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Archive for the ‘food’ Category

Food Impostors

Toy Food

Not all foods are what they seem. While some labels are obvious with the addition of words like “flavored” or “imitation,” not all fake foods are such transparent frauds. Sometimes purveyors and manufacturers are actively trying to trick you into spending more for a premium item that’s not even the real thing. Somehow this is completely legal.

Here are some luxury food items that aren’t what they’re purported to be when sold in the United States.

  • Cantaloupes are actually muskmelons, which has a reticulated skin like a cantaloupe but a very different flavor.
  • Truffle Oil contains no truffles, but instead is composed of some oil (usually olive) and 2–4 dithiapentane, a synthetic compound that’s a component of truffle flavor. Sounds tasty. Anthony Bourdain referred to truffle oil as “the ketchup of the middle class.”
  • Wasabi is usually horseradish mixed with colored dyes. You can get actual wasabi in some higher-end sushi restaurants, but it’s not neon-green in color (it’s more of a pale yellow) and usually quite expensive as it has to be imported.
  • Kobe Beef is not legal to export from Japan, so unless you’ve eaten it in a fine Japanese steakhouse, what you’ve eaten as a “kobe slider” isn’t actually Kobe beef. It’s probably not even fake Kobe beef, otherwise known as Waygu which is the same breed of cow raised outside of Japan.
  • Super White Tuna isn’t tuna. It’s actually escolar, also known as the “snake mackerel,” which can cause diarrhea-like symptoms. It’s illegal to serve in Japan, but just fine according to the FDA in the United States. Consider just getting regular red tuna in your sushi.
  • Olive Oil may be “adulterated” with other (cheaper) oils that aren’t as healthy for you. To see which brands of oils are actually 100% olive oil, you can check this list.
  • Parmesan Cheese is probably not the real deal. You may expect that from the powered “Kraft 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese” variety, but chances are even the expensive wedge you buy and grate yourself at the expensive local market isn’t actually Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese made to centuries-old exacting standards in Italy, but rather a cheaper fake.

So those are some of the more sinister fakers. There are other “foods” that don’t really pretend to be the real thing, but it may surprise you just how fake they are:

  • Bacon Bits contain no bacon. I think this one’s not even trying to pretend to be the real thing, but those Bac-Os or Bacn-Pieces are made from soy.
  • Cool Whip is not whipped cream. It’s primarily an emulsion of water and vegetable oil. Nothing says “more, please” than a big glop of oil atop your pie.
  • SunnyD is not orange juice. It doesn’t pretend to be, but it contains “less than 2%” of various juices, which means it could contain as little as none actual orange juice.
  • Pancake Syrup generally contains not even a little bit of actual maple syrup. Most brands like Aunt Jemima, Log Cabin, or Hungry Jack don’t even use the word “maple” to describe their syrup, whereas some brands will refer to it as “maple-flavored syrup.”

What does this have to do with weight loss and clean livin’? Not much, other than I was surprised to learn about a few of these and wanted to share this knowledge because I don’t think a lot of this is widely known[1].

I don’t really eat many of these things anyway (especially from the second list) but mostly because they’re horrible for you, are highly caloric, and don’t taste very good. What a triple threat.


  1. I considered giving this article a Buzzfeedesque title like Eleven Mind-Blowing Food Impostors That Will Shock You To Your Very Core but I have too much respect for you to condescend like that.  ↩

Cioppino Recipe

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After trying numerous cioppino in San Francisco my wife and I decided to try our hand at making it at home.

You can prep the seafood while the vegetables are softening or the broth is cooking, so it comes together very easily.

  • Prep Time: 10 minutes
  • Cooking Time: 40 minutes
  • Serves: 4–6, generously

Ingredients

Vegetables

  • 1 large onion
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1–2 fresh diced tomatoes, or 3–4 roma plum tomatoes
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1–2 jalapeños (optional, if you want it spicier, which you do)

Broth and Spices

  • 2 cans crushed tomatoes
  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • 1–2 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 2 tbsp salt
  • 2 tsp smoked Spanish paprika
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • ground black pepper
  • fresh basil leaves for garnish

Seafood

  • 1 pound jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1 pound live mussels
  • 1 pound small clams
  • 1 pound sturdy white fish (cod is excellent)
  • 1 can crab meat
  • calamari rings

Directions

From what we gathered during our cioppino scouting trip, everyone who makes cioppino makes it a little differently. You can mix up various kinds of seafood, try other vegetables, change up the spices. It’s a very forgiving dish. Ours is an amalgam of the best cioppinos we’ve tried.

  1. Chop the onion, red bell pepper, and jalapeño if you like it spicy, and sautée on high in a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a large pot or dutch oven until the onions are translucent and the peppers have softened a bit.

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While the vegetables are cooking, mince a lot of garlic and add it to the pot just long enough to brown it a little and give it that nice nutty flavor. Be careful not to burn the garlic. Stir often with a nice sturdy wooden spoon.

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  1. Chop up the tomatoes and add them, along with two cans of crushed tomatoes to the pot or dutch oven. Add the dried and ground spices, saving the basil for the end.

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  1. Simmer the broth for a while to cook the tomato sauce a bit. Once it’s nice and hot, and the color turns a little deeper red, add two cups (eh, about half a bottle) of a dry white wine. Don’t use cooking wine – use something you’d actually drink. You don’t have to go high-end, but the wine will contribute a lot of flavor to the finished product. I used a chardonnay from Napa, figuring I’d keep it local to the region.

The seafood will water-down the broth a little as it releases some liquid during cooking, so don’t worry about it thickening up as it cooks.

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  1. img-octopus While the broth is cooking, prepare your seafood. The market we bought our shellfish and seafood at didn’t have calamari, but they did have baby octopus, which I grilled before cutting up into the cioppino. It was the only misstep in this recipe, and I wouldn’t recommend adding it to the dish unless you really like rubbery baby octopus. It could be that I just didn’t cook it properly. I cut off the heads and discarded them (Amanda took a photo of the pile of heads).
  2. Cut up the white fish (the cod held up really well, and was the best thing in our cioppino), peel and devein the shrimp, and otherwise get the seafood ready to go. Add it to the pot, stirring it gently just to get it covered by the broth. Let it simmer on medium-low (so it’s not splashing or bubbling) for 15–20 minutes or until the mussels and clams have opened.

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After simmering the seafood, dish into large bowls and garnish with fresh basil. Serve with some crusty garlic bread and a glass of wine (red or white, both go very well with cioppino).

Voila!

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Cioppino: San Francisco’s Seafood Stew

My wife Amanda and I love to travel and walk around new places, eat new foods, and experience a bit of different culture (even if that culture is just a another region of the U.S.). This Fall we spent a week in San Francisco and its surrounds. One of our favorite regional dishes is a seafood stew called “cioppino.” It’s a spicy, tomato-based sauce that’s loaded with seafood (mostly shellfish), sometimes a few vegetables, but mostly fish. It’s delicious, there are a lot of variations, and it’s fairly low-calorie, especially if you split an entree portion of it with someone, as my wife and I tend to do.

Did I mention variations? All of the cioppinos we’ve had have had mussels and some kind of white fish (although one replaced the white fish with salmon which was also excellent). Most have clams and shrimp. A couple of them had calamari rings and crab. Most are served with garlic bread.

We had cioppino twice during our first time in the Bay Area together back in the Summer of 2009, at Tadich Grill (which claims to be the oldest restaurant in California), which was our first cioppino, and at the Fisherman’s Wharf Boudin restaurant, which was better. While it’s hard to compare our recently sampled dishes with those we tried three years ago, our second time around in San Francisco we wanted to plan better. This time we did some research to find out some of the best places in SFO to try cioppino, and we were not disappointed (although some were clearly better than others).

All in all, we tried five different cioppinos during our seven day stay. We ate the shit out of cioppino.

Beretta

1199 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
http://berettasf.com/
Cioppino price: $19

This unassuming bistro in the heart of The Mission featured the best cioppino of our trip. Beretta features great craft cocktails, Italian small plates, salads, bruschetta, and pizza. They only offer one entree per day. On Tuesday (at least when we went) their offering is cioppino. Because of that, and based on reviews that claimed it the best cioppino in San Francisco (which thus means best anywhere), we made a special trip.

Where Beretta excelled was in their broth, which was spicier (not spicy hot, just nicely spiced) and more delicious than any of the others we had. They added some fresh basil at the end which was unique to Beretta’s cioppino. Sure, they had mussels like every other cioppino, but they also added calamari which was a great addition. The portion size was average (i.e. a large two quart bowl) and Amanda and I split it, along with a panzanella salad.

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Beretta: the best cioppino we’ve had (other than the one we made ourselves).

Sotto Mare

552 Green Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
http://www.sottomaresf.com/
Cioppino price: $38 (enough for two)

Sotto Mare is a charming little neighborhood Italian restaurant in the North Beach section of San Francisco. We went on a Thursday night and it was packed with locals and tourists alike. While we waited for a table the hostess offered us a glass of house white or red wine, which we accepted and enjoyed while waiting for our table, which turned out to be at the counter.

We ate our last cioppino this trip at Sotto Mare and it was either first or second best, depending on what you mean by “best.” While Beretta had the tastiest broth, Sotto Mare wins by just the sheer volume of seafood. Their “enough for two” crab cioppino arrived in a massive silver soup cauldron and must’ve contained a couple pounds of shellfish.

They call theirs “The ‘Best Damn Crab Cioppino’ with seafood” and they’re not just boasting. Our cioppino did indeed contain an entire crab, chopped up, and pre-cracked so we shouldn’t have to use a cracker to pop the shell.

We sat at the counter by the kitchen where we enjoyed dinner and a show, although it was very very hot there. Still, the festive atmosphere, watching the waitstaff abuse the happy-go-lucky cooks who laughed as they were being yelled at, and the happy slurps of our fellow diners, most of whom were also eating cioppino, was worth the trip.

Follow up cioppino with a cappuccino and a cannoli at one of the classic cafes in North Beach afterwards (if you can eat another bite after stuffing two pounds of shellfish down your gullet) and browse through the stacks at the City Lights bookstore. It’s all very romantic.

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Sotto Mare’s massive silver cauldron of cioppino.

Scoma’s

1 Al Scoma Way
San Francisco, CA 94133
http://www.scomas.com/
Cioppino price: $39

Scoma’s at Fisherman’s Wharf offers what they call the “Lazy Man’s Cioppino” because most of the fish has already been shelled for you. They offer the recipe on their web site (although you may want to make my cioppino recipe, coming soon, instead, as it was better). Scoma’s was the most touristy of places we tried, but what do you expect, they’re located at Fisherman’s Wharf, the most touristy of San Francisco locations.

Scoma’s cioppino is very good (as it should be, they’ve been serving it for years) but at $20 more expensive than Beretta for a similar portion, it feels like you’re paying for the location (and we didn’t even get to sit at a table overlooking the bay).

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Scoma’s traditional cioppino.

Sam’s Anchor Cafe

27 Main Street
Belvedere Tiburon, CA 94920
http://www.samscafe.com/
Cioppino price: $26

Sam’s was the worst cioppino of our trip, and it was still really good, so we did pretty well. It wasn’t on our list of the best cioppinos in San Francisco – we just happened to be visiting Tiburon via the ferry and it looked like a nice place to stop and have lunch (although our waitress said that their cioppino has been featured on the Food Network – twice). The price for the lunch portion of cioppino was the same as their dinner menu, so maybe it’s the same exact dish. It was an ample amount for one person.

Their menu claims it includes “dungeness crab, clams, prawns, mussels, fresh fish, in a spicy tomato broth” but there wasn’t much crab (although it does tend to disintegrate in the broth).

Of all of the restaurants we visited to try cioppino, Sam’s had the best view.

It’s nice to take a ferry somewhere – Tiburon, Sausalito, Larkspur, Angel Island – and just get out on the bay. Tiburon was a cute, relaxed place to visit and walk around. It’s not as crassly commercial as Sausalito, but then there’s not as much to see either, unless you’re into natural beauty.

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Sam’s Anchor Cafe in Tiburon – cioppino by the bay.

Catch

2362 Market Street (between 16th St & 17th St)
San Francisco, CA 94114
http://www.catchsf.com/
Cioppino price: $22

Catch in the Castro is a lively upscale seafood place that technically doesn’t offer cioppino, but instead has a “seafood stew” that just so happens to resemble cioppino in most ways.

We ate our first cioppino this trip at Catch (after seeing Vertigo in the historic Castro Theater, which was awesome). Catch’s version is very good, although by the end of the trip I think this one ranked second to last.

Their cioppino includes – aside from the usual tomato broth – mussels, clams, shrimp, scallops, crab, and some sort of white fish. It was very tasty, and the broth was a little more interesting than all but Beretta’s (although the chorizo broth that accompanied the mussels appetizer was so good we couldn’t stop drinking it).

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Catch’s seafood stew, which is basically cioppino.

Cioppino is such a simple dish, inspired by the Italian fisherman that settled in San Francisco, lived in North Beach, and shaped the local cuisine.

It’s easy enough to make at home, and I foresee cioppino being a regular staple of our weekend dinners.

Balm in Gilead

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There’s no magic formula to losing weight (other than calories in < calories out), but there are some shortcuts, tricks, and tips that I’ve discovered through my four years of Clean Livin’ that could help you navigate the broken glass that’s hidden in the grass. These tips may not work for everyone, but they work for me, and if you can try them and not mind the changes, you get the added weight loss benefit for free.

Think about it this way: if you can substitute one thing for another that’s just as good (or sometimes even better) it’s one small step toward cutting out a small number of calories, but those small numbers add up over the course of a day, week, or year.

Stupid Human Tricks

  • Downsize Your Plate – Since you’ll likely be done eating before you end up feeling full, most people will know that they’re done eating by looking down at their empty plate. You can reduce your calorie intake simply by making your plate smaller. It sounds stupid, but it works. I usually eat most of my meals on a salad or small dessert plate.
  • Pre-Portion Everything – Don’t eat from a container or bag unless you intend to eat the entire thing. Sure, you may stop when you’re full, or when you’ve had a serving, but you’re far more likely to over-eat when you can’t see the portion that’s going into your stomach. Place what you intend to eat on a plate or bowl prior to eating it. If you decide you want more, at least you’re deciding to eat more and not just mindlessly shoving food down your craw.
  • Measure Your Food – Unless you’re eating something that’s prepared and individually portioned, the only way you’re going to know just how much meat, beans, or soup you’re having is to measure it out with a measuring cup or weigh it on a food scale. Studies have shown that people underestimate the portion size of even something as simple as a chicken breast by 30–40%. It only takes a moment to put your plate on the scale, tare it (i.e. zero it out), and weigh a portion. You can even keep taring the scale between adding additional food to it. Weighing your food is the most accurate way to measure the calories in that food, because the volume of solid food items can vary between measuring depending on how the food is oriented or packed.
  • Slow Down – I’m as guilty of eating too fast as anyone. Studies have shown, however, that people who eat more slowly also eat fewer calories than people who scarf down their food. Not only does it take about twenty minutes for you to start feeling full after you start eating, but by chewing your food more you taste it more, and will find that smaller portions won’t leave you feeling hungry afterwards if you eat your food more slowly.
  • Pay Attention – My wife and I still eat while watching television sometimes. We almost always eat official “meals” at the dining room table, but will often eat an evening snack while watching a movie or TV show. We try to combat overeating by portioning our snacks (usually fruit or air-popped popcorn) in the kitchen and then taking our bowls to the sofa, but it’s probably still a bad habit that promotes mindless eating. Have you ever finished eating only to discover that you didn’t even notice you were eating by the time you were done? This is especially frustrating when you’ve been eating something unhealthy, because now you’ve not only eaten a large number of calories, but you didn’t even get to enjoy them. That doesn’t sound like fun. If you’re going to eat potato chips, at least eat them mindfully so you can enjoy the experience.

Easy Substitutions

  • Mustard Instead of Mayo – Mayonnaise is an emulsion of oil and egg, but it’s mostly oil. Mustard is usually comprised of ground mustard seeds (mustard is a plant), vinegar, and salt. Unless you get honey mustard or mustard mixed with some other sugary concoction, it’s usually zero calories, whereas mayo is 100 calories per tablespoon, which is about as much as you’d put on a sandwich if you don’t use a lot of mayo. You get the added benefit that mustard is tastier (although I do admit a love of mayo on certain types of sandwich).
  • Fat Free Singles Cheese – If you’re going to eat processed American cheese anyway, switching to the 25–30 calorie variety versus the 60 calorie per slice regular is a no-brainer. They’re also usually individually wrapped and melt really well, so they’re great in omelettes, on sandwiches, and as a cheesy additive to beans. I actually prefer the taste of the fat-free vs. the regular slices of my local supermarket’s brand. The Kraft fat free singles are generally available everywhere, though, and are also very good.
  • Reduced- or Non-Fat – I’ve been drinking 1% or 2% milk instead of whole milk for so long that the whole milk (typically 4% fat) tastes too creamy to me now. However, skim milk just tastes watery and thin. It’s amazing what 1% of dairy fat can do to the taste of milk. Switching from whole milk to 1% will save you 60 calories per cup. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but adding up a few 25–75 calorie substitutions in a day can mean an extra pound lost per month. Cheese is another area where you can get reduced or non-fat varieties of some cheeses. As with the fat free singles cheese, skim-milk (which is sometimes harder to find than “part-skim” varieties) mozzarella is another example where if you’re mixing it into a recipe or using it to top a baked dish you won’t even miss the added fat and the calories that it brings. Easy substitution.
  • Leaner Cuts – You probably already consider boneless, skinless chicken breast a diet food, but did you know that the more succulent pork loin is ounce-for-ounce less caloric than chicken breast? Believe it, bucko. When eating red meat[1], like steak, you can probably switch out a fattier ribeye or sirloin for a leaner filet mignon or New York strip steak. Ground beef is usually labeled with the percent of lean meat that’s in the container, but with steaks it’s harder to tell, especially when you’ve been trained to look for good marbling (the white marble strains in the otherwise red meat is the fat). Barring buying a leaner cut of beef, grilling it so that the fat drips between the grates is a healthier option than pan-searing it so that it reabsorbs its fat while cooking. Pro tip: while letting the steak rest for a few minutes, take some marinade and pour it over the steak to make it juicier. Yes, after cooking. While the meat fibers cool and the protein strands relax they’ll wick up that flavorful juice and make even leaner cuts of beef taste fantastic. Just be sure to use a low-calorie marinade or you’re just substituting beef fat calories for calories in the marinade.

Easy Foods To Cut

This one is harder to provide examples for, because the high-calorie foods that you eat often but don’t really enjoy that much will be different for you than they are for me, but I can at least share a list of foods that I’ve cut out or those of which I’ve drastically reduced my consumption.

If you’re eating something out of habit or just because it’s there (for example, snacks that are available in the office) and you wouldn’t miss them, just cut them out. Not eating something you don’t even like isn’t a sacrifice at all. If you examine what you’re eating every day and really think about it, there are probably at least a few foods that you can give the pink slip.

While I haven’t completely barred any food from my diet (because I’m not on a diet, I’m just eating better), there are a bunch of things that I hardly ever eat anymore.

  • The Offender: Soda/Pop – Of course, as I list soda as a beverage I rarely consume, I just finished drinking a tiny plastic cup of Coke Zero while I type this on an airplane. I used to drink a few cans of regular Coca-Cola Classic while at work (because it was there) every day, and switching to coffee and then water made it easy to remove hundreds of calories from my daily intake. I don’t miss it at all, although I did buy a SodaStream carbonator to make fizzy water for when I want some bubbles, which is hardly ever.
    The Lower-Calorie Substitute – I usually drink plain old filtered or tap water (I know, I’m boring).
  • Offender: High Carb Breakfasts – I used to eat a lot more bagels, pancakes, and waffles than I do now.
    Substitute: Usually yogurt with a bunch of nutritionally-strategic additives – granola, berries, walnuts, flax seed, chia seed, or other foods that I’m getting into my diet by adding them to my morning mélange. I’ll have eggs for breakfast once or twice a week (and then maybe once again for lunch or dinner). I’ll have oatmeal once or twice a week (which I should increase but I like my yogurt more).
  • Offender: Sugary Desserts and Snacks – I used to eat a lot of cake, pie, or ice cream for dessert.
    Substitute: – I’ll have some fruit or popcorn. Sometimes in the summer we’ll splurge and have some frozen yogurt or kefir, which is about 100–120 calories per 5 oz, as opposed to the 200ish calories in the same volume of ice cream.
  • Offender: Cheeseburgers – Man, I loves me a good burger. Add cheese, bacon, and katsup to really kick things up a notch, especially if you throw in a side of crispy french fries and a tasty cold beer.
    Substitute: – There is no substitute for a burger. I just eat them less frequently. I enjoy them a whole lot more when I do eat them now, though, and will grill up the burgers myself rather than get them at a restaurant.
  • Offender: Sausage – Most sausages are loaded with fat (and other things).
    Substitute: Chicken Sausage – Before you close your browser in disgust, just hear me out. I used to be like you, scoffing at the idea of a chicken sausage or some other ridiculous hot dog substitute, but in the past few years chicken sausages have really kicked it up a notch. At one-half to two-thirds fewer calories than their pork or beef counterparts, chicken sausages can be well spiced and mixed with healthy alternatives to fat, like apples, peppers, or even low-fat cheese. Living in Chicago, I’m particular partial to the new chicken sausages from Vienna Beef. They’re so good I actually prefer them to their hot dogs (although I do miss the natural casing snap of the standard dogs).
  • Offender: French Fries, Rice, Bread Stuffing, Pasta, and other Starches – Growing up most meals would consist of a well-rounded plate of some meat, fish, or other protein, some vegetable, and some starch like macaroni & cheese or rice. The problem with these starches is that they provide a ton of calories without providing that much in the way of nutrition.
    Substitute: Beans – Beans also contain a lot of starch, of course, and with that, a lot of calories compared to vegetables or proteins. However, beans are also loaded with dietary fiber and vitamins, and are thus really good for you. I usually don’t eat more than a half-cup serving of beans at any given time, but they’re excellent (and if you spice them up, much tastier than boring ol’ white rice).

Small changes to your eating habits add up over time to big weight loss. A few calories here and there don’t seem like much, but you can easily lose a pound a week by reducing your calorie intake by just 350 calories a day; reduced because you’ve found ways around starving yourself by eating lower-calorie foods that taste just as good (or better) than their higher-calorie culinary equivalents.


  1. Truth be told I don’t eat that much red meat these days, but sometimes a nice grilled flank steak or filet mignon is a nice side dish for a big salad. Yes, I’ve flipped the portions. The meat isn’t the main course, it’s a side dish to vegetables. You won’t miss the difference between 4oz and 8oz of meat, especially if you’re eating it slowly, don’t have it very often, and savor every bite. If anything, you’ll probably enjoy it more when you do eat red meat.  ↩

Keeping a Healthy Pantry

Cooking your own food is the best way to know what ingredients are going into each dish you eat, which makes it easier to track how many calories you’re consuming each day. Sometimes when you get home from work you may not want to have to go through the hassle of cooking, especially if you don’t have healthy ingredients on-hand. While eating out, getting takeout, or having a pizza delivered would be a lot easier than having to go to the supermarket to buy food and then come home, cook it, clean up the kitchen, etc., it’s also not as good for you.

To reduce the friction of cooking it helps to have some go-to ingredients at the ready. Most of these don’t require any forethought or take much time to prepare a quick and nutritious meal.

I’ll be using the term “pantry” loosely, and for this post will just mean “a place in your house where you can store food,” including the refrigerator and freezer. Whether you have a walk-in pantry, room in your kitchen for shelving, or just a cabinet next to the dishes with enough space to store some canned-goods, you can load that area up with healthy foods.

Clean House

Before you stock-up on healthy pantry items, take a few minutes to go through the food you already have on-hand. Get rid of anything that you’re not going to eat. If it’s expired, throw it out. If it’s still good, but you’re not going to eat it, put it in a box and donate it to a local food bank or charity.

This isn’t a screed about getting rid of junk food or removing temptation from your sight. This is about cleansing – getting rid of the things that are taking up room that things you’ll want to keep on hand will need. Even if you have a giant walk-in pantry that’s only a quarter full, trimming the cruft will be invaluable both organizationally as well as in creating a fresh start to keeping healthy things at the ready.

Last year my wife and I moved from renting a huge place with a dine-in kitchen (it was bigger than my college apartment, practically a live-in kitchen) to buying a place with a more traditional, modest kitchen. I miss the large island and tons of counter space, sure, but I miss the pantry closet and room for additional shelving even more.

Now our pantry is limited to two kitchen cabinets (whose top two shelves are mostly out of reach even for a tall guy like me) and a corner cabinet with a built-in lazy susan[1]. It’s not much, but of course we also tend to eat a lot of fresh things which mostly live in the fridge.

Even with a modest amount of space we manage to come up with healthy meals most nights, having to stop by the grocery store only to pick up fresh things, or re-stock items we’ve run out of.

Pantry Staples

  • EggsI love eggs, and we always have them in the house. Besides being great for when you want to, um, eat eggs, they’re also a common ingredient in breads, used as a binder in ground meat, used to provide some lift in waffles or pancakes, and many other uses.
  • Bread – Sure, I don’t eat as much bread as I used to, but I tend to always have a loaf on-hand in the freezer. I like hearty, whole grain bread. The new Arnold’s “Health Full” varieties are excellent, and at 80 calories a slice, not too much of a ding in your daily caloric budget (as long as you only eat one slice at a time).
  • White Corn Tortillas – Maybe these aren’t a pantry staple for most Americans, but we swear by white corn (instead of flour or the grittier yellow corn) tortillas. We use them to make tacos at least once a week, and use them in place of bread with stews like my wife’s family recipe “spicy tomatoes” (or sub-in potatoes or eggplant for the tomatoes).
  • Cheese – We always keep fat free singles cheese in the fridge, as well as some one ounce medallions of goat cheese from Trader Joe’s. They keep for a long time and we never seem to use enough goat cheese to warrant buying a whole log of chevre.
  • Butter – Butter? But… but… that’s a saturated fat! Yes, it’s not the healthiest thing in this list, but it’s tasty, contains few ingredients which are more natural than margarine and so-called healthy spreads, and a pound of it tends to last about three months in our house. A little butter (at 100 calories per tablespoon) goes a long way.
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Great on salads, for lightly coating any vegetable, and making hummus, olive oil is a heart-healthy oil that also tastes good. The taste, of course, makes it problematic for applications where you don’t want the oil to taste like much of anything (like in baking) but when you want the taste of olive oil, accept no substitute. The downside of EVOO (other than price) is that it has a low smoke point, which means it’s not useful except for lower-temperature cooking. I find it’s fine for roasting vegetables (give some brussels sprouts a toss with 1 tbsp of olive oil) but for pan cooking, you need something else.
  • Cooking Spray – Cooking sprays like Pam are a great low calorie way to oil a pan lightly without contributing too many calories. Pam and their competitors get away with claiming their spray is “0 calories” because of a loophole in the nutrition facts guidelines which let you claim zero calories if there’s less than a certain threshold of oil in a serving (that threshold is currently 0.5g). You know what a “serving” of Pam is? One-quarter of a second. That’s four servings per second. I’d estimate that I usually use 3–4 servings, depending on the size of the pan. It’s still a LOT less oil than you’d use if you were just pouring canola oil from a bottle, though.
  • Canola Oil – Canola oil is one of the healthier oils, doesn’t add much flavor to a dish, and has a very high smoke point, so you can cook things at high temperatures with it before the oil burns.
  • Low Fat Milk – Milk does a body good! It really does. While studies have shown that drinking milk may help you lose more weight milk is also a low-calorie, high-nutrition beverage chock full of calcium and numerous other vitamins. I think the sweet-spot for me is 2%. Skim milk just tastes watery to me, and 1% isn’t much better. I also tend to buy the ultra-pasteurized milk because it stays fresh so much longer than standard pasteurized milk does.
  • Flour – You can’t make your own healthy bread without having a little flour in the house.

Canned Goods

This one will be short. Canned goods are great things to keep in the pantry, though, because they essentially last forever[2]. Whether you’re stocking your bomb shelter or pantry, canned goods can provide that “always at the ready” convenience we crave.

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  • Tuna Fish – White albacore tuna packed in water (not oil) is a fantastic low-calorie, low-fat source of protein, and a high source of omega–3s. While canned tuna isn’t incredibly versatile, you can still use it to make tuna salad for sandwiches or salads, toaster oven tuna melts, etc.
  • Beans – We usually keep at least a few cans of black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans), and maybe some white beans (aka cannellini beans). Of course, there are many other kinds of beans: kidney, navy, great northern white, etc.
  • Low-Sodium Chicken Broth – Canned beef broth is awful, but chicken broth from a can (or usually a cardboard aseptic pack) is so close to making your own broth/stock that you may as well save yourself the hassle. Useful for soups, braises, anything where you could add a little meaty flavor instead of water.
  • Tomatoes – Whole or diced, having canned tomatoes in your pantry means you can make all sorts of tomato-based dishes in a pinch without having to have fresh tomatoes, which tend to go bad pretty quickly.

You notice what’s not on that list? Canned soup. Loaded with sodium (yes, even the “reduced sodium” varieties) canned soups are generally saved for a “once in a while” kind of food list along with pizza, pasta, and cheeseburgers.

While I’ll eat canned soup from time to time (usually some yuppie brand from Whole Foods, whose sodium per serving is less than 200mg), but in general we’ve taken to making our own more often. If we do keep canned soup “in stock” it’s usually tomato soup or cream of mushroom, for making sauces or just because tomato soup and a grilled (fat free singles) cheese is so darned tasty, and when you’re sick, just what the doctor ordered.

Canned vegetables are also not on that list, but that’s mostly because their quality is generally far, far lower than frozen vegetables. Stick to the bags of frozen, except for:

  • Beets – Canned beets are almost as good as fresh (depending on application), and require no boiling, peeling, or other work.
  • Artichoke Hearts – Another vegetable you can’t really get frozen, and probably wouldn’t want to if you did, artichoke hearts are delicious by themselves in a salad, or mixed with a little bit of olive oil, panko breadcrumbs, and parmesan cheese to make a little artichoke bake that’s a great side-dish with a nice piece of fish.

Jars and Bottles

Foods that come in jars tend to require refrigeration once they’ve been opened, but let’s walk through some standards to keep on hand.

  • Spanish Green Manzanilla Olives – Usually stuffed with a mild red pepper called pimento, green olives are a fantastic addition to salads, can be just eaten on the side, and are even good heated in dishes. My wife introduced me to sliced green olives as a pizza topping, which I found off-putting at first but have come to enjoy. They’re salty, high in omega–3s, and low-cal.
  • Marinara Sauce – Just because we don’t eat much pasta these days doesn’t mean we don’t still use some tomato sauce for mixing with vegetables. Sure, you can make your own sauce from fresh or canned tomatoes, but that takes hours. Not all jarred sauces are created equal, but I like the Classico brand of standard tomato sauces (skip the creamy ones or any containing cheese).
  • Fruit Jam – You want to try something? Eat a piece of toast with jam and no butter. I’ll bet you won’t even miss the butter, and you’ll save yourself around 100 calories (depending on how much butter you use).
  • Lemon and Lime Juice – For a splash of flavor on vegetables, seafood, or to add a nice brightness to sauces, Real Lemon in a jar is great. While we usually try to keep fresh limes in the house for squeezing on tacos, in a pinch the stuff from the bottle will do.
  • Maple Syrup – While I’ll make waffles or pancakes from time to time, most of the time we use maple syrup for oatmeal (just a teaspoon per bowl).
  • Honey – In oatmeal or tea, honey is a great natural sweetener.

Condiments

We don’t really use as many condiments as we used to. I always like to have katsup and mayo in the fridge, although the current bottles are getting pretty old.

There are some condiments, though, that I use regularly.

  • Low-Sodium Soy Sauce – The name is a bit of an oxymoron, since soy sauce is essentially a liquid flavored salt, but the reduced sodium still has plenty of flavor and not quite as much sodium in each serving.
  • Balsamic Vinegar – Spring for the more expensive kind that’s been aged, comes from some land far away, etc. The cheaper stuff doesn’t have even remotely the same flavor and you’re not going to use much of it at a time. We hardly ever buy salad dressing, instead opting for a little bit of good extra virgin olive oil (see above) and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Sometimes we’ll get a balsamic made from fruit other than grapes, like fig, black cherry, or pear. I’m partial to the fig. We just got a thing of chocolate balsamic, which tastes really good on its own but tastes weird on salad (to me, my wife loves it).
  • Hot Pepper Sauce – Hot sauce can liven-up even the most chaste of dishes. I usually have a few on my table (most hot sauces don’t require refrigeration): Cholula for eggs, some kind of habenero sauce for when I want to crank up the heat, sambal olek and sriracha for adding a nice Thai spice to stir fries, and maybe some kind of smoked sauce, like a chipotle pepper sauce, for giving meat and vegetables a nice smokey barbecued flavor. Want a way to punch-up a dish without adding extra calories? Hot sauce is your amigo!
  • Dijon Mustard – You want to add a lot of flavor to a sandwich without adding calories? Mustard to the rescue!

Freezer

  • Frozen Vegetables – Packed at the height of their freshness, frozen vegetables are often fresher than the fresh produce you can get at the supermarket. If you’re intending to cook the vegetables anyway, frozen veggies are very convenient. Some are better than others, but you can’t go wrong with frozen corn, peas, green beans, okra, and cauliflower. I’ve found that frozen carrots and broccoli tend to get mushy fast, so stick to fresh for those. Thankfully carrots last for weeks in the fridge.
  • Coffee – Yes, I keep my coffee beans in the freezer.
  • Berries – You can buy bags of frozen berries, but I’ve found that fresh blueberries freeze amazingly well and stay individual. Add a handful to your yogurt or oatmeal and they defrost in just a few minutes.
  • Walnuts – Nuts will keep better in the freezer, and we always have walnuts in an airtight container for yogurt or oatmeal.
  • Uncooked Peeled and Deveined Shrimp – They come in bags with various numbers on them like 16/20 or 26–30. Those are the average count per pound. So the smaller the number, the bigger the shrimp, and usually the bigger the shrimp, the more expensive. I usually opt for middle of the road “medium” to “large” sized shrimp, as they’re big enough for cooking up on their own, eating in tacos, salads, etc. Getting them frozen means always having some shrimp at the ready for a quick weeknight meal. You can defrost a few servings in a bowl full of water in about ten minutes, pluck the tails off[3], dry them quickly on some paper towels, and you’re ready to toss them in a hot sautée pan. They cook in a minute or two per side.

Dry Goods

  • Oatmeal – Filling, healthy, cholesterol-lowering oatmeal is a great, quick & easy breakfast. We usually keep two kinds in the pantry: quick rolled oats that have been par-cooked so that you can simply add hot water and enjoy them in a minute or two (or just put cold water and oats in a bowl and microwave for a couple of minutes), and steel-cut Irish oats which are better (nuttier, chewier) but take longer (although are just as easy to make).
  • Granola – So this is really just another way to eat oats, but I loves me some granola in my morning yogurt. You can’t eat a lot of it, because it’s high in calories, and you can get some brands that are loaded with sugar and oil, but if you’re careful granola can be a healthy way to jazz-up your yogurt. I like the “Bear Naked” brand’s fruit & nut variety.
  • Whole Grain Brown Rice – We probably don’t eat as much rice as we should because it’s higher in calories than most beans or vegetables. If you’re going to eat rice, though, stay away from that bleached white rice that’s been stripped of the healthiest part of the seed (yes, the part you eat of the rice is actually the seed). Rice has several layers, like an onion (or an ogre) and with whole grain brown rice, only the outer indigestible hull is removed, leaving the healthy bran and germ intact. White rice is further refined and polished, which eliminates the aleurone layer that contains the rice’s healthy omega–3 and omega–6 fatty acids. It doesn’t matter if it’s long-grain or short-grain (that just depends on the variety of rice) but make sure it’s whole-grain.
  • Beans – Beans again? Beans are one of the healthiest foods you can eat, so sure, we keep some in cans, some dry. The texture and flavor of soaked dried chickpeas, for instance, is completely different than canned, but it requires the forethought to soak them for 12–18 hours before you want to eat them (there are tricks to knock that down to an hour or two with a pressure cooker), whereas canned chickpeas are immediately ready to be pulverized into hummus, coated with spices and roasted (they get crunchy and nutty), or just enjoyed in a salad. So keep some in a can, some in a bag.
  • Lentils – A staple the world-over, lentils haven’t really caught on in the U.S.
  • Brown Rice – Whole-grain brown rice is an excellent source of fiber and complex carbs.
  • Popcorn – Not microwave popcorn, just a bag or jar of unpopped kernels. We recently bought a microwave popcorn air popper, which is basically a specially-shaped bowl with a lid that’s meant for nuking raw kernels of popcorn so that you can make it without using any oil. It works great, and it takes no longer than a microwave bag of popping corn.
  • Panko Breadcrumbs – Panko, sometimes called Japanese breadcrumbs, are different than standard breadcrumbs mostly due to the shape of the crumb. Examined closely they resemble those little tire spikes (caltrops) that James Bond would drop behind him to flatten the tires of a bad guy who’s chasing him. Panko crumbs tend to stay crispier because less of their surface area touches the item to which they adhere, so they don’t get soggy like traditional breadcrumbs. You can even get things reasonably crispy with panko crumbs by baking rather than frying.

Spices

Most spices are for all intents and purposes non-caloric, and make all the difference when making low-fat meals. A little spice goes a long way toward making even the most mundane mélange of vegetables taste gourmet.

Here are some spices you should consider keeping in stock:

  • Salt – Everything tastes better with salt. You have to be careful about how much salt you use, as consuming too much may raise your blood pressure and cause you to retain fluid (and water is heavy, so you won’t lose weight as fast). This is our go-to spice, though. I can’t think of a single meal that doesn’t have salt added.
  • Pepper – Peppercorns were once so valuable they were used as currency. I have to admit that I don’t put ground black pepper on as many things as I used to, aiming for a larger variety of spices, but salt & pepper are so ubiquitous in American cooking that to not list them together would be a misdeed.
  • Cayenne Red Pepper – Hot pepper is completely different than black pepper and adds a lot more spice.
  • Red Pepper Flakes – Not as spicy as Cayenne, and usually containing seeds which aren’t digestible, red pepper flakes are great on salad, pizza, flatbreads, and italian dishes.
  • Paprika – Yet another ground pepper, paprika adds a nice heartiness and color to rice dishes, goulash, soups, stews, and sauces. I especially like Spanish smoked paprika which gives a nice barbecued smokey flavor to marinates and spice rubs.
  • Garlic Powder – Simple dried and ground garlic powder is a godsend when you don’t have fresh garlic. Skip the garlic salt (you can better regulate how much salt is in your dish separately) and I’ve found that dried minced garlic tends to need a lot of time to reconstitute, so is only useful in things that take a long time to cook in a liquid.
  • Dried Jalapeños – Rounding out our pepper section, dried jalapeños are not exactly a common spice staple. Nonetheless, we’ve been picking up some from our local spice house (you can get them online too). They’re great for adding to a dish to get a nice spiciness quickly, adding to scrambled eggs, and soups.
  • Tomato Powder – Here’s another one that’s harder to come by, and you can always keep those little cans of tomato paste in the pantry, or if you can find the little toothpaste tubes, those are good too. The problem with the cans of tomato paste is that you have to use it all shortly after opening the can, whereas with the tube or tomato powder you can use just a little dash or spoonful in a dish to make a nice tomatoey sauce in no time flat.
  • Cumin – There’s no better way to make something taste all Mexicany than to add a little cumin.

tl;dr version

Go buy a bunch of stuff to stick in places in your house so you don’t have to go shopping when you want to make a quick meal after work.


  1. Who is Susan, and why is she lazy?  ↩

  2. Sure, most canned goods have an “expiration date” on them, but that’s usually a “Best By:” date and doesn’t mean that the food inside the can will no longer be good after that date, provided it’s kept in a cool, dark place and not heated in the can.  ↩

  3. An easy way to remove the tails from shrimp, especially those that have otherwise been shelled, is to gently pull the head of the shrimp with one hand while you pinch the tail from the bottom with the other, like you’re squeezing it out from a tube of toothpaste. It pops right off and you get all of the meat from the tail.  ↩

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Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. I'm just some guy who lost a lot of weight and studied up on nutrition, diet, and exercise in order to improve my personal fitness. The contents of this site in no way contains medical advice. You should visit your doctor before making any dramatic changes to your diet or activity. While I make every attempt to be as accurate as possible regarding current knowledge and scientific studies (please feel free to let me know when I'm wrong about something), and may from time to time post updates to correct inaccuracies in previous entries, the information on this site is provided "as-is" for entertainment purposes only. Don't do something stupid and then sue me. I'm just trying to help. Thanks.