It took me a while to have everything on hand, and I initially bought stuff that I had no idea about, some of which I still buy today, some of which I have never touched. I have found that unless you do a lot of baking, especially gluten free baking, the stuff you need is not that complicated and unusual.
So let's start at the beginning. What are the essentials to a healthy kitchen? And where do I buy that stuff?
First, let's define what healthy food is and what it is not.
1. Whole foods: in this day and age, the average American consumes very little unadulterated foods. Most of our diet consists of foods that have been either manipulated or processed and stripped of their nutrients. Whole foods are foods that are as nature made them. Examples of whole foods are fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains such as brown or wild rice, raw buckwheat, oats, millet, quinoa, beans, legumes, fresh eggs, raw nuts and seeds.
The problem with whole foods is that they require a bit more time in the kitchen: washing, chopping, cooking... rather than microwaving. BUT, your health is worth it!
2. Organic foods: eating certified organic foods is the best way to avoid GMO (genetically modified) foods, which have been linked to several environmental and health issues. It is also the best way to reduce exposure to pesticides and toxins. An organic food contains more nutrients than a conventionally grown food. However, buying organic can become costly really quickly. If this is not something you can afford all the time, try to at least follow the dirty dozen rule and buy organic when you buy these foods.
Based on these two rules, buying organic oreo cookies from the store, though better than non organic, is NOT a healthy choice. And buying fresh strawberries or fresh corn that has been conventionally grown exposes you to a high level of pesticides or GMOs. Just something to be aware of. I do sometimes eat conventionally grown produce from the dirty dozen list, because there is no other option, but in my house and in my kitchen, I try to stick to those principles and limit our exposure to toxins and artificial foods.
So in order to cook healthy with whole organic foods, what will you need? Let me come up with my healthy dozen, essential ingredients that I always have on hand:
1. Healthy oils: unlike animal fat, oils are a great source of heart-healthy fat. However, all oils are not created equal. Stay tuned for a more detailed blog post on healthy oils, but for now, let me tell you what I have in my pantry:
- extra virgin unrefined, cold pressed olive oil (Trader Joe's)
- cold pressed flax seed oil (Trader Joe's, in the vitamin and supplement section)
- unrefined virgin coconut oil (Whole Foods or amazon.com. TJ's now sells it too but I don't think theirs is cold pressed)
- sometimes I also buy hemp seed oil from Whole Foods, rich in omega 3-6-9.
I ALWAYS buy my oils COLD PRESSED, and make sure it is in a dark bottle (except coconut oil, which I haven't found in a dark bottle). I keep it in a dark cool place, and keep the flax seed and hemp seed oil in the fridge once open. Oils that are not cold pressed loose their healing properties and become toxic when heated above 40 degrees Celsius (about 110 F) through the extraction process. For cooking, the most heat resistant oils are olive oil and coconut oil, but they should be used sparingly in the pan, and never be brought to the smoking point, as they then release toxic fumes and become carcinogenic. It is better to steam your food and then drizzle oil on it.
- Balsamic vinegar
3. Salt and salt seasonings:
- Unrefined sea salt, which includes Celtic salt (Whole Foods), kosher salt or Himalayan salt but to save you the trip to whole foods, Trader Joe's sells simple sea salt and pink Himalayan salt
- Herbamare, a sea salt and herb blend, is great as a replacement for broth to make soups and stews (Whole Foods or Amazon.com)
4. Spices and herbs: curry, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamon, cumin seeds, ground cumin, mustard seeds, coriander powder, ginger powder, chili powder, cayenne pepper, garam masala, parsley, basil, cilantro, chives, rosemary, thyme, oregano, etc.... do not underestimate the health benefits of these herbs and spices.
5. Raw nuts and seeds: always buy your nuts and seeds RAW. Store them in the fridge or freezer so they don't become rancid. I use them in my salads or in dessert, as pie crusts, in smoothies or ice creams, cereal bars, etc... Examples are raw almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, with of course their butter version. Our favorite is raw almond butter. Watch out for the sunflower seed butter which is made with roasted sunflower seeds and has sugar cane added to it. The kids prefer it, but I only buy it occasionally for the two reasons mentioned.
I also use chia seeds in my smoothie every morning, or flax seeds. All these can be found at Trader Joe's, except for chia seeds, which I buy at Whole Foods or on Amazon.com
6. Whole grains: unrefined, whole, brown, raw grains. Examples are brown rice, wild rice, black rice, buckwheat, millet, quinoa
7. Beans: I try to buy dried beans and cook them myself but I don't always plan ahead well enough, so I also always have cans of organic beans in my pantry, mostly black beans, garbanzo beans, kidney beans and cannellini beans.
8. Natural sweeteners: sugar is sugar is sugar is sugar. And sugar is BAD for you. So I try to avoid/limit it. However, if I am going to bake something, I use the following natural sweeteners:
- agave syrup: I know there is controversy out there about whether this is really a healthier alternative. I am doing some reading on it and am starting to feel like I should avoid agave altogether. But it is something I have been using, and buying the raw organic blue agave from Trader Joe's. Expect a post on this when I found out more.
- organic or pure maple syrup, not the crap that you buy in a plastic bottle at the grocery store, which is full of artificial stuff and mixed with high fructose corn syrup. I buy mine at Trader Joe's.
- coconut sugar, which has a lower glycemic index than regular sugar. (Whole Foods or amazon.com)
- Sucanat (Sugar Cane Natural), which is sugar that still contains all the good stuff (minerals), from Whole Foods.
- Stevia (Trader Joe's, Whole Foods or online)
9. Dried fruits: rather than snacking on cookies, dried fruits are a good alternative and can be used in desserts as a sweetener or thickener. I always have prunes, dates, figs and raisin.
10. Alternative milks to dairy:
- Canned coconut milk: I use it a lot in smoothies, popsicles and for meals like lentil dahls or soups, as a replacement for dairy milk. (Trader Joe's)
- Organic Almond milk is what my kids have with their cereals! (Trader Joe's)
11. Ezekiel bread: made with sprouted grains and cereals, rather than refined flours and added artificial stuff. It's organic and it's just better for you! Though I don't eat bread due to my allergy to wheat, the rest of the family enjoys it. I buy the one in the orange packaging, which they also have in the low sodium version (Trader Joe's).
12. Frozen fruits: mango, pineapple, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries. My substitute for ice cream or to be used in smoothies.
Ok, I know I said healthy DOZEN, but I have to add a few more staple item: Avocados, fresh ginger and lemons :)