Nothing has a bigger impact on your health than the food you choose to eat (unless you smoke cigarettes). A diet rich in whole vegetables, grains, legumes, fish and fruit can prevent and even reverse most of the diseases that devastate our society. The good news is that farm-fresh, seasonal produce happens to be some of the most delicious food on the planet.
Unfortunately, our culture does not make it easy to eat foods that are both healthy and delicious. Your typical grocery store is filled with processed, packaged junk that barely resembles the plants and animals it came from (usually corn and soybeans). Even the produce section is populated with clones shipped from halfway around the globe.
But eating healthy is not impossible. I manage to pull it off, despite a long-ish commute and impossible work schedule. All you need is a little planning and a road map.
For many people the most difficult thing about starting to eat healthy is learning how to prepare and cook food. It is very difficult to upgrade your healthstyle by eating in restaurants. You have got to be able to shop and cook for yourself.
This is the beginning of a series of posts designed to give you detailed instructions on How To Get Started Eating Healthy. It is the perfect place to begin if you are new to Summer Tomato. Once you have learned to integrate these instructions into your normal routine, nothing on this blog should pass over your head. You will be able to follow any recipe, conquer any ingredient, get healthy and love every minute of it.
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If you are beginning with a barren kitchen and are not sure what you need to get started, check out the Summer Tomato Shop. Once you are there, use the navigation in the sidebar on the right and browse through Kitchen Gear.
Once you have all your pots, pans and cutting boards you need to Stock Your Pantry. I have created a list of essential items that should always be in your kitchen. Because these things all store well and can be purchased in large quantities, you do not need to buy them often. But check your supplies regularly and be sure you always have everything here:
- Olive oil You really cannot cook anything until you have olive oil. I go through olive oil relatively quickly, so I am sure to buy large bottles. Look for cold-pressed olive oils in dark bottles. For cooking I try to get the highest quality oil I can find at a reasonable price. My current favorite is Whole Foods 365 Organic brand extra-virgin olive oil. I buy the full 1 liter bottle.
- Sea salt Whenever I come across vegetables I do not like they tend to have two things in common: they are 1) over-cooked or 2) under-salted (or both). But salt is bad for you, right? Yes, it is bad to eat the inconceivable volumes of sodium present in processed and packaged food. But you would be hard pressed to ingest that much salt if you add it yourself. It is possible to over-salt your vegetables, but under normal circumstances you can determine the appropriate saltiness by taste. In contrast, processed food tastes gross (grosser, I should say) without salt. You can add a reasonable amount of delicious sea salt to natural foods to enhance their flavor without much worry. Sea salt helps make fresh vegetables taste amazing, and if you eat them you are substantially better off. (note: If you have very high blood pressure, potassium salt might be better for you. Talk to your doctor about your options.)
- Pepper Pepper is an essential spice you should always have in your pantry. It has better flavor if it is freshly ground.
- Vinegar Frequently the easiest way to salvage a struggling dish is to add some kind of acid. Acid has a slightly sour flavor that can help brighten a dish. Vinegar and lemon are the go to choices for most cooks, so you need to have them around. Vinegar (and oil) is also what I use to dress salads. Balsamic vinegar is particularly wonderful because of its sweetness. But if you don’t like it experiment until you find a vinegar you like. Red wine vinegar is my next recommendation. Rice vinegar is also handy to have around, particularly if you like cooking Asian cuisines.
- Fancy olive oil Speaking of salads, I always keep a top-shelf, fancy olive oil in the house for when the dish I’m creating depends on olive oil itself for flavor. Salad is the most basic example, but there are many instances where a better oil is worth the investment. You should enjoy the taste of your food, a few extra dollars for an outstanding olive oil is more than worth it.
- Soy sauce One of the easiest ways to change up the flavor profile of a dish is to add a splash of soy sauce. You should always have some. Keep it in the fridge after opening it though.
- Whole grain cereal I have found it incredibly difficult to find cereals–even whole grain cereals–that aren’t loaded with sugar. Muesli is my best recommendation, but it usually needs some help in the flavor department. I add fruit to fix this. Oatmeal (stove top) is a perfect breakfast if you have time for it (10 minutes). Whatever you choose, make sure you find a cereal made of intact grains that you are happy to eat most every day. For variety, I alternate between cold and warm cereals and change the fruit I use with the seasons.
- Assorted whole grains Intact grains are so old-fashioned these days they are pretty hard to come by. If you do not eat them at home, you will almost certainly never eat them. Brown rice and quinoa are the two I rely on most. Quinoa cooks easily in 15 minutes. Brown rice takes longer, but I make it in large batches and freeze it in single servings that microwave in 1 minute. I also keep whole grain couscous around, even though it isn’t a real whole grain. I just love it in Moroccan food.
- Dried legumes Legumes are some of the healthiest foods on the planet, and are notoriously under-appreciated. Lentils and beans are not just a vegetarian protein source, they are essential to a healthy diet regardless of carnivory. One benefit of them being out of fashion is that they are incredibly cheap and can usually be purchased in an unadulterated form. Lentils are wonderful because they cook quickly, in about 20 minutes. There are many varieties of lentils with different purposes. I recommend starting with regular brown or French green lentils because they keep their shape well. Beans require soaking and still take at least an hour to cook, unless you have a pressure cooker (I couldn’t live without a pressure cooker now). You can buy canned beans if you prefer, but they are far more expensive and have inferior taste and texture.
- Bouillon cubes I had never heard of these until I started cooking, but I use them pretty regularly now. Bouillon cubes are essentially dried, concentrated broth. I keep chicken bouillon around for couscous and soups. Beef bouillon tastes amazing and I love to add it to beans and richer dishes. They make veggie bouillon too. You can get these everywhere, probably even your local liquor store.
- Boxed broth Since these keep for at least a year, it is good to always have a few boxes around. Soups are great to whip up for dinner when you are tired and don’t feel like cooking anything fancy. If you always have broth, you can always have soup. I buy the 1 qt chicken and veggie broths. The smaller boxes or cans are good for making sauces.
- Canned tomatoes I keep at least one 28-oz can of diced tomatoes at all times. Canned tomatoes are the base of so many different cuisines and make for wonderful meals. Tomatoes are, ironically, one of the few canned vegetables that don’t repulse me.
- Nuts You should see the shoebox I use to store all the nuts I buy, it is bursting at the seams. Nuts are healthy, filling and turn food from average to awesome. I throw cashews in stir frys, cook my chard with pistachios and have almonds for a snack almost every day at work. Get in the habit of cooking with nuts or adding them to salads rather than just eating them plain. My kitchen always has raw walnuts (store in the freezer, they go rancid the quickest), roasted unsalted pistachios and sliced almonds. Hazelnuts, macadamia nuts and peanuts are also wonderful. Go nuts!
- Dried fruit With plump, juicy raisins in my oatmeal I do not need to add sugar or honey. Dried apricots are wonderful in Moroccan soups or couscous. Dates are a great after dinner treat. Dried fruits store well and come in handy, you should keep the ones you like around and be creative with them while cooking.
- Canned fish My canned fish of choice lately is sardines. Sardines are incredibly rich in omega-3s and vitamin D. When skinless and boneless, they are also delicious on bread or in a stir fry. My second choice is canned salmon (again, please get boneless–even if it costs extra). Tuna is okay, but it is too high in mercury for me to eat it at the frequency I prefer (you should limit tuna to 1-2 servings per month, particularly if you are a woman of childbearing age). Salmon is high in omega-3s and lower in mercury than tuna. I eat canned fish 2-3 times per week.
- Basic spices When I first discovered cooking I went to the seasoning aisle of my grocery store and bought every spice and herb I had ever heard of. This was a mistake. I have since learned that most of the ones I bought are much better fresh (e.g. parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme). But there are a few spices I still use a lot. I always keep Saigon cinnamon, cayenne pepper, chili flakes, coriander, cumin (seeds and powder), ground ginger, garlic salt and chili powder in the house. I recently got a spice grinder, so sometimes I grind my own. But these are spices that are good to have around.
- Natural nut butter Almond butter on good bread is one of my favorite quick, filling midday snacks. It is high in calories, but very effective at curbing the appetite. I always keep an unopened jar in my pantry. If you buy the natural kind (which you should), refrigerate after opening.
- Pasta I know it sounds sacrilegious, but I do keep pasta in my pantry because sometimes it is just the easiest option. A healthy-ish choice is Japanese soba noodles that are made from buckwheat rather than semolina. I do not have pasta very often, so I do not worry too much if I eat it occasionally.
- Plastic wrap and zipper bags I know these aren’t food, but I consider them essential items that need to be stocked regularly. I also happen to keep mine in the pantry. Don’t forget to buy them!
Once you have these basic ingredients you are ready to start cooking for yourself. In future posts for the How To Get Started Eating Healthy series I will discuss items you need to regularly stock in your refrigerator and freezer. I will also explain how to shop seasonally and outline a few basic cooking techniques you can use to cook almost anything.
Please do not consider this list exhaustive. This is simply a blueprint for how to get started stocking your pantry to cook healthy food.
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