5 Pantry Staples Every Kitchen Should Have
Taking control of what you eat begins with taking control of what you buy. Making sure you’re stocked up on some basic, nutrient-dense foods, like the ones I’m listing here, mean you’ve always got some basics on hand for some Positively Healthy meals – some of these work great as the basis for the meal others take a simple meal and crank them up to the next level. Because these foods have long shelf lives, you can stock up when they’re at their best prices, saving on your grocery bill as well.
1. Beans – dried and/or canned
Dried beans of different varieties will give you the most bang for your buck, but I realize the time involved in soaking and cooking them means you definitely have to plan ahead. But when you do plan, you’ll find that cooking them is overall a pretty easy thing. So try keeping a nice variety on hand for those times you do plan ahead. For the times you don’t, canned beans are a great alternative. Chickpeas/Garbanzo beans and pintos are a couple I tend to always keep on hand. Adzuki, when you can find them, are a great one for when you want something a little different. And while not a personal favorite, black beans are another popular choice. As with canned products in general though, be aware of sodium content. You can eliminate a lot of the added salt by rinsing canned beans before using them, or look for low-sodium options in the store.
Chickpeas can be used to make hummus, seasoned and roasted for a crunch snack item, tossed in salads or cooked up in a variety of dishes. A study not too long ago concluded that adults who ate 3 cups of chickpeas a week cut both total and “bad” LDL cholesterol.
One of my favorite side dishes to cook up is saute some chopped onion, add in a can of rinsed and drained pinto beans, a chopped jalapeno or too and then simmer that over low heat – adding back just enough water to keep the beans from drying out. Simmer until warmed – if you cook them a bit longer until they start to soften you can mash up some of the beans for a variation on re-fried beans.
2. Canned Tomatoes
Tomatoes have lots of great nutrients in them, and the cooking process seems to only enhance their nutritional profile. I keep a variety of diced and petite diced tomatoes on hand, usually picking a few cans here and there when they go on sale. Again, being canned you want to be careful of the sodim content, but since I don’t eat these as is, but rather as an ingredient in larger dishes, that can help mitigate a lot of that issue. Look for organic options, and those packed in either glass or other containers that aren’t using linings with BPA in them.
Diced tomatoes make it very easy to add a great burst of flavor to lots of different dishes…. try tossing a can in with that bean dish I mentioned above. Or, sautee that onion and toss in a bunch of spinach or chopped kale and cook till wilted, then stir in a can of diced tomatoes, use Italian seasoned ones or unseasoned and add your own – portion this out in to some ramakins, making a small well in the center of each one. Crack an egg in to the well and then bake at 350 for about 20-25 minutes until the egg is set. You can cook the bulk of this up ahead of time and just add the egg and back for an easy dinner or brunch item.
While we’re talking canned tomatoes and the whole sodium thing – if you’re a huge label reader like I am, you may notice a pretty significant difference in the sodium content between tomato sauce and tomato paste. Tomato paste is essentially tamoto sauce that’s been cooked down to reduce it to a paste. I’m not sure why they don’t see a need to add the huge amount of sodium that the canners seem to do with sauce. There can be a noticible flavor difference between sauce and paste, but if you are going to be using it something you are cooking anyways – go for the paste vs the sauce and just add your own liquid back to it (water, broth, wine, whatever… depending on the overall dish). Going back to that bean dish above, a couple tablespoons of tomato paste can add some really great tomato flavor without adding the liquid you would get from diced tomatoes or tomato sauce. In stews and chilis, the cooked flavor of the paste can be a good thing.
3. Whole Grains
The fiber found in whole grains can be of great benefit to those looking for natural ways to help control their cholesterol. The heartiness of the grains make for a filling meal, and the versatility means you can enjoy them morning, noon and night. If you’ve read anything on my blog here, you’ll already know I’m a big fan of quinoa. But that’s not the only grain I keep on hand – right now in no particular order I have steel cut oats, amaranth, wheat berries, freekeh, ferro, brown rice, wild rice, as well as three different varieties of quinoa. Try to store your grains in a cool, dry location. Many of them are effected by heat, light and moisture. If you have room, you can even store them in the fridge.
I’ve already got a number of recipes on this site for using quinoa – and most of them can be done using other grains to really change up how a dish tastes… or better yet, try using a mix of differnt grains together. Not all can be cooked together, so sometimes you may have a bit more work up front – but I’ll often put a pot of grains on the stove to simmer while doing other cooking – using some of them with that current mean and tossing the rest in the fridge or portioning it out and freezing for later use. Do this a couple times and you’ll have a nice selection of grains to mix together in a salad or other side dish.
One of my favorite breakfasts is a porridge made with steel cut oats and anywhere from one to three other grains mixed in. And if you’re making tacos or sloppy joes or similar style dish that makes use of ground beef, you can extend that meat by adding in some cooked whole grains before seasoning. Using a larger grain, like wheat berries or brown rice can give you a texture that goes well with the ground meat. And by doing this, you don’t have to worry as much about the cost and spend the extra money for that grass fed beef, because you can use half as much for each meal.
Beets have been getting a LOT of attention in recent years. They are packed with antioxidants that can help protect against cancer and heart disease. I love buying a variety of beets and other root veggies, cubing them up, tossing in some olive oli, seasoning and roasting in the oven. With summer coming, you can cut whole beets in slices, brush with olive oil and grill. But when it comes to the pantry, keep some canned or pickled beets on hand and they’re super easy to add as a side dish, or use in your salad. Top some spring greens, or baby kale or baby spinach with some sliced beets, crumble on some feta or a goat cheese, add some sliced red onion and maybe some chopped walnuts or cashews and then drizzle on a nice balsamic vinagrette.
5. Nuts and Seeds
Unless you plan on making your own nut butter, I suppose these wouldn’t work as the main ingredient for a meal, but a sprinkle of nuts on a salad or cooked side dish can really add some depth of flavor. And don’t go just for the basics, walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds (tho I do keep those on hand!), reach for some different ones next time your in the store. Pistachio, cashews, and pepitos (pumpkin seeds), are others I frequently keep on hand.
Aside from the things I already mentioned, sprinkle some on top of a soup or chili, or try chopping up the nuts, mixing with some whole wheat bread crumbs and using that for coating some fish or chicken. Mix some in to your morning porridge. Even adding as few as 7-9 whole nuts to your daily diet can have a positive impact on the health of your brain; improving balance, coordination and memory. It’s thought the antioxidants in nuts help strengthen neural connections and improve cognitive skills. Just be mindful of portions – a serving is 1-2 tablespoons, cause while they contain healthy fats, if you get carried away, the amount of calories will add up quickly.
I’m also going to throw three others in this group of seeds – chia, flax and hemp. All three of these have some great benefits to your health thanks to their balance of omega fatty acids. Flax seeds need to be ground before eating – and the oil in them is pretty volitile, so buy whole and grind your own as needed if possible (and store in the fridge), or if buying pre-ground, check for a use by date and only buy as much as you can use in the next couple months at most. Chia and hemp seeds don’t need to be ground before using, so they’re more conveneient, but end to be a bit more expensive. Hemp seeds have a really unique taste that can add some nice variet to your salads. Chia seeds when sprinkled on a salad can be reminiscent of seaseme seeds.
I’ve got a few more things I tend to always keep on hand, but these five will give you a good variety, some great nutritional benefits, and just ass importantly, all taste great. So add these to your shopping list, and maybe let me know about some of your favorites and how you use them in the comments below.