I have quite a few items in my cupboard that I just can’t do without. With these healthy pantry staples to hand I can usually whip something up if there’s a last minute food emergency. Having these key ingredients ready to go is essential to maintaining a healthy diet when time or money is tight. Some of these items can have a high initial outlay, but often last a long time and can be bought in bulk to reduce costs.
1. Canned coconut milk/coconut cream
I love coconut milk. And I’m talking the thick, creamy kind, not the watered down drink variety. I get quite excited about this stuff as it is an amazingly versatile replacement for dairy cream in almost any recipe. Think creamy porridge, smoothies, curries, desserts, ice cream and much more. It is made from the flesh of a coconut that has been blended together with water to create a texture similar to very thick cream. But don’t be alarmed by the red siren on the food label about it’s rather high saturated fat content. Fortunately coconut milk contains a rather lovely kind of fat called MCT’s (medium-chain triglycerides), which unlike other fats is digested in the liver – providing a quick and easily digestible source of energy rather than being stored as fat. It also has anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties, which can benefit the digestive and immune system.
When buying the canned variety, look for the highest percentage of coconut as possible. Low-fat varieties are essentially just watered down versions, which doesn’t really make much economical sense. Try and avoid any additives such as guar gum, stabilisers and carrageenan if possible, or opt for coconut cream instead which has a much lower water content. Brands I like are Pride Coconut Milk (contains guar gum), Aldi’s own brand coconut milk (which contains the highest percentage of coconut out of any I’ve seen, 91%!) and Sainsbury’s own brand of coconut milk.
Remember people, fat is your friend!
2. Coconut oil
On the subject of fat, another of my staples is trusty coconut oil. Coconut oil has definitely shot to fame as the poster child of healthy hipster oils, and with good reason. As well as the medicinal benefits mentioned above, coconut oil has been shown to increase good “HDL” cholesterol in the body, while also reducing the bad “LDL” cholesterol. When choosing coconut oil make sure it is virgin coconut oil that is unrefined, and cold-pressed – to preserve its heat-sensitive fatty acids, vitamins and anti-oxidants. Coconut oil has a relatively smoke point of around 350F/180C, making it suitable for most oven cooking and frying methods.
3. Coconut Aminos/Liquid Aminos
Are you starting to see a trend here? Soy sauce is my go-to flavour enhancer for a lot of dishes, however most commercial soy sauces contain a lot of additives and sugar that I would prefer to avoid. Liquid aminos is a very similar tasting product made from non-GMO soy protein, water and nothing else. For those wishing to avoid soy, another alternative is coconut aminos, which is a highly nutrient-rich “sap” that comes from the coconut blossoms after the coconut tree is tapped. It is very low glycemic, and an abundant source of 17 amino acids, minerals and vitamins. It doesn’t have a coconut flavour, and can be used in salad dressings, marinades, sautes, and with sushi! It can be quite pricey, but does last quite a long time.
Flaxseed (also known as linseed) is another very nutritious addition to your pantry. As a very abundant source of Omega-3 fatty acids in ALA form, they can reduce inflammation, aid in digestive health and promote healthy hair and skin. As well as being a great source of fibre, it also has an impressive protein content (18g per 100g) – containing many essential amino acids. A great way to incorporate flaxseed is in porridge, smoothies, pancakes and other bakes. When mixed with liquid it develops a very gelatinous texture, also making it a great egg substitute.
Oats – is there anything they can’t do? I’m a big fan of my organic rolled oats, particularly when it comes to a lovely warming bowl of porridge in the mornings – which admittedly I have a slight obsession with. Oats are extremely nutritious, being one of the most nutrient dense foods that you can eat. They are a great source of soluble fibre (beta-glucan), vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants, and have been shown to aid in weightloss, reduce cholesterol and regulate blood sugar levels. Although more efficient for speed, instant quick cook oats have a bigger impact on blood glucose levels due to the fibre being more broken down (resulting in a more mushy texture), so I always recommend choosing steel-cut or rolled oats where possible. Oats can be used in a multitude of ways when time is tight, such as in porridge, overnight oats, granola, pancakes and flapjacks amongst many other uses.
6. Tinned tomatoes
Tomato is a versitile base for so many meals – soups, sauces, curries, stews you name it. It makes sense to go nuts and bulk buy for whenever you need a quick meal that you can throw together quickly. Tomatoes contain a powerful anti-oxidant called Lycopene, which is a carotenoid that results in the brilliant red coloring of many fruits and vegetables. Unlike other fruits and vegetables, where nutritional content such as vitamin C is diminished upon cooking, heat and processing of tomatoes actually increases the concentration of bioavailable lycopene in produce like tinned tomatoes. Because tomatoes have a thin skin, it is worth the slightly extra cost to buy organic varieties such as Tarantella, which is my favourite brand to buy.
7. Nut Butter
Everyone loves nut butter right? It’s nutty, its moreish and it makes porridge 110% more awesome. I’m pretty sure I could eat an entire jar of almond butter just on its own. That aside, nut butters like almond butter are full of heart healthy monounsaturated fats and a good amount of protein, that will increase satiety with any meal. People often think that foods like peanut butter are unhealthy or fattening, but when eaten in moderation, nut butters can actually boost metabolism and aid fat loss. The quality of nut butters is also a large factor, as cheap commercial varieties can often contain added sugar and hydrogenated oils that can increase inflammation and cause weight gain. Particularly in the case of peanuts which are prone to mold, it is often worth buying organic varieties, as the soft porous shell of nuts are more likely to absorb pesticides/fungicides.
8. Maple Syrup/coconut sugar
Sweeteners can often be quite a contentious and confusing issue. Most of us know that any kind of sweetener whether natural or artificial is still sugar at the end of the day, but how these sugars interact with the body is a key factor that can set them apart. I tend to stick with natural sweeteners that are lower on the glycemic index, which means that when they are consumed they will not cause your blood sugar and therefore your insulin levels to spike. My personal preference is maple syrup or coconut sugar, because as well as being lower in fructose (which can stimulate weight gain) they are both low-moderate on the glycemic index. Obviously this is not a reason to have a sugar frenzy, but for the occasional dollop it may be worth opting for a healthier option if you can afford it.
9. Beans and Lentils
Beans and lentils (or legumes as they’re otherwise called) are a great addition to your pantry. They last for ages, are super cheap and are an easy addition to many meals. Legumes are a very nutritious source of fibre and protein (around 19g per 100g) whilst being low in calories. Because they are very satiating, they are very good for aiding in weight-loss and moderating blood sugar levels. They can be added to stews, curries, salads, soups or blended to make tasty sides like hummus. An important point to note however is that legumes contain anti-nutrients such as phytic acid and lectins, which can impair the absorption of certain nutrients and cause digestive discomfort in some. To prevent this, legumes should be soaked overnight, and ideally sprouted – which increases their nutritional profile and breaks down as many of the anti-nutrients as possible. I’ll be writing an article on sprouting techniques soon.
10. Grains/pseudo grains
Pseudo grains are seeds and grasses that we normally categorize as grains, and are a gluten-free, nutritious and filling addition to any meal. My personal favourites are quinoa, amaranth, millet, buckwheat, brown rice and wild rice, however the list of healthful grains is now pretty extensive! They are a low-glycemic carbohydrate that are high in protein and fibre, as well as important minerals such as calcium, iron, manganese and magnesium. Like legumes, most pseudo grains will need soaking before cooking to remove the anti-nutrients. Quinoa in particular needs rinsing to remove the bitter saponins on its outer coating. Processed grains and cereals are often high-glycemic, which play havoc with our blood glucose levels and often leave us feeling tired, craving sugar and gaining weight.
There are many other additions I could have made to this list, but these are just some of my favourites. What food supplies are a necessity in your cupboard?