Healthy Eating: Building The Perfect Pantry

To eat a better diet, you’ll need the right tools to succeed.  With the perfect pantry, you’ll be able to prepare tasty,  healthy, meals in minutes, meals that satisfy your hunger for flavor and help you stay fit.

Fats: There’s no getting around the fact that your body needs fats to function. You want to have available fats that add

flavor and are good for you.  I suggest canola oil and olive oil. Both have more “healthy fats” than other oils. Also, both have a higher “smoke point”, that is,  they get much hotter before burning, than other oils. This is great when you saute foods.  Both oils can be easily found in supermarkets as well.

Canola has the added benefits of being flavorless, which gives you more control over the final flavor of the dish, and is relatively inexpensive.

Olive oils are a bit more varied in flavor and complexity. The finest is cold pressed extra virgin oil olive.  Harvested olives are cleaned and then pressed under great weights to extract as much juice as possible. Centrifugal force is then used to separate the oil, which is a rich, dark green and full of flavor. From that point on, every pressing incorporates either heat or chemicals to extract more oil. Such oils have names like “extra virgin”, “virgin”, “olive blend”, “pommace” and “light”.  I’d recommend having a small bottle of cold pressed extra virgin for salads and other dishes which would benefit from its distinct flavor, and extra virgin for cooking purposes.

Avoid all the others. They have no place in your pantry. For your choice of oils, follow the instructions on the label for proper storage.

You’ll also want a can of cooking spray such as PAM. Go with the unflavored.  These contain almost no fat at all, yet help keep foods from sticking to the pan.

Salt and pepper: You’ll want kosher salt for your day-to-day cooking. Kosher salt has no additives, so it has a cleaner taste. Also, the grains are larger so you can see where they are, and are irregular, not square like table salt. This helps the salt stay where you put it. As your palate develops, try sea salt, especially on salads. Its taste is light and bright.

There are many kinds of “gourmet salts”…French sea salt, harvested only by young virgins,  Himalayan pink salt, gray salts from the coasts of Brittany. When you get your bonus check, go play in the salt fields, just for the fun of it. But have in your pantry good ol’ kosher salt.

Pepper: A general rule about food:  the longer it remains whole, the more flavor it retains. Replace the traditional ground pepper with whole pepper corns, and buy yourself a good quality pepper mill. It will make all the difference in the world. And while you’re at it, get another for your salt.

Herbs and spices: Herbs are from the softer parts of the plant, the leaves and roots. Basil, oregano, thyme are herbs.

Spices are from the harder parts such as bark and nuts. Cinnamon, nutmeg, etc. To get started, you want the following: basil, oregano, thyme, bay leaves, cumin, dill, ginger, paprika, allspice, chili powder, coriander, curry powder and dry mustard.  Always buy the smallest containers possible and plan on replacing them at least once a year.

A few notes here: be aware of the fact that there are many, many kinds of chili and curry powder. You owe it to your palate to try several kinds. Compare supermarket varieties with those you’ll find in ethnic markets…there’s a world of difference. And, before the purists start sending me very nasty e-notes,  I will go on record to say that freshly grown herbs and spices are always preferable. Always. Especially when it comes to parsley. Don’t ever buy dried parsley. No matter how “gourmet” it might be, it ain’t worth the money.

One last thing about herbs and spices: if your recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs, and all you have is dried, use 1/3 that amount, or 1 teaspoon (1Tbls = 3Tsps).

Sweets: For most applications, the white sugar your Mom bought is just fine for everyday use. But you should be aware of other, less refined alternatives.  Natural cane sugars such as Turbinado is produced by crushing sugar cane to get a juice that is rich in molasses. That is reduced and then crystallized to produce the sugar. The sugar crystals are larger and have a much deeper flavor.

You also want on hand some honey and agave syrup. Honeys from different flowers have different flavors.  The sugars in agave are processed by the body at a much slower rate and so are healthier for people with a history of diabetes, and it has a unique flavor all its own.

Flour: You’ll want some all-purpose flour for good reason…it does just about everything you want a flour to do. Whole wheat flour is a bit less refined, retaining some of the outer hull of the wheat berry and adds unique properties of their own to a dish.   If you’re into home-made pizza, you’ll want some bread flour – look for one that has a “high gluten” content.

Keep all your flours in containers with tight fitting lids, ideally screw top. Not only are they bug proof but they help prevent spills. Trust me on this: you don’t want to spill a 5 pound bag of flour on your kitchen floor. You’ll be covered in white dust for days.

Stocks: Stocks, most commonly chicken, beef and vegetable, are essential in the kitchen.  They add depth and boost the flavor of a dish without adding a lot of other extras.  Look for stocks in the soup aisle – depending on use, you might want to select a low fat/low sodium, or even fat free version.  In some cases, you might be able to find what’s called “base”, a paste version of the stock meant to be diluted in water. Almost every commercial kitchen uses base.

A note of caution here: check the ingredient label carefully on these products. If the first ingredient listed is “salt” put it back on the shelf and find another.  This is especially true for low-no fat versions, and particularly some organic/free range versions.  For this reason you want to avoid bouillon cubes–they are loaded with salt.

Are there other things to have in your pantry? Yup, hundreds and as you become more sure of yourself in the kitchen, as you prove to yourself that you can indeed prepare tasty, healthy meals, I encourage you to go out and buy them. By the bag full. One of my favorite treats is to go into my local  “pan asian” market. (This is for me a near-erotic experience itself).  There they have the most wondrous condiment aisle, with several thousand items completely unknown to me. I make a point of buying at least one such item on every trip.

My culinary school teacher told me that cooking isn’t magic, but if you’re good at it, it looks like magic. Go make some magic for yourself. It’s healthy for you.

Next post: The Well-Stocked Refrigerator.

Kent McDonald is a Certified Personal Chef, living and working in Phoenix, AZ. (c) All Rights Reserved. 2009


10 thoughts on “Healthy Eating: Building The Perfect Pantry

  1. Flavored salts are also a wonderful addition to a healthy pantry, such as Nicoise Olive and Lavender Rosemary. Both make make fantastic alternatives to heavy-laden salad dressings.


  2. –Few things in this life are as tempting as a favorite store just around the corner. The next time you visit, buy at least one herb or spice you’ve never used before and have no idea how to use…consider it “continuing education”.


  3. —Yup, the same plant gives us both products. Agave syrup has what’s called a low glycemic index. It’s a type of sweetener that digests slowly in the bloodstream, making it a favorite with diabetics. It’s about 1.25 times sweeter than sugar and has subtle molasses undertones.


  4. Interesting. Where do you find agave syrup? How do you use it as a substitute? I suppose some people I know may view the use for syrup as a waste of an agave. 🙂

  5. If you suffer from hayfever, a hint I learned from a homeopath in England is to eat local honey whenever you can. It contains micro amounts of local pollens so that you get acclimated to your local allergens over time. I don’t care if it is the placebo effect or not, but my allergies got a lot less severe when I switched from generic honeys to only locally made kinds. Besides, just another way to keep local beekeepers alive and well.

  6. –Excellent idea, Jan. In fact, it’s smarter and healthier to purchase as much food locally as possible. If your supermarkets aren’t featuring locally-grown foods, ask them why. Do a bit of research to find farmer’s markets going on in your neighborhood. The farmer, the economy and your body will thank you for it.


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