One of the easiest ways to begin eating healthier is to stock the kitchen with the right things. I’ll admit to grabbing frozen, prepared foods on occasion when our family’s schedules were crazy. A bag of frozen pot stickers from Costco could come in pretty handy in a pinch…
But planning is key, if we’re determined to prepare healthier meals from scratch. We might not have time to run to the store to get fresh groceries, but we can often make a meal of what we’ve got on hand. If we plan for it!
If you’re not feeling up to the challenge, just imagine having your own private version of Master Chef: Today’s challenge is to throw together a tasty meal with “these items”. You can do it! There are no camera crews, no judges breathing down your neck, watching your every move. There are no audiences questioning the wisdom of your efforts.
Thankfully, a hungry family will most likely enjoy whatever you’ve prepared.
So here’s the list of things that help me throw something together when I’m in a pinch:
NINE KITCHEN INGREDIENTS TO STOCK
1. Beans: You can store dry beans in the pantry, and they’ll keep over a year. Some beans, like red lentils, only take 20 minutes to cook. Others take longer; you’ll need to get in the habit of cooking those beans ahead of time. But with their long shelf life, they’ll wait patiently for you, until you’re ready to put them to work in a meal. Make extra, and freeze ‘em! They can be seasoned Mexican Style (add some cumin), Italian style (add rosemary and oregano), Asian style (add curry powder). There are many possibilities.
2. Whole Grains: Vary the family’s diet with other grains. Barley, “hulled” (the non-pearled kind from health food stores) has a meaty texture. Corn meal and corn flour (found in health food stores; not degerminated) can sub for wheat in making quick breads. Oatmeal, processed into a flour, makes a nice substitute for wheat and bread crumbs; great for dredging chicken. Rice, millet, and quinoa (high in complete protein) are also options. (Work up to quinoa—it’s perhaps not as “tasty” as other grains…)
3. Freezer Stock: Beef and pork roasts and whole fryers are handy to keep stocked. Thaw 2 days ahead in the refrigerator (for large chunks of meat); cook ‘em up and use leftovers to create other dishes throughout the week. Frozen, skinless, boneless chicken breast (or thigh meat) is also handy; you can take out just a few pieces at a time. Frozen fish is often available too, and can be a lot fresher than “fresh” fish.
4. Oils: Have various oils in your arsenal to add different flavors to simple dishes. Toasted sesame oil will lend an Asian flavor; extra Virgin olive oil can make a dish more Greek or Italian style. Virgin coconut oil is especially healthy and is good in Thai foods. And truffle oil (as a “finishing oil”, added after cooking) is a special treat- great in mashed potatoes or pasta.
5. Nuts, Seeds: Add texture with nuts and seeds. They’ll add healthy oils, and protein too—they can be meal-savers when there’s only a minimal amount of meat to work with. There are plenty of choices; consider almonds, avocados, cashews, coconut, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts… Wow- what a selection! Add a few, perhaps toasted, to garnish a dish. You can make nut milk by soaking cashews overnight; process the next day and use to add flavor and nutrients.
6. Vegetables (The Longer Lasting Ones): Use veggies to add variety and color to a base of some starch and meat. Beets, carrots, celery, garlic, onion, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squashes are all veggies that will keep mercifully long in your refrigerator. You may forget to use them for a week or two, but when you’re desperate to make that last-minute-meal out of nothing, there they are!
7. Dried Fruits: Apples, apricots, dates, figs, pears, raisins—these can all be meal-savers. Maybe this is the last day to use that package of greens. So go for a salad theme. Pick some nuts for texture, add some chopped dried fruits and slices of whatever cheese or leftover meat is on hand… Pretend you’re at a gourmet restaurant, and give it a fancy title. (Like, “Spring Greens with cranberries, pecans, and chicken”.) Make a simple dressing using a favorite oil, some vinegar. Add salt and fresh ground pepper—delicious!
8. Dried Herbs/Spices: These will help keep things interesting. Favorites to keep on hand might include: Basil, bay leaf, black pepper, cayenne, cinnamon, cumin seed (and powder), curry, dill weed (and seed), ginger, oregano, paprika, rosemary, sage. The list can become long, but start with a few basics. And consider that it can be more inexpensive to buy small amounts of dried herbs in bulk from health food stores.
9. Vinegars: Apple Cider vinegar, Balsamic vinegar (look for a quality brand, no sugar added), red wine vinegar, rice vinegar, white vinegar—all these can add a dash of tang to so many dishes. Handy to have on hand!