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Posts Tagged ‘staples’

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.  ↩

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.