Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Healthy Food Staples

I'm writing a few posts about eating more natural and plant-based foods to help some of my friends and readers get to a healthier lifestyle. Read my first post about starting out here. Healthy eating takes some work because you need to cook more meals from scratch rather than eating something out of a box or bag. E.g., when my boyfriend makes a chicken alfredo frozen meal, he just needs the bag of food, a pan, and a spatula, whereas, my meals can involve several appliances and tons of fresh and dried ingredients. It also takes more "active" time to cook my meals. He waits for the frozen meal to heat up, while I spend that same amount of time chopping and preparing. So, healthy eating takes work and its smart to cook in big batches and then refrigerate or freeze your meals.

Healthy and vegan eating was very new to me when I first started changing my diet and lifestyle. I try to avoid many processed foods now and make meals from scratch. To do this, you have to have a really good spice rack, otherwise your food will be bland. Spices are a large initial investment ($3-$6 each) but most of them last for a long time because you only use a pinch at a time. Some of my favorite spices are cayenne pepper and red pepper flakes to add heat, ginger and cinnamon for "sweetness," and oregano and basil for that italian taste. I also have some pre-made mixed spices like "southwest" and "bayou blast." But be careful when buying mixes because some of them contain sugar or a lot of salt. Spices not only add flavor but can also be very healthy for you, see Dr. Oz's post on it.

Also in my pantry I keep my dried foods in stock in mason jars. This lets me easily see if I'm running low on something. You can usually buy dried foods in bulk at your health food (Whole Foods) store for cheaper. Some essentials that I keep in stock are brown rice, lentils, quinoa, popcorn, flax seeds, almonds, and walnuts. Quinoa is a great high-protein grain to add to many recipes, including salads. You can also see in the picture that I have tea. I love drinking tea and there are so many to choose from. Yerba Mate is great for energy and chamomile is good for sleep.

There are even more things in my kitchen cabinets! I use coconut oil and olive oil spray sparingly for cooking. While these oils are healthy, their caloric/fat density is still extremely high so try to use only a tablespoon at a time when absolutely necessary in a recipe. The same goes for honey and agave nectar as sweeteners. Just because they are healthier and more natural than processed sugars, they should only be used sparingly. Balsamic and apple cider vinegars are good for adding flavor to recipes and salad dressings. Earth Balance Peanut Butter is my favorite because its sweetened with agave and very creamy. I eat it as a snack with apples. I keep nutritional yeast flakes in a parmesan shaker to easily add to recipes. Nutritional yeast is an excellent supplement for vegans because it contains vitamin B12, which is difficult to find in plant sources. It also has a lot of protein and actually has a kind of cheesy flavor so it's used in recipes mimicking cheese. I love it on popcorn or kale chips. It's kind of weird at first but trust me, give it a try! Finally cocoa and/or carob powder are great for smoothies and healthy dessert recipes.

Moving on to the fridge, there are some condiments that are worth keeping around. Unsweetened ketchup and dijon mustard can be used for various things. Low sodium soy sauce is great for making sauces and adding taste. And, I go through lots of almond milk in my morning smoothies.


Being able to freeze food is something that early man didn't have (except during winter or the ice age), but you should really make use of your freezer. Leftovers, like soup, are really easy to freeze and re-heat later. I also keep frozen fruits and spinach for smoothies and snacks. Next time you're craving something sweet like ice cream, just eat a handful of  slightly-thawed blueberries, they are amazing! Buy while on sale and stock up. By far the healthiest type of bread you can eat is Ezekiel 4:9 sprouted whole grain bread. You'll find it in the freezer isle and I just keep it frozen until I'm ready to eat it.

Finally, I keep a lot of (unfrozen) fruits around as snacks. Some people (like those on the paleo diet) limit fruit consumption because of the sugar content. I personally think that's stupid. First of all, fresh fruit comes from trees and is not processed, so it's better for you than any other kind of snack (besides plain fresh vegetables of course). Second of all, you need sugar/carbs for energy.  And finally, fruits contain tons of fiber and vitamins! One thing I also do every morning is drink lemon water on an empty stomach and throughout the day. It is very cleansing and quite healthy for you.

There are also some dairy substitutes that I buy and try to use sparingly. Daiya cheese shreds are by far the best vegan cheese substitute that I've ever had. The cheese actually melts and works great on things like pizza and grilled cheese. However, you should not be eating this cheese everyday because, although it is healthier than real cheese, it still contains a lot of calories and fat and is low on nutrients. I mainly keep this cheese around to satisfy any "greasy food" cravings that I might get because its still better than eating a regular pizza, for example. Finally, I absolutely love Earth Balance vegan butter. Even my boyfriend eats it instead of regular butter! It works well in any recipe calling for butter but takes a little more effort to soften up. Again, this butter is healthier than regular butter or margarine but it is still high in fat and calories and not high in nutrients. I use is sparing except that I like to put it on my popcorn. Air-popped popcorn with earth balance, nutritional yeast, and salt is amazing. I obsessed with it, ask any of my former roommates haha.

I know this was another long post but I think it contains a lot of valuable information about the kinds of (sometimes weird or different) foods that I buy to maintain a healthy plant-based diet. (Notice that I don't have any meat substitutes, but that's a whole different post.) You can find many of these things in the natural or ethnic section of your regular grocery store. Amazon (where all of the links above lead) is cheaper when buying in bulk but Whole Foods or Trader Joe's are also a good place to go. I only go to these places about once a month to stock up on some of this items that aren't available in my regular grocery store or don't have good price online. Also, don't go out and buy all of these things at once, that would cost a lot of money. Instead, buy them as you need them in recipes. And don't buy things in bulk that you haven't tried before because you may end up hating or never using it. 

What are some essentials that you keep in your kitchen?

The next post in this series will be about appliances!


  1. Thank you for this post! How do you make your popcorn? Popcorn maker or microwave?

    1. I use an air popper and kernels. I think it tastes better and kernels are cheaper than microwave bags. Plus, it only takes 2-3 minutes just like the microwave ones do. Here's the air popper I got from Amazon:

  2. Great post Lenka! Where did you buy the mason jars? That is a great idea for storing dry goods!

    1. The mason jars made my cabinet much more organized (Ryan was getting annoyed at my millions of bags). I got them on Amazon, like everything else haha:

    2. just an FYI if you have a Meijer around you they are only $10 for a pack of 12!

    3. Sadly there are no big stores in Chicago besides Target so that's why I rely on Amazon so much.


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