Having a little trouble with the whole healthy-cooking thing? Not quite sure what belongs on your kitchen shelves and what deserves to be banished? No wonder. In our wacky food world, examples of well-merchandised junk tend to outnumber actual food products several thousand to one. Colorful snack “novelties” beckon from grocery store aisles and office vending machines, and fast-food “value meals” lurk around nearly every corner.
Although it may seem convenient to load up on ready-to-eat treats or to grab takeout on the way home, the act of preparing healthy and delicious meals in your own kitchen is not nearly as time consuming as most people think. The key to success? A properly stocked pantry.
Joyce Hendley, MS, an editor at EatingWell magazine and coauthor of The EatingWell Diet, comes home to a hungry family every day, so she knows all too well the temptation to pick up a bucket of fried chicken on her way home from work.
“The biggest barrier to eating healthfully is not having time to plan. Most of us don’t know what we’re having for dinner until late in the afternoon, and by then, we’re usually getting hungry and our judgment starts to go south,” says Hendley. “Having a well-stocked pantry is the best defense strategy, because it means you always have great options for what your fallback meals are going to be.”
To determine the best foods for flexible and impromptu cooking, we interviewed a veritable who’s-who of the food world — Hendley, as well as chefs Sara Moulton, Mollie Katzen and Nina Simonds, and food columnist Russ Parsons — and rounded out the list with our own suggestions.
Some of the items may already be staples in your pantry, while others, like Thai curry pastes and dried mushrooms, may seem a bit more exotic. But all the items on our list are there for the same purpose: to make it easier for you to conveniently prepare healthy and delicious meals for you and your family.
Back from the grocery store? Here are some good tips to organize — and make the most of — your bounty:
- Once you have a set inventory of staples, use a dry-erase board to note when something is used up.
- Buy or recycle some small containers to store spices, and buy only small amounts in bulk for freshness.
- Keep grains in tightly sealed glass jars (in case a few sneaky bugs hatch, they won‘t spread).
- Keep onions and garlic in a hanging wire basket, or loose in a drawer, so air circulates around them.
- Keep potatoes in a cool, dark place, away from the onions and garlic — they’ll all keep longer.
- If you have an egg keeper in the door of the fridge, ignore it. Too much air circulation ages the eggs, so leave them in their box and stash on a lower shelf.
- Clearly label and date everything in the freezer. Never put open food items or cut produce in fridge drawers without bagging or packing in a reusable container.
- To quickly thaw freezer items, select ones that are in smaller pieces, like shrimp or scallops, instead of whole chickens and large cuts that take hours to thaw. Also, if you store your own spaghetti sauce or soup, pack it in zip-top bags and lay it flat on its side to freeze in a thin sheet for easy stacking and thawing.
- Chopping garlic too time consuming? Mollie Katzen relies on a store-bought garlic purée, which she freezes in teaspoon-size portions.
With a properly stocked dry-goods cupboard, you can craft entire meals without so much as peering into the fridge or freezer. Here are some essentials in a few different categories:
- Pasta (various whole-grain, soba and rice noodles)
- Rice (basmati, Arborio,sushi, wild)
- Quinoa, oats, millet
- Lentils and dried, ready-to-eat bean mixes
- Canned beans (refried beans, black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, cannellini beans)
- Dried mushrooms (porcini, shiitake, maitake)
- Sun-dried tomatoes, canned whole tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste
- Bottled artichoke hearts
- Jarred peppers (piquillo peppers, roasted red peppers, chipotle peppers in adobo)
- Canned and pickled beets
- Water-packed canned fruits
- Mandarin oranges
- Dried cranberries and apricots
- Sea salt or kosher salt
- Black peppercorns
- Dried spices (cumin, chili powder, coriander, mustard seeds, red-pepper flakes, saffron, ginger, paprika, turmeric, curry blend)
- Dried herbs (basil, mint, dill, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage)
- Sesame seeds
OILS, CONDIMENTS, FLAVORINGS
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Canola oil
- Vinegars (balsamic, apple cider, red wine, rice wine, exotic flavors like mango chili and orange mango)
- Naturally brewed soy sauce
- Chili paste
- Hoisin sauce
- Thai curry pastes
- Coconut milk
- Teriyaki sauce
- Fish sauce
- Vacuum-packed miso
- Sliced pickled ginger
- Wasabi powder
- Nori and akame seaweed
- Pickled red cabbage
- Honey, agave syrup
- Real maple syrup
- Tahini paste
- Indian simmer sauces (tikka masala, vindaloo, korma, coconut curry)
- Aseptic-packed reduced-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
- Marinara and other all-natural pasta sauce blends
- Canned wild-caught salmon
- Canned sardines
- Canned anchovies
- Canned smoked oysters
- Whole-grain crackers and crispbreads
- Panko bread crumbs
- Dark chocolate bars
Executive chef of Gourmet magazine, author and star of the PBS series Sara’s Weeknight Meals:
“I really like dried mushrooms because you can soak them in liquid — water, broth or some kind of alcohol like Madeira — and then make a delicious sauce out of the strained liquid to put on top of pasta or grilled fish or chicken. I also love making quick sauces out of mayonnaise and pickled items, like chopped pepperoncini, kalamata olives and chipotles in adobo. I usually add a little lemon juice or water to thin it down and then drizzle it on as a sauce.”
An editor at EatingWell magazine and coauthor of The EatingWell Diet:
“I can sneak protein-rich, delicious refried beans into just about anything, even macaroni and cheese. It’s a great stealth health food. It’s also great in a burrito.”
“Pickled red cabbage and chowchow-type relishes liven up anything, from sandwiches to pasta to pizzas.”
“Just a drizzle of fabulous dark chocolate sauce on anything feels like a splurge.”
“We stock canned, water-packed pears and mandarin oranges, plus craisins, raisins and prunes in our pantry, so we’re never without fruit.”
Your fridge provides a stable home for all sorts of sturdy, long-lasting — and delicious — perishables. Here are the ones that keep best and play well with others:
- Whole-milk plain yogurt
- Hard cheeses (Parmesan Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, Gruyère)
- Feta or goat cheese
- Smoked salmon
- Store-bought roasted or rotisserie chicken
- Natural salami
- Tetra-packed firm silken tofu
- Free-range omega-3 eggs
- Nuts (all nuts, including almonds, pecans, pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts and pine nuts) and nut butters
- Flaxseeds, sunflower seeds
- Heat-sensitive oils (toasted sesame oil, flaxseed oil, walnut oil, pumpkinseed oil)
- Whole-grain tortillas and pita bread (these freeze, too)
- Long-lasting vegetables (sturdy greens like chard, collards, kale and mustard greens; cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, celery, beets, parsnip and green onions)
- Long-lasting fruit (pomegranates, apples, oranges, lemons, limes)
- Dijon mustard
Author of The Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without:
“I love to squeeze lemons into soups, stews, sauces and glasses of water, and I also like to garnish with them.”
“I am never without peanut butter, because when I need a pick-me-up, I can eat it as a snack on a spoon or with fruit or crackers. I also make sauces out of it for vegetables or Chinese-style noodles.”
“Whole-milk yogurt is so versatile — you can eat it with fruit and a little honey or with cut-up vegetables and a little salt and pepper, or use it as a topping for Middle Eastern salads.”
Author of How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor From Farm to Table:
“I use cornichons and olives to add that bit of tart/salty flavor ‘pop’ to what might be dull dishes. Recently, I added sliced cornichons to a roast pork sandwich, and it enhanced the dish by adding another aspect of flavor that made the sandwich taste fuller. I also made one of my wife’s favorite dishes, caramelized onion pizza with goat cheese, but I added some chopped pitted olives that really improved the dish. Peppery pastes are also great to either use as a chutney or to simply spread on croutons as a quick-and-easy bruschetta.”
The freezer is a great place for backup on all fronts. Many meats, shredded cheeses, vegetables and fruits will wait patiently there, at-the-ready, for you to toss into tasty, homemade insta-meals. Here are just a few items to stash away:
- Shrimp, clams
- Wild Alaskan salmon
- Catfish, sole or tilapia
- Chicken or turkey breasts
- Cornish hens
- Ground bison, lamb or poultry
- Pork tenderloin
- Salmon burgers
- Frozen vegetables (peas, spinach, broccoli, corn, artichokes)
- Frozen fruits (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, mangoes, peaches)
- Frozen nuts and seeds
- Sliced bread or pita
- Veggie burgers
- Ready-made whole-grain pizza crusts
- Frozen stuffed pasta (ravioli, tortellini)
Asian-food authority and author of Spices of Life: Simple and Delicious Recipes for Great Health:
“It’s fabulous what you can get these days — from great Indian sauces to fresh guacamole and pesto — at regular supermarkets. There is no reason to be eating boring bad food, or even boring healthy food.”
“I store knobs of ginger in a jar of sand so they’re always on hand to grate into dishes for a potent digestive aid that adds authentic flavor to quick Asian meals.”
“These days, properly frozen vegetables are just as high in phytochemicals and vitamins as fresh, so stock up. The other day I cooked some frozen vegetables in Indian simmer sauce with leftover grilled chicken to make an instant meal.”
Quick Pantry Meals
Satisfying food can be simple, especially if you learn how to coax the best flavor from your ingredients. Here are a few ideas for fast, healthy pantry meals:
Whatever’s-in-the-Fridge Frittata. Joyce Hendley creates a delicious egg breakfast, lunch or dinner with sautéed onion, four eggs and two egg whites, and leftover veggies, cheese or meats, and herbs.
Mediterranean Pantry Pasta. Sara Moulton combines cooked linguine, sautéed onion and garlic, sage, sun-dried tomatoes, white wine, canned cannellini beans, chicken stock, and pitted kalamata olives.
Quick Curry. Nina Simonds heats Indian simmer sauces with vegetables, cooked meats or fish, or tofu; makes a cooling raita of Greek yogurt, cumin, and a few dried chili flakes; and pairs the entire meal with basmati rice.
Minestrone Au Pistou. Simonds also heats high-quality canned or store-prepared minestrone with homemade stir-fried vegetables, and swirls in pesto.
Lentil Soup. Combine a can of lentils with a cup or two of free-range chicken broth, bring to a simmer and add chopped scallions, veggies and a dash of red-pepper flakes. Serve with a dollop of yogurt or a drizzle of flavored oil.
Stuffed Piquillo Peppers. Russ Parsons makes a light tuna salad and stuffs it in piquillo peppers.
Japanese noodles. Toss together soba noodles, sesame oil, rice vinegar, soy sauce, peanut butter, sesame seeds, shredded nori seaweed, pickled ginger, tofu or smoked salmon, and pickled beets.
Greek Pasta Salad. Mollie Katzen cooks tiny pasta shells and adds canned garbanzo beans, chopped fresh arugula, feta, dried tomatoes and olive oil.
Thai Couscous. Heat a can of coconut milk with green or red Thai curry paste, cauliflower or broccoli florets, and frozen shrimp, and serve it over whole-wheat couscous or rice. For more color and crunch, add diced carrots to the mix.
- Canned sardines, anchovies and salmon all work in salads and are a great way to get your omega-3s
- For an icy smoothie, drop frozen berries straight into the blender with yogurt, soy milk or juice. A little ginger adds zing.
- Heat up garbanzo beans and frozen vegetables in some Indian simmer sauce, and you’ve got Indian takeout — without going anywhere.