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 (Countryman Press, 2007), 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:
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 (Countryman Press, 2007):
“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:
“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.”
“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:
“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.”
Robin Asbell writes, cooks and teaches about food so delicious that the healthy part doesn’t matter. She is the author of The New Whole Grains Cookbook (Chronicle Books, 2007).