Last weekend, I moved into my first real-person apartment (I say “real person” because college housing doesn’t really count, in my opinion). Unlike in college, where Ramen noodles and Chef Boyardee are acceptable to have as your only in-house meal options, I needed to start a kitchen pantry from scratch if I ever hoped to continue cooking and eating healthy without running to the grocery store–or relying on takeout–every night. Over the past week, I’ve been making trips to Wegman’s (and back to my parents’ house) in the hopes of building up a respectable stock of healthy cabinet essentials. It may only be the bare necessities, but I think I’ve got a pantry I can be proud of. After all, having an organized, well-stocked pantry is a cornerstone of making healthy cooking simpler.
Healthy Pantry Basics
ALL-PURPOSE FLOUR - Whether it’s for whipping up a spontaneous batch of cookies, thickening soups and sauces, or breading cutlets, having all-purpose flour or its gluten-free equivalent is a must in any kitchen.
BAKING SODA & POWDER – When I was a kid, I learned the hard way (literally, because the cake I made had the consistency of a brick) that baking soda and baking powder are NOT interchangeable. If you must choose only one, go with soda. You can make your own baking powder by combining a teaspoon of baking soda with two teaspoons of cream of tartar, plus baking soda can be used as a natural cleaner and deodorizer.
PURE VANILLA EXTRACT - It’s more expensive, but don’t ever settle for anything less than 100% real vanilla extract (you really don’t want to know what they use in the fake stuff). It has no sugar (if it’s pure) and only 12 calories per teaspoon, so it’s a really great way to enhance the flavor of a sweet dish. Try it in your omelet with some coconut oil for a deliciously sweet breakfast.
SWEETENER - Whether you use regular sugar, agave, stevia, or honey, it’s always a good idea to have some kind of sweetener on hand. Natural is always best!
SALT & PEPPER - The two basic seasonings that every pantry needs. While you never want to use too much (especially salt), a little bit of both can be the difference between a bland, flavorless meal and a great one.
HERBS & SPICES – The herbs and spices you’ll need on a daily basis depend on the type of cuisine you cook most often, but my essentials include cinnamon, basil, oregano, garlic powder, onion powder, and nutmeg.
LOW-SODIUM VEGETABLE OR CHICKEN STOCK - Aside from being a key ingredient in homemade soup, stock is good to have for cooking sauces, grains (hello risotto!), casseroles, and stews. You can make your own, but it’s not a bad idea to keep a spare container in the cabinet.
PASTA & SAUCE - It’s the easiest go-to meal in the book for those lazy nights when you just don’t feel like cooking, and it doesn’t have to be unhealthy! Toss some veggies and grilled chicken breast with a jar of all-natural sauce and a box of whole wheat pasta, you can have a healthy meal in under half an hour. For a great gluten-free option, try a quinoa-based pasta.
CANNED VEGGIES - Fresh is, of course, always best, but vegetables like tomatoes and corn are great to have in cans as ready-to-go recipe ingredients.
BEANS - Red, black, garbanzo, kidney–doesn’t matter. You can’t go wrong with protein and fiber-rich beans. Pair it with rice for a great combo that will help control both blood sugar and appetite.
COOKING OIL - A good healthy cooking oil is necessary for a lot of pan-fried, sauteed and baked items, and it’s a much better option than butter. Flavorless vegetable oil is great for all-purpose cooking and baking, but olive oil adds a lot more depth to savory dishes.
What are your healthy pantry essentials?
Just for fun, this is the DIY utensil clock that’s hanging on my kitchen wall next to its store-bought equivalent. I bought a $15 clock and hand-painted/hot glued plastic utensils to it–much better than the $30 they were selling it for at Target!