As a dietitian, I’ve heard countless people say that they want to be healthy, they want to eat healthfully, they want to lose weight…but surprisingly, few people know how to put together a meal that’s tasty, nutritious, and economical.
I suppose it’s possible to eat out all the time and stay healthy, but I have my doubts. And when people tell me they hate to cook or wouldn’t set foot in a kitchen other than to open the refrigerator, I figure it’s because they’re just not sure what constitutes a healthful meal. Anyone can cook, and even if you don’t exactly enjoy it, it’s not that great a hardship to spend 15 or 30 minutes making something nutritious. Hey, it takes longer to do your taxes, and that’s sure not fun!
But, you can’t exactly be a budding Gordon Ramsay or Emeril Lagasse if you don’t have the basics, so that’s why I’ve begun this series, focusing on the foods and ingredients to keep stocked in your kitchen.
Last week I discussed some condiments that you should always have on hand. This week I’d like to continue along that theme, and I also invite you to share what you can’t seem to do without in your kitchen.
Spices, Herbs, and Canned Foods
- Garlic. The “stinking rose” is an herb that you should think about keeping around, if you don’t already. Besides offering health benefits, garlic is a wonderful addition to many dishes. If you’ve been shying away from using garlic because of its flavor (or the risk of having garlic breath the next day), keep in mind that the longer you cook it, the more mellow it becomes. And you can always chew on a sprig of parsley to freshen your breath! Buy fresh garlic whenever possible and store it in a cool, dark place. Then, be creative! Add garlic to salad dressings, soups and stews, homemade hummus, or sautéed vegetables. Try roasting it for a smooth, mild spread.
- Herbs and spices. If you’re interested in the health benefits of various herbs and spices (and there are many), check out my postings from last October through December. Chances are, your cupboard is full of old (or should I say, ancient?) spices and herbs that are collecting dust. If that’s the case, do a clean sweep of your cupboard and stock up on new ones. There are many to choose from and it’s really a matter of individual preference, but some of the basics that I always have around include basil (yes, fresh is best, but it’s hard to come by in January), oregano, rosemary, cumin, chili powder, black pepper, tarragon, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. Get a spice rack to help you organize your herbs and spices so that you’ll see them and use them. Spices really do “spice up” otherwise boring dishes. And remember that they’re virtually free of calories, carbohydrate, and fat.
- Chicken, beef, and/or vegetable broth. I always have cans of chicken and beef broth in my pantry. They’re the basis for simple, homemade soups and stews. Buy broths that are fat-free and lower in sodium: they’re much more healthful and they taste better. You can whip up a quick chicken soup by adding in vegetables, noodles, or rice and leftover or rotisserie chicken — without all the additives. Broth is also a tasty way to cook rice, couscous, pasta, and other grains. Bouillon cubes will also do in a pinch, but since they’re loaded with sodium, broth is usually a better choice.
- Nuts and seeds. Nuts and seeds are tricky. Once I get started eating them, I find it hard to stop! And unfortunately, they’re pretty high in calories. But nuts and seeds are rich in heart-healthy fats, antioxidants, plant sterols, fiber, and minerals so they’re really a staple of a heart-healthy diet. (Of course, some nuts, like walnuts, work well in not-so-healthful foods, such as chocolate chip cookies or pecan pie.) Be creative with how you use nuts and seeds when cooking main dishes. For example, chopped nuts can be sprinkled on salads and vegetables or into stir-fries. Nuts and seeds can be added to bread crumb toppings for casseroles, fish, or chicken. Pine nuts are a must-have for homemade pesto (although you can substitute walnuts). Toasting nuts brings out the flavor, so you can use less. To toast, heat nuts in a dry skillet for 1–2 minutes on medium-high heat until they are golden brown and give off a “nutty” smell. Unshelled nuts and seeds will keep for about three months if stored in a tightly sealed container away from light, heat, and moisture.
More next week!