Healthy cooking doesn’t require fancy equipment or exotic ingredients. All you need is a few sharp knives, a refrigerator with fresh meats, fruits and vegetables, and a well-stocked pantry.
If you think stocking your pantry will cost you a fortune, you might be right if your plan was to purchase everything you need at once. I’ve found that collecting items when they’re on sale has allowed me to keep my healthy cook’s pantry full of tasty ingredients.
What would you find in my pantry today?
A Variety of Cooking Oils
Olive oil, grape seed or canola oil, coconut oil, sesame seed oil, and walnut oil. That’s all I need to bake, sauté, make salad dressings, etc. Most days I use olive oil, but if I’m baking I’ll use coconut oil or canola. Grapeseed can take high heat, so it’s good for a sautéing. Sesame oil lends itself perfectly to stir fries and Asian dressings.
Oils can spoil quickly near heat, so I keep them in a dark cupboard, and when I purchase in volume, I pour some in an aerosol sprayer and olive oil bottle. The rest goes in the refrigerator for safe keeping.
A Variety of Vinegars
Apple cider, red wine, rice and balsamic vinegars are a must. There isn’t a vinaigrette you can’t make with these inexpensive vinegars. If you have a few dollars to spare, spend a more on a good balsamic, it can really make a difference in depth of flavor.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that vinegars last forever. I’ve spoiled more than a few recipes with rancid vinegar.
A Good Collection of Mustards
If you only purchase one mustard, then choose Dijon. You’ll find that most recipes that call for mustard will reference Dijon. I keep a spicy brown mustard, and standard yellow too. You’ll often find Chinese hot mustard on our shelves – it’s a must for our favorite Asian dishes.
Local organic honey and 100% maple syrup are expensive purchases, but you won’t use them up quickly because a little goes a long way in baked goods, sauces and vinaigrettes.
Now that I my pantry includes oils, vinegars, mustards and sweeteners, I can make my own vinaigrettes. I even have a handy shake and pour bottle to mix them up with.
We’re not finished yet. We still have a few more items on the list to complete our well-stocked healthy cook’s pantry.
Mayonnaise and Ketchup
Read nutrition labels when purchasing these items. You’re looking for low sodium and low sugar on the label.
I prefer the mayonnaise brands that include olive oil because they are typically lower in calories. If I can find a natural ketchup that doesn’t include high fructose corn syrup that suits my needs as well. While I don’t use either item often, other family members can’t live without them.
You would be hard put to find meats or vegetables that don’t work well with Mexican seasonings. Chili powder, cumin, oregano and red pepper are all it takes to make a Mexican inspired meal. Add a dash of fresh lime and cilantro to take it over the top.
Authentic Asian dishes can require a variety of ingredients, but for this healthy cook, Tamari (gluten free soy sauce), chili garlic sauce, sesame seed oil, ginger (usually fresh, but dried in an emergency) and Teriyaki sauce work for the average stir fry, soup, or egg roll recipe.
Odds and Ends
Don’t forget sea salt or kosher salt. I like their mild flavors. And don’t buy ground black pepper. Fresh ground is infinitely better. If you have nothing else in the pantry to season with, these items will bring out the natural flavor in any food.
Old Bay seasoning is perfect with any seafood. All you’ll need is a splash of lemon to perk things up.
Bay leaves, thyme, rosemary and oregano (mentioned above in Mexican seasonings) give stews, soups and slow cooked dishes that savory appeal. And they work well for Italian dishes.
If you can, invest in a rosemary plant. There’s nothing like fresh rosemary. The dried variety will do, but don’t let it get stale or it can ruin your dish with a very nasty flavor.
How Long Will Your Dried Herbs and Spices Last?
Store them in a cool environment and they could last up to 4 years for whole spices, and 2 years for ground spices. Herbs have a shorter shelf life. Herbs don’t last as long, but you can tell if a spice or herb is still useful if you rub it between your fingers and it’s still aromatic.
Kalyn Denny from the blog Kalyn’s Kitchen provides a primer on storing spices and herbs that I found very useful.
What Else Will You Need?
Whole Grains, Beans and Legumes
Keep a variety of quick cooking whole grains on hand. Brown rice and quinoa work with almost any dish, and they make terrific salads too.
Look for 100% whole grain pastas, or even quinoa pasta for an added fiber and protein boost in your meals.
Dried beans like black, garbanzo and pinto are always in my pantry. I can soak them for a few hours, then boil them on the stove and skip the added sodium in the canned varieties (although I do keep canned beans on hand for emergencies).
Miscellaneous Canned Items
Low sodium vegetable and chicken broths are always on hand. They flavor soups and stews, but also work well for sautés and stir fries. I often light sauté foods with just a little oil, and then add vegetable broth as needed to keep food from burning.
Canned tomatoes and spaghetti sauce are terrific to have on hand if you’re in a pinch for time. Most families will eat spaghetti and meat sauce without a fuss.
I don’t bake often, but I still stock baking ingredients.
Whole wheat pastry flour is a favorite. It’s whole grain, but gives baked goods a light texture. Baking soda, baking powder, brown sugar, sugar and cornstarch. You’ll find that many Asian sauces require a bit of cornstarch to thicken the sauces.
Wondra is a very fine white flour that I only use on occasion when a sauce is too thin. It’s worth keeping in the pantry for just those occasions.
Panko bread crumbs are a must. They give faux fried foods that crispy crunch we all love.
Don’t forget that these pantry items have a shelf life too, so if you don’t bake often, then buy smaller amounts. It might cost more, but in the end be less wasteful.
Sweet baked goods also require a few spices. Cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves are on my shelves as well. Cinnamon even goes into some of my Mexican dishes, not to mention my daily oatmeal.
Every pantry needs a few fresh ingredients. Many recipes call for garlic and onions.
Fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, thyme and rosemary can be purchased for just pennies, and add brightness to any dish. I use an herb keeper I purchased for less than $12.00 on Amazon to keep my herbs fresh for a few weeks. They never go to waste!
Lemons are cheap too. Keep one or two on hand for seafood dishes, sauces and vinaigrettes.
Eggs and milk, whether it’s cow, almond or coconut need to be in the refrigerator. If there’s nothing else on hand but eggs, onions and a handful of parsley, you can make an omelette for dinner.
Even if you aren’t a yogurt fan, a small container of low fat plain yogurt makes terrific sauces and dressings. If you haven’t used it by the pull date, toss it in the blender with a banana for a smoothie in the morning. It will never go to waste.
Walnuts and almonds can be expensive, but keep them in the frig to toss into salads and baked goods.
So there you are!
My list of must have healthy cook’s pantry items is complete. Don’t go broke buying expensive ingredients and have them go to waste. You can purchase small quantities of spices, beans, nuts and legumes in the bulk bins at your local grocery store. Store them in Ziplock bags and they’ll last for several months.
Don’t forget to download this handy pantry list, and healthy cooking will be in your future too.
Happy, healthy cooking!