most of these are chemical concoctions that have nothing natural about them. You may see the words artificial colors or see terms like ‘blue 2’, etc. These will often be found in snack foods.
Artificial sweeteners: Check your labels for aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame-k, splenda, equal, nutrasweet, etc.
Added Sugars: Avoid foods with excessive added sugars. If it has more than 8 grams of sugar (2 tsp) per serving, then it’s too much. Keep your added sugars to 20-25g or less per day (less is better). Look for sugar by the names high fructose corn syrup, sugar, dextrose, maltodextrin, sucrose, honey, etc. Don’t just check your sweet treats; also check your pasta sauces, soups, etc.
MSG: This is used to enhance flavors in many processed foods. Look for it on labels as MSG, glutamate, glutamic acid, vegetable protein extract, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, etc. This will often be found in soups, frozen dinners, etc.
Partially Hydrogenated Oils or Trans Fats: partially hydrogenated oils, margarine, shortening, etc. You will find this in packaged baked goods, crackers, breads, cookies, some peanut butters, etc.
Now that you have cleared out your space, it is time to refill the empty shelves with unprocessed, whole foods. Having these basic ingredients on hand will make it much easier for you to cook healthier. It is best to organize your pantry so at a glance you know what you have on-hand and can find items quickly. One good rule is to keep like foods on the same shelf. For example, all baking ingredients together, all pastas and rice together, all canned goods like beans and tomato paste together, etc. It is also a good idea to sort through your pantry every 6 months – toss out old, out-dated items, re-organize and replenish items that are used up or low.
Foods or ingredients to stock in your pantry:
Extra virgin olive oil & Neutral Oil such as Grapeseed:Aromatic olive oil is high in healthy monounsaturated fat and antioxidants. It is more suitable for use as a condiment than in most cooking applications. A refined oil, Grapeseed Oil’s reputation is built on its superior cooking performance. It can be brought to higher heat and has a lighter, more neutral taste profile than extra virgin olive oil.
Vinegar: A small amount of good quality vinegar can add significant flavor to a variety of dishes with very few calories and little to no fat. Basic varieties to have on hand include: red wine, white wine, rice, apple cider and balsamic.
Dijon Mustard and Reduced-Fat Mayonnaise: Great condiments to mix with proteins, grains or vegetables to make a quick salad or side dish. Avoid fat-free products as they usually have more added sugar.
Spices and Dried Herbs: Some basic ones to start: Kosher or coarse sea salt, white pepper, bay leaves, dried basil & oregano, chili powder, ground cinnamon, ground cumin, paprika (preferably Hungarian), cayenne pepper, crushed red pepper and granulated garlic. Buy in SMALL quantities. For best flavor, replace every year. Store in airtight glass jars in cool, dark location.
Canned or Boxed Low-Sodium Natural Chicken, Beef and/or Vegetable broth/stock (or better yet, your own homemade frozen stocks): Use for a quick vegetable soup, as a substitute for oil when sautéing or as added liquid for various dishes.
Canned tuna: Canned tuna is convenient, inexpensive, and healthy—it’s high in protein and vitamin D and can be a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. Look for tuna packaged in water to avoid extra calories and fat.
Canned tomatoes: Tomatoes are not only rich in flavor, they’re also full of the cancer-fighting antioxidant lycopene. Whether you choose whole, chopped, crushed, or pureed canned tomatoes, look for no-salt-added or low-sodium versions. Use for pasta sauce, stews, chili, or fajitas. Drain diced tomatoes from juice and add to chicken or fish when baking. Mix with steamed vegetables, such as green beans, asparagus, or broccoli.
Oatmeal:The nutrients in steel-cut and old-fashioned oatmeal help manage cholesterol and prevent heart disease. Thanks to oatmeal’s high fiber content, it will also keep you satisfied for hours. Mix in your favorite fruit, nut, sweetener and/or spice – cinnamon or ginger are always great choices. Also, makes a great healthy mix-in for meatloaf, meatballs and other recipe that call for breadcrumbs.
Whole-wheat pasta:While pasta suffers from the misleading bad reputation of carbs, whole-wheat pasta has a place in healthy pantries. One cup is an excellent source of fiber, manganese and selenium, and a good source of protein, thiamin, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper. Whole-wheat pastas can have nearly three times as much fiber as regular spaghetti. Since the taste can be quite pungent, the noodles are best paired with a strong flavor such as garlic and pesto.
Brown rice: Brown rice is a healthier alternative to its white counterpart because it retains the bran and the germ, which have an abundance of nutrients. Plus, it doesn’t contain wheat, making it a great choice for people with gluten intolerance.
Whole-wheat flour: Whole-wheat flour contains fewer calories and carbs, but packs more protein, calcium, insoluble fiber (fiber that helps promote healthy digestion), and other nutrients than its white counterpart.
Nuts:The large amount of protein, fiber, calcium, and other nutrients make nuts a delicious, energy-boosting snack. Look for walnuts, an unexpectedly good source of omega-3 fatty acids; pistachios, which are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids thought to benefit blood vessels; and almonds, a heart-healthy choice packed with more fiber and protein than any other nut. Nuts are calorie-dense; eat no more than 1 ounce fresh, or 2 tablespoons nut butter, a day.
Peanut butter:Opt for all-natural peanut (or other nut) butter, which has a high level of protein and monounsaturated fats. For the most nutritional choice, pick a spread containing just two ingredients—nuts and salt.
Dried Fruits: When you’re out of fresh fruit and can’t make a grocery run, dried fruits are heroes. Eat as a snack, or with salads and cereals. Because they have concentrated natural sugar, stick to sensible portions. A serving of dried fruit is one-fourth of a cup.
Beans and Lentils: They are an inexpensive excellent source of protein, fiber, and B vitamins. For the healthiest (and most affordable) option, choose dried beans. If you’re looking for a convenience item, select canned beans with no salt added or make sure to rinse them well before using. Use instead of `meat for Mexican dishes, in salad, stews, soups, and appetizers. Dry lentils are easy to prepare—just simmer for 15 minutes. Use in soups and stews. When making rice, substitute half the amount with lentils for more fiber and protein.
Whole Grain Cereal: No pantry is devoid of cereal so make yours whole. Look for the word “whole grain” in the first ingredient. For a better cereal, sugar should not be among the first three.
Dark Chocolate: For your sweet tooth, dark chocolate is a dessert rich in flavonoids, which have antioxidant capacity. Buy small, individually wrapped pieces to help with portion control. It still has calories.
Soup: Drinking soup before meals makes you feel full, eat less, and consequently helps with weight loss. You can also pair with a sandwich for a quick meal. Choose no-salt-added, broth-based, vegetable-rich soups.
Tortilla chips: In an ideal world, no one would eat chips. But that world doesn’t exist. Choose tortilla instead of regular potato chips. They have less calories and fat, and they can get you to eat a serving of vegetables—salsa! Keep your portions in check.