If you want to improve your health, slow aging and get to a good weight, you have to eat a nutritious diet. Understanding what that means isn’t so hard. Putting that knowledge into practice with a hectic schedule and less-than-stellar food choices available at every turn — well, that’s where things get challenging. One of the best ways to guarantee you’ll be successful at eating right, say experts: a well-stocked kitchen.
“If you have healthy foods on hand, you will be much more inclined to stay on track with your nutrition program,” says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, RD, CSSD, director of coaching at the Cleveland Clinic and creator of the online eating program GO! Foods for You. After all, with the right ingredients in your pantry and fridge, throwing together a good-for-you meal can be quicker, tastier and certainly less expensive than takeout.
We asked Jamieson-Petonic and other Cleveland Clinic healthy-eating pros about the ingredients they keep on hand to stack the nutrition odds in their favor. First and foremost, they vote for fresh fruits and vegetables. “I always say to buy local and in season when you can,” says Jamieson-Petonic. The reason? Local, in-season produce is often the least expensive; it also tends to taste the best and have a high concentration of nutrients since it hasn’t been in transit for days.
Here are 10 more must-have foods for your kitchen, along with ideas for eating them:
Smart staple: Beans
An inexpensive source of dietary fiber, B vitamins and antioxidants, beans offer a combination of carbohydrates and protein that will keep you feeling full for hours. What’s more, they are extremely versatile, says Jamieson-Petonic.
Wondering whether it’s worth the time to hydrate your own beans? Bottom line: Both canned and dried beans are packed with nutrients and extremely economical. If you use canned ones, just be sure to rinse them well to cut the sodium by as much as one-third.
Ideas for eating: Jamieson-Petonic suggests tossing beans into soups, Mexican dishes and salads. Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, wellness manager for the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, keeps beans on hand for nights when there’s no time to cook. She sautees frozen brown rice with frozen spinach and beans in a little olive oil with salt and pepper for a hearty five-minute meal with loads of flavor and nutrients.
Smart staple: Herbs
Whether they’re dried, fresh or frozen, herbs and spices add a depth of flavor and intrigue to your meals without adding calories or sodium. And as a bonus, they’re a potent source of disease-fighting antioxidants. “There’s good evidence that many herbs and spices have all kinds of health benefits,” says Roxanne Sukol, MD, MS, the medical director of Wellness Enterprise at the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. “For example: Turmeric is an anti-inflammatory.” So which are the best to include in your diet? As many as you can, says Sukol. “The greater variety you eat, the more likely you are to hit on something that’s healthful for you at the moment.”
Ideas for eating: When fresh herbs are in season, whip up some pesto and freeze it in ice trays so you always have the homemade sauce on hand. If fresh herbs aren’t available, dried ones also work well in a pinch. Try adding red pepper flakes to pasta, dill to chicken soup, and oregano to freshly popped popcorn.
Smart staple: Olive and canola oils
Healthy oils are a must-have for any kitchen. Keep both olive and canola in the pantry and you’ll be set for a variety of cooking techniques — plus, both are packed with unique health benefits. “Olive oil is a staple of the Mediterranean diet
, which is one of the healthiest diets around, and canola contains heart-healthy omega-3s,” says Kirkpatrick.
Ideas for eating: Since canola oil has a high smoke point, reserve it for high-heat preparations like stir-frying. Olive oil is better for lower-temperature uses, like roasting on a lower heat or drizzling on steamed vegetables to kick flavor up a notch and improve vitamin absorption.
Smart staple: Canned salmon and sardines
“Both are high in omega-3s,” says Kirkpatrick. And aside from being inexpensive sources of heart-healthy fats and protein, both have added bonuses: Canned salmon is usually caught wild, which means it has fewer pollutants and more omega-3s than farmed fish, and sardines can also be a good source of calcium since they usually contain small, barely noticeable bones. Frozen salmon burgers are another less-expensive, in-a-pinch fish option, says Kirkpatrick.
Ideas for eating: Add canned salmon to salads, mix it with mayo or nonfat Greek yogurt as an alternative to tuna salad, or use it to make homemade burgers. Sardines can make a satisfying snack or sandwich topping.
Smart staple: Whole grains
Simple, unrefined grains like brown rice, millet, buckwheat, bulgur and quinoa are all prime candidates for creativity in the kitchen — and you can usually find them very reasonably priced in the bulk section of your supermarket. All are good sources of filling fiber as well as B vitamins. “I make quinoa a lot,” says Jamieson-Petonic. “It’s a great source of protein and complex carbs.”
Ideas for eating: Prepare quinoa with broth, stir in vegetables like baby spinach, and top with Parmesan cheese for an easy risotto-like dish. Or mix leftover brown rice with lowfat milk and top with slivered almonds and frozen berries for a hearty breakfast.
Smart staple: Whole-grain pasta
Spaghetti and its cousins get a bad rap — but as long as you make the right choices, pasta can be a nutritious meal that’s as easy as boiling water. So how do you know you’re getting the right one? Don’t pay attention to the front of the box and instead read the ingredients. “You want the first ingredient to be 100 percent whole wheat — or brown rice, if you’re looking for a gluten-free option,” says Dr. Sukol.
Ideas for eating: Kirkpatrick sautes a can of crushed tomatoes with olive oil, salt, pepper, and herbs and tosses with some whole-grain pasta for a quick and easy meal.
Smart staple: Frozen produce
It’s great to have a fridge full of fresh fruits and veggies — but the reality is, produce isn’t always readily available in much of the country. And when it’s shipped from far away, it loses much of its nutrient content. Enter frozen produce. “In the summer, I buy fresh. I don’t always do that in winter because I want to get the most nutrients,” says Kirkpatrick. Frozen produce can also come in handy if you live alone or your family has trouble using certain veggies before they go bad.
Ideas for eating: For breakfasts or snacks, blend frozen berries with lowfat plain yogurt for an easy fruit smoothie. For dinner, saute frozen spinach and mushrooms in olive oil, season with salt and pepper and serve on a bed of tomato sauce, topped with a dollop of Greek yogurt.
Smart staple: Vinegar
Keeping a few vinegars on hand — balsamic, red wine, apple cider and others — gives you a sodium-free and nearly calorie-free way of adding depth and flavor to many foods. “Vinegar is great to add to foods that are sweet because you get that sweet and sour combo, which is really satisfying,” says Dr. Sukol.
Ideas for eating: Dr. Sukol recommends marinating strawberries in balsamic vinegar and adding them to a bed of spinach with a sprinkle of pine nuts or sliced almonds for a simple, elegant salad. Or, whisk together three parts olive oil with one part red wine vinegar along with your favorite herbs for an easy, sodium- and sugar-free salad dressing (bottled dressings can be loaded with both).
Smart staple: Nuts
Almonds, walnuts, pecans and other types of nuts are great sources of protein and fiber, says Jamieson-Petonic. Keep them on hand — in the refrigerator or freezer to prevent the heart-healthy oils from becoming overheated — to add texture and nutrients to meals or for a satisfying snack.
Ideas for eating: Toss nuts on top of oatmeal or salads, suggests Jamieson-Petonic. Or, make your own on-the-go snack: Scoop a quarter cup of almonds into a baggie and mix with two tablespoons of dried cherries.
Smart staple: Eggs
Packed with high-quality protein and an array of nutrients, such as vision-boosting lutein and zeazanthin, eggs are always worth keeping in your kitchen. “There’s a lot you can do with eggs,” says Kirkpatrick, from snacking on a hard-boiled egg to whisking them into a quick omelet or scramble for lunch or dinner. While there are many egg varieties on sale at your grocery store, try picking some up from a local farmer, if you can: They’re almost always superior in terms of taste and nutrition.
Ideas for eating: A favorite in Dr. Sukol’s house is the Middle Eastern dish shakshuka: Saute thinly sliced onions in oil, then top with a jar of tomato sauce. Once sauce is steaming, crack eggs directly into pan. Cover with lid and cook until poached, about 20 minutes.