I’ve worked as a dietician and cooking coach for almost three decades, and I know that with a little planning and creativity, anyone can prepare affordable, delicious meals with a few basic kitchen staples. After all, that’s what home cooks around the world have been doing for centuries.
Traditional cooks around the world have based delicious, nourishing meals on basic starches, proteins, plants, herbs and spices for as long as there have been homes to cook in. For example, consider any of the meals you enjoy with roots in South or Central America. It’s likely that those meals feature rice, corn, or potatoes; chicken, meat, fish or beans; possibly some crumbly cheese; basic produce like onions, cabbage and tomatoes; and flavorings like chilies, cumin, cilantro, and lime.
While I don’t keep every possible essential ingredient in my kitchen all of the time, the list below includes those that show up on my shopping list on a regular basis.
- Starchy Foods – Pasta (different shapes and types, gluten free these days), Rice (brown, white and black), beans (usually dried black, pinto, garbanzo and navy), French green and red lentils, corn or gluten free tortillas, and polenta (coarse corn meal).
- Fats and Oils – Extra virgin olive oil, plus avocado oil, ghee (clarified butter) and coconut oil, for high heat cooking.
- Nuts and Seeds – Any and all kinds.
- Nut Butter – Peanut butter and tahini (roasted sesame seed butter).
- Canned Goods – Tomatoes, beans and fish.
- Flavor Bombs (to use in small amounts for bursts of color and flavor) – Olives, pesto, hot sauces, red Thai chili paste, anchovies, and Trader Joe’s sundried tomatoes in olive oil
- Miscellaneous Durable Fresh Produce – Onions, garlic, celery, carrots, cabbage, winter squash, potatoes, lemons, and limes.
- Cheese – Chao brand vegan cheese, Kite Hill vegan cream cheese, and flavorful real cheese like feta, goat and parmesan.
- Frozen Items – Green peas, fruit, cauliflower pizza crust and almond flour pizza crust.
- Spices – Cumin, coriander, turmeric, chilies, salt, pepper, cinnamon, Mexican oregano, fennel seeds, and bay leaves.
- Fresh Herbs – Parsley, cilantro, basil, and mint (when in season).
- Sweeteners – Stevia, honey, and maple syrup.
Throw in fresh, seasonal vegetables and fruits, plus proteins like eggs, tofu, fish, poultry and grass-fed beef (my diet is mostly vegetarian but my husband feels better when he eats some animal protein), and you have the list of foods I work with nearly every day.
Other Popular Kitchen Essentials
Chef Molly Beverly – who has taught, cooked and catered locally for decades – keeps cooked beans in her freezer, a stash of popcorn in her pantry, and sturdy produce like apples, bananas, oranges, and potatoes handy.
Along with carrots and cabbage, she stocks fresh beets and seasonal produce in her fridge as well. Molly shares her great ideas for healthy home cooking on Facebook at Chef Molly’s Cooking Classes.
Chef Rebecca Katz, the renowned author of The Longevity Kitchen, The Cancer Fighting Kitchen and The Healthy Mind Cookbook, recommends stocking additional beans and grains like farro (an ancient form of wheat) and quinoa. She also regularly uses canned goods like coconut milk, fish and chicken or vegetable broth.
Get Creative with Your Kitchen Essentials
Once you’ve stocked up on kitchen essentials, there are a million different recipes to sample and make your own. First, check out our extensive collection of recipes and cooking/nutrition tutorials at YRMC’s Your Healthy Kitchen (YRMCHealthConnect.org). You can also follow me on Facebook, at YRMC’s Your Healthy Kitchen, to see what I make throughout the year at home, using a handful of kitchen staples and lots of seasonal produce.
Chef Molly’s Cooking Classes on Facebook and Rebecca Katz’s online blog are also wonderful resources for simple, delicious meals. Oldways Cultural Food Traditions (oldwayspt.org), which features foods and recipes from traditional cuisine around the world, eBooks, grocery store lists, and more is another favorite site of mine.
Of course, don’t forget to ask your own favorite cooks what they regularly make at home. My friend Shelley Stophlet stocks her kitchen with almost the same ingredients as I do, and she always impresses me with the easy, flavorful dishes she creates.
Remember, you do not have to prepare something uniquely different for dinner every night of the week to have a healthy life and diet. Once you find a handful of meals that are nourishing and enjoyable to you and your family, it’s okay to regularly rely on those.
Make delicious meals. Create your own traditional recipes. Repeat.