Eating healthfully is a lot easier when the pantry is stocked with a few key ingredients that build flavor, texture, and variety into meals.
To break it down to the bare bones, start with these eight basic staples, items that can be easily paired with seasonal produce or whichever proteins (meat, fish, eggs, tofu) are on hand.
Some staples, like the beans and whole grains, can be batch-cooked on the weekend and stashed in freezer packages or the refrigerator for use during the week. Others can just sit on pantry shelves until called into action.
1. Low-Salt Stock
The secret to great Vietnamese pho, or any soup for that matter, is a good stock. But stock is also a great way to reheat cooked grains or steam fresh vegetables without fat. Stock boosts the flavors in sauces. Of course, the richest flavors come from homemade stocks like these recipes from Eating Well. No time to cook? Use good quality low-salt canned vegetable, chicken, or beef broths instead.
2. Vegetable Oil
The unsaturated fats found in vegetable oils like olive oil or canola are good for you and good for your heart. Keep at least one kind of vegetable oil on hand to be a kitchen workhorse. Saute with it. Make vinaigrettes. Drizzle it over toast.
But go easy on trendy, high-in-saturated-fat palm or coconut oils which are “OK if eaten in moderation, but trouble if you overdo it,” says Harvard nutrition expert Dr. Walter Willett.
A splash of an acid ingredient (vinegar, lemon juice) added at the end of cooking can help perk up or balance out flavors in an entire dish. Sherry, balsamic, red wine, apple cider vinegars — pick any, or all of them. Chefs have their own personal favorites, as they tell Reader’s Digest. Not only will these vinegars last in your cabinet just about forever, but they also yield a few surprising health benefits, too.
4. Mustard, Preferably Grainy
The uber-healthy condiment, mustard is fat-free, low-calorie (three calories per teaspoon) and packs a huge flavor punch that gives it almost unlimited versatility in the kitchen. A cooking favorite of chefs is grainy mustard, but any type of the yellow stuff will work.
Stir a dab of mustard and some wine into a skillet after sauteing chicken to make a quick, flavorful pan sauce. Whisk mustard with vinegar for a light sauce to drizzle on steamed vegetables or salads. Spread a little mustard on pork tenderloin or skinless chicken so that breadcrumbs adhere to the surface and can be baked into a crunchy oven “fried” coating. Here, chef Jacques Pepin makes a Roasted Split Chicken with a Mustard Crust.
5. Whole Grains
If the bran or germ isn’t removed through milling and processing, grains are much better sources of the fiber and nutrients needed for good health, according to the Mayo Clinic. To keep it simple on weekdays, use whole grains that cook quickly, like bulgur or rolled oats, or opt for precooked packages of whole grains (sans salt and sauces).
On weekends, simmer up wheat berries or longer cooking grains and package them into small servings. That way it’s easy to work whole grains into cold salads, hot sides, soups or casseroles.
6. A Fresh Onion
Vegetables that give off great aromas and flavors when they’re cooked in a little bit of oil are dubbed aromatics. And chefs use one or two or several of these aromatics to build a deep, rich base for dishes from of all kinds of cuisines.
In French cooking, onions are combined with carrots and celery to make a flavorful base called a mirepoix. In Italy, onions combine with a little garlic (and sometimes other vegetables) to make a soffritto. In other words, the common vegetable denominator for building flavor into cooking, healthy cooking included, is the humble onion.
7. Dried Beans or Lentils
Canned pinto or kidney beans. Frozen lima beans or black-eyed peas. A fresh pot of homemade lentils. Any legumes you choose for the pantry will not only be the cheapest of your healthy pantry staples, but they may just beat out all the other items when it comes to fighting off disease.
Studies show that beans are linked to reduced risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. Protein and fiber rich, they’re also a dieter’s friend.
“Given what beans can do for health, they should be seen as food fit for royalty — or at least for anyone wanting to get healthy or stay that way,” says Patrick J. Skerrett, executive editor of the Harvard Health Letter.
8. Nuts & Seeds
Yes, nuts and seeds are good protein- and fiber-rich snacks, as this University of Berkeley Wellness Letter outlines. But health benefits aren’t the sole reason to give them prime shelf space in the pantry.
“I value nuts and seeds as ingredients for cooking more than as snack foods,” writes noted cookbook author Martha Rose Shulman in her “Recipes for Health” column for The New York Times. “They give dishes great texture and wonderful satiety. They are used to thicken sauces in Mexico (think mole) and the Mediterranean (think pesto); they add flavor and a touch of luxury to pilafs, stir-fries and desserts throughout the Middle East and Asia.”