For those embarking on a healthier journey this year, stocking a healthy pantry might seem daunting. Don't worry about throwing everything away and starting fresh– that can be expensive and stress you out when you suddenly have all new foods in your pantry. The suggestions below will help you build your healthy pantry slowly, adding in a few new things at a time. If you are really new or not sure of how to begin, start with one new product each week. Maybe this week you make some homemade polenta, and maybe next week you make some fresh beans. Incremental changes like this make it easier to adapt new habits, and makes it so much more likely that your new foods will become new favorites.
Build your Grains: Check out your local health food store or Whole Foods Market and hit up the bulk bins. The bulk bins are often the least expensive option in the store, and it gives you the ability to try out new grains with little commitment. You can stock up on your favorite grains (my staple is brown rice) and try new grains like quinoa, millet, black rice or polenta. Now that healthier foods are becoming more accessible, it's easy to find quinoa and brown rice at any store. And if you can't find something locally, you can always order online! (Shown above is black rice and shown below is Millet Fried Rice, made with millet, veggies, soy sauce and sesame oil).
Bulk up on Beans: Beans are kinda the joke of healthy eating, but their affordability, versatility and deliciousness is no laughing matter! Beans are a cheap and easy form of vegetarian protein and one that is a foundation of a healthy pantry. My favorites are chickpeas (for hummus, salads and pastas) and we usually have a rotation of black beans, adzuki beans and a variety of lentils. To cook beans, soak overnight in more water than you think (about 4 cups/1 cup beans). Drain and rinse, then cover with fresh water. Simmer on the stove top for about half hour for chickpeas and an hour for black and other beans. Lentils cook quickly, so no need to soak them. Just rinse and cook– about 15 minutes for red lentils and 30 minutes for brown or black lentils. You can also make simple sprouts from beans! The favorite at our house is mung bean sprouts, because these are really easy to sprout and you don't need much equipment. Check out this tutorial for sprouting mung beans from No Meat Athlete and some ideas for how to use mung bean sprouts from Vegan Richa.
Add some flavor: Look to the cuisines of Japan, China, India and Thailand to find delicious flavors in your kitchen. Some of the staples of healthy cooking include quality soy sauce (watch out for corn syrup, preservatives and MSG in the regular grocery store brands), miso, brown rice vinegar and toasted sesame oil. These condiments are versatile and not too expensive, and can take any dish from meh to yum! Other staples in my kitchen include canned coconut milk (for baking, soups and curries), apple butter (instead of sugar-laden jam) for breakfast, good organic pasta sauce and few boxes of Annie's macaroni and cheese, for those can't-get-myself-to-cook nights. Finally, maybe the most important condiment in the healthy pantry is nutritional yeast. Don't let the boring name deter you, this stuff is pure magic. It's a yellow powder that you can think of as a vegan Parmesan cheese: sprinkle it on popcorn, veggies, grains, beans, and stir into sauces and dressings. Here is a FAQ about nutritional yeast from Fat Free Vegan. And here is my favorite recipe for nutritional yeast, my Best Baked Tofu.
Bring flavor with quality spices: Having a well-stocked spice selection is important, but don't stress about having every single spice in your home. Start small: choose organic herbs and spices (at some stores you can buy them in bulk!) and keep them in glass jars to keep them fresh. Ignore the spices at the regular grocery stores: these are overpriced and often stale. The core spices that I recommend to newbie chefs are cinnamon, Indian curry powder (a mix of spices), chili powder (also a mix), coriander, cumin and Italian seasoning. These blends and spices will get you through most recipes and help you add a bit of flavor to your existing dishes.
Stock up with healthy sweets: Natural sweeteners are the foundation of healthy swaps. Ditch the bleached white sugar (potentially made from GMO sugar beets) and potentially bleached with chemicals. Richer in flavor and nutrition are alternative sweeteners: coconut sugar, date sugar and even stevia for sugar -free options. Choosing recipes that use maple syrup or honey (like these quick cookie recipes!) then you are giving your body a healthy, sweet treat. Honey and maple syrup also work great for sweetening coffee or tea, or on toast for a quick, sweet snack. (Shown above are the Maple Tahini Cookies from the link above!)
Get Snacky! Quality snack foods are key to those trying our healthier diets. There are always times when you need food NOW, and having healthy options is a saving grace. Tortilla chips with salsa, pre-made hummus with rice crackers or carrot sticks, rice cakes with natural nut butters, and even healthy boxed cereals will do in a pinch. Now there are 'healthy' versions of everything: granola bars, fruit snacks, and even candy bars. These are fun for treats, but watch the high sugar content and make sure it truly is healthy.
What's your favorite healthy pantry staple? Anything we missed in this post?