How To Get Started Eating Healthy: Stock Your Pantry

by | Apr 8, 2009


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.

For more free healthy eating tips be sure to subscribe to Summer Tomato.

Keep in mind I was once as clueless in the kitchen as I was at the farmers market. I found my healthstyle through trial and error and created Summer Tomato to share what I have learned.

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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43 Responses to “How To Get Started Eating Healthy: Stock Your Pantry”

  1. I, too, love my pressure cooker. Not sure how one eats enough dried beans without one. Canned beans just don’t cut it any more.

    This is a great post. Thanks for sharing it with everyone. The more education, the better.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Thank you! For anyone who doesn’t know Veggie Queen, she is the master of the pressure cooker. Check out her blog for great pressure cooker recipes.

  2. Scott says:

    “…Even the produce section is populated with clones shipped from halfway around the globe…”
    We all thought technology and advances like the ability to do with was so great at the time; I wonder what else our society has come to that a few years down the road we’ll either regret, or want to redo.

  3. Erica says:

    I love your list! I just need to add on to a couple of your points:

    * Spices – Buy organic spices. Yes, they are more expensive, but you don’t need a whole lot for any one dish. Non-organic spices are irradiated, which changes the cell structure of the spice.

    * Plastic wrap and zipper bags – This is something I struggle with. To one extent, sometimes using plastic isn’t a bad thing. But, on the other hand, how often have you thrown one away after one use? I think the Earth would thank us kindly for cutting back on single-use bags (where appropriate)! Using glass or even plastic reusable containers means cutting back on waste.

    Lots of good stuff!

    • Scott says:

      I thought irradiation does not change the structure of of molecules? And I agree, I like to use something besides plastic; I love mother earth, but I also like saving money by not buying disposable bags….

      • Darya Pino says:

        Irradiation does change the structure of DNA, that is how it causes cancer. But I’m not sure it changes the structure of “cells”, and it is not clear to me what that would mean for a ground spice. I have seen no data that makes me worry about irradiated spices.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Thanks Erica. Yes, I forgot to mention that I re-use my freezer bags. They are just so convenient…..

  4. LOVE this! Thanks so much for sharing! Can’t wait to read the future posts of the “How To Get Started Eating Healthy” series 😉

  5. Riayn says:

    I found your post on Problogger’s 31 Days to a better blog and as a fellow health blogger I couldn’t resist checking out your post on How To Get Starting Eating Healthy.
    A fantastic post! It is so easy to eat healthy, but so many people out there just don’t know how to get started. I hope that your post encourages many people to take control of their diets and make the change for the better.

  6. dsennerud says:

    Nice idea for a series. I’m looking forward to the next post.
    – As a single person, I really like your idea of making a large quantity of brown rice and freezing smaller portions for later.
    – I always opt for the low-sodium soy sauce or Bragg’s Liquid Aminos. Both have a lot less than the regular version.
    – I also always have quinoa around. Every time I make it for a large gathering, people are always asking what it is and where to get it.
    – In addition to the boxed broths, some of the same companies make boxed soups (for those instances when you can’t make your own).
    – I’ve never used a pressure cooker and don’t know much about them. I’ll have to look into how those work.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Summer Tomato is all about helping busy, smart, single people in the city get healthy. My recipes are generally for one or two (but can be easily scaled up).

      I absolutely agree that low-sodium soy sauce is usually a better option. I’ve been experimenting with different kinds lately and just forgot to mention it.

      I used to eat those boxed soups all the time at lunch, but this year started making my own or buying the pre-made ones from Whole Foods (they are a little more substantial). If I do have the boxed soup, I like to mix in some spinach or brown rice to give it more substance.

  7. Terry B says:

    A great list! Regarding olive oil, don’t forget canola oil. It has many of the same benefits of olive oil and a higher smoke point, making it perfect for sautéing with high heat. It also has a neutral flavor, making it a great choice for delicate flavors.

  8. Hi Darya, I also found your site via the 31 Day Challenge. This is such great stuff. I am nowhere near a healthy eater – quite the opposite – and this is just the kind of infomation I need to try to change my ways. Your site is so appealing – I really look forward to reading more and sharing it with my extended family – casseroles and Minute Rice eaters all. Thanks!


    • Darya Pino says:

      Thank you for the thoughtful response and I really hope I can help you and your family learn to love healthy food. Best of luck with 31DBBB, I think the way you use your blog is pretty brilliant. It is a fantastic idea to have your About section so prominently displayed. Kudos!

  9. Mark Lewis says:

    I’m subscribed! And looking forward to the follow-up posts.

    Do you shop at whole foods? I fell in love with the place and really liked their 365 brand. It’s economical and superior to the other supermarkets in my area (Boston).

    I have to do some food shopping for my pantry! It’s good to have these items on hand for last-minute decisions, and healthy ones at that!

  10. Wendy says:

    Hi Darya,
    I found you through Problogger’s 31 Days to a better blog. Love this post! You did an excellent job with this. I was drawn in and lead through your list with an interesting narrative. Thank you!

    If you get a free moment, I would love to hear what you think about my post: 3 Ways to Green Your Car Washing Experience

    Keep up the great work!

  11. Amy says:

    Saying hi from 31 day challenge. Great starter list. I have most of the ingredients you list, but need to make more of an effort with simple foods like the ones you list. In the rush to fix meals, I forget how processed so many so-called-healthy foods are. You’ve inspired me to stop by our farm stand this Friday ~ thanks! I’m also loving coconut oil in the pantry–the good quality stuff–on popcorn, in oatmeal, in tea or coffee.

  12. Mike says:

    Awesome list, Darya! I like how this links back to your ‘automate your health’ post; so often I decide that its time to eat, but then realize I don’t have anything, so I just go grab something unhealthy, then rationalize it. I can’t wait to start stocking up!

  13. Sjay says:

    Great list. and should paste this list in the kitchen and make sure all are in stock. Nice tip.

    Have a crazzyCool time

    • Darya Pino says:

      Yes, having a permanent list is very useful. I recommend keeping it on a mobile device so you always have it with you.

      After awhile, though, shopping like this becomes second nature.

  14. Agree with all! I’d add that my kitchen ‘big gun’ is Lock-n-lock storage containers. They are awesome. I can put soup in one, throw it in my bag and not worry about it spilling. Great way to keep leftovers fresh and usable throughout the week. I really should be getting a commission from them!

  15. Karin says:

    I was going to figure out which one of your suggestions I liked the best, but in the end I decided they are all so important! And they are just little things, like having olive oil handy, having rice and grains- these things are just really simple; thanks for the list, this is a great resource!

  16. I have a lot of these on hand. Tried to switch my family to brown rice, but I was the only one who liked it. The kids and my hubby just weren’t into it.

    On the plus side, the kids love their vegetables, so the habits aren’t all bad.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Sometimes it is easier to introduce something new rather than change something that is familiar. For example, rather than switching the family from white rice to brown rice try introducing them to quinoa or bulgar, and prepare it with a popular ethnic recipe like tabouleh. That way they do not feel like they are being cheated out of a favorite dish, but instead get to try something new and exciting.

      I’m glad they are happy to eat their vegetables 🙂

  17. Just found your site through 31 days to a better blog and I LOVE IT! I’ve twittered about it and will add it into the blog links on my blog! Good luck! Restocking my pantry tomorrow!

  18. Great list and too was once clueless in the kitchen, and amazing how just having some basics on hand and a little guidance cooking can be easy and fun!

    When I can, I try to use homemade chicken broth which is actually quite easy to make. Maybe I’ll post in on my blog. But I do also use the cubes when I don’t have the homemade stuff around.

    Thanks again for the helpful list!

    • Darya Pino says:

      I agree, homemade stock is better. I do not buy enough chicken to make my own, but my preference is the fresh stuff you can get at the farmers market or Whole Foods. But I always keep a box or two of the cheap stuff around just in case 😉

  19. This is a great blog! I am looking forward to hearing more from you, and I have definitely subscribed to your RSS feed. I have recently started an uber-healthy “diet” and I am loving every minute of it. I have found that once you start cooking–really cooking, not KD–there is just no going back. I have not only started saving money (it is cheaper to buy ingredients than pre-prepared food) but I have also been eating like a Queen, instead of a pauper! I would like to share with you my secret: I have this site in my home page and it gives me new recipes to try each day and they are really fantastic!
    By the way, I found your blog via ProBlogger, and I think you are doing a great job!
    Are you on Twitter, by chance?


    • Darya Pino says:

      Thank you Monique! I save tons of money cooking for myself too. It is a bizarre myth that healthy eating is too expensive.

      I followed you on Twitter and look forward to keeping up. Thanks for the link, it looks like a wonderful resource for healthy eating.

  20. Healthyliving says:

    I like how you mentioned the salt; I worry about my man getting too much salt since he has blood pressure, so its good to know that salting home-made food isn’t as bad as the processed stuff.

  21. NB says:

    +1 for olive oil as most important pantry item- is there anything bad about this wonderful stuff?!

  22. Debra says:

    I just found your blog through the 31 day challenge and I am so excited to check out your blog! I signed up to do the challenge, but after getting bronchitis almost 3 months ago, I’m having major problems with my lungs and asthma and it’s all I can do, just to keep up on my blog. Today I decided to check out the forum and found you and I’m so glad! My husband and I want to start eating better, so that we can get healthy. Thank you for being an inspiration! ~ Debra

    • Darya Pino says:

      Thanks for stopping by Debra and I’m sorry to hear about your illness! One bonus of healthy eating (besides weight loss, longevity, deliciousness and social responsibility, of course 😉 is I haven’t had so much as a cold in over 2 years!!

      Your blog is really creative and adorable. Thanks again for making contact!

  23. Indrani says:

    Haha, I happen to live down the street from a Café Gratitude! But I still try to keep my pantry (and fridge) stocked full of locally grown and organic produce nonetheless. I always enjoy reading the articles on Summer Tomato and love the recipes so keep it up!

  24. manda says:

    i googled ‘what to keep in my pantry’ (just learning to cook, really), and your blog came up! awesome! very helpful. other suggestions i liked were on robyn webb’s blog. she recommended bulgar, which is particularly good for vegans and vegetarians (like myself). i’m assuming that would fall under whole grains, like quinoa? i know they are both good for protein.

  25. Patrick Del Rosario says:

    After reading this I checked my stocks and good thing I only lack one and that is zipped lock plastic. I am used of buying all of these once a month and I learned it from my mom.

  26. Lana Anastasia says:

    I question your use of Bouillon cubes and canned or boxed Broth, and I was surprised to see you listing it as a good pantry staple? Have you done any research into MSG and it’s myriad of hidden titles?
    My husband has a severe reaction to store bought canned/boxed broth. We have been aware of the ingredient list of store bought broth for over 20 years. It took us 15 years, to find out that his severe reactions were due to MSG and it’s hidden names.
    I was surprised to see store-bought broth stocked in your pantry , as you support all natural or whole foods. According to the FDA, in order to list something as natural food they only require that 1% be natural food, and the remaining 99% can be other forms of MSG which is disguised under numerous names. One must learn this list of names.
    I pretty much make my own broth from chicken, beef,or pork to get around the bad ingredients put in these store bought broths.
    I would like to encourage you to check this out in depth. Most people do not understand the severe problems it causes, unless they have experienced them first hand.
    Read the book “The No MSG Syndrome” written by a brain Dr. He will shed light on what it does to the brain and the numerous distressing symptoms it causes.
    I will be waiting to hear of your research.

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