Whether you think New Year resolutions are clichéd or not, for many a new year is a fresh start and an opportunity to make positive change. Given that most of us spend December eating and drinking too much, it’s no surprise that many of these fresh starts revolve around improving our diets. Some will choose to restrict certain foods and others to follow prescribed diets, but the simple act of cooking more of our food from scratch at home using wholefoods may be the most sustainable and beneficial thing we can do to improve our diets. Doing this also brings the added benefit of spending more quality time at home with family, an increased appreciation for the value of food and perhaps even financial savings.
The obvious place to start is by choosing fresh vegetables, eggs, cheese, meat and fish. However even with these fresh ingredients to hand, in order to cook good nutritious food for yourself and your family, you need a well-stocked kitchen pantry of key basic ingredients. These basics might not look like hero ingredients, but they will allow you pull together healthy meals with zero fuss. Plus,they last for ages in your cupboard, are inexpensive and are readily available.
First up, get out your pen and paper as it’s time to make your New Year’s shopping list.
The importance of seasoning in cooking should not be underestimated. It’s amazing the difference that freshly ground black pepper and sea salt can make to the taste of food. From seasoning scrambled eggs to roasted vegetables to salad dressing, these two ingredients are at the top of our kitchen staples list.
Spices are inexpensive and key to adding flavour to home cooking. Top of my list are sweet smoked paprika, chilli flakes, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon and ginger. A good curry powder spice mix never goes astray and if you like middle eastern style food, opt for a za’atar spice mix; you won’t regret it. Spices can be added to stews, marinades, salad dressing, dips and spreads, soups and even desserts and porridge.
What would we do without olive oil? Drizzle over salads or use in salad dressings, use in marinades for meat and fish, use along with balsamic vinegar as a dip for bread, make dips such as hummus and pesto. Virgin and extra virgin olive oils are best used uncooked or for cooking at low temperatures while a refined olive oil is a better option for cooking at higher temperatures.
Beans are a great source of inexpensive protein and are very versatile. My favourites are cannellini, black beans and haricot beans. Add them to salads, curries, stews and casseroles, mash beans with olive oil, garlic and salt and pepper for a bean dip or spread, or make homemade baked beans. Having a few tins of beans in the cupboard means that you will never be short of a protein source.
There are so many ridiculously tasty ways to eat chickpeas. Roast them in olive oil, sea salt and black pepper for a simple, yet delicious snack. They also make a tasty and crunchy addition to salads. Add chickpeas to curries and stews, use them as a base to make falafels and veggies burgers or whip up a batch of homemade hummus. Use the soaking liquid from chickpeas (also known as aquafaba) to make chocolate mousse; when whipped it forms into soft peaks a little like egg whites.
There are several different varieties of lentil and there is no need to get them all; chose green for adding to salads and more refined dishes and red for soups and curries. The great thing about lentils is that they don’t require to be soaked before cooking. Just rinse them in cold water and they are ready to be cooked. You can also buy canned lentils that are already cooked for times when time is not on your side in the kitchen.
Often mocked by those that don’t like it, quinoa is packed with essential nutrients and particularly important to any following a plant based diet as it’s a great source of protein. Use in meals instead of white rice. Beautiful with roast vegetables tossed in basil pesto or as a base for quinoa veggie burgers. Batch cook quinoa at the start of the week and keep it in the fridge to add to salads for extra protein.
Brown rice isn’t just a more nutritious option than white rice, many people find that they prefer the taste. I like to toast brown rice before cooking it as it helps to bring out its nutty flavour. To do this, just saute it in a little olive oil before adding your water. The obvious way to serve brown rice is alongside stirfrys and curries, but it is also great served with meat, fish, roast vegetables and even with salads.
Use nuts as a handy snack – I always carry a stash of almonds in my handbag. Roast them first to release the flavour and dress them with a little olive oil and sea salt. Add nuts to salads, curries and stews for texture and flavour. Make nut milks, nut butters and even nut cheeses. Nuts are particularly important for anyone eating a plant based diet due to their versatility and high protein and fat content.
There are so many uses for these little nutritional powerhouses. Add flaxseeds, hemp seeds and chia seeds to smoothies. Use chia seeds to make chia seed puddings for breakfast. Add pumpkin and sunflower seeds to granola, flapjacks and energy balls. Roast pumpkin seeds in a little olive oil, sea salt and chilli for the perfect snack. Add toasted seeds to porridge and salads.
So many of us grew up eating porridge, but yet oats are one of the most under rated foods. Use them to make porridge, overnight oats, add them to smoothies to make them more filling, make granola, granola bars, flapjacks and crumbles. You can even use oats in savoury cooking to make veggie burgers and nut roast. The list is endless.
Having these in your kitchen cupboards will mean that you can whip up great salad dressings – just add some olive oil. Mustard adds a real kick to dressing and marinades. For vinegars chose balsamic, apple cider or white wine; I tend to keep all three. Soy sauce is essential for Asian style cooking and if you are gluten free opt for tamari instead.
Not on this list to be used carte blanche, but great to have in your cupboard for flavour and taste. I would much rather sweeten by food with either of these sweeteners than with refined table sugar. A little honey in a salad dressing or marinade can make all the difference.
Canned tomatoes are a must have for every kitchen cupboard. Use to make sauces and soups such as pasta sauces, chilli and curries. The simplest of sauces can be made with a can of plum tomatoes; just add some onion, olive oil and seasoning. You need never opt for take out again. I prefer the flavour of whole tomatoes rather than chopped.
This might not be an obvious store cupboard staple for many, but canned coconut milk is great for curries, stews and soups. Not many people know this, but it is great whipped into coconut cream and used at breakfast and with desserts. Just pop a can of full fat coconut milk in the fridge, leave it there for six hours and then remove it. The milk will have hardened at the top of the can. Scoop the hardened milk into a bowl and just whip it into a smooth cream.
Any finally, the humble stock cube. Most of us don’t make our own stock and even if we do, it is always wise to have some stock cubes in the cupboard for emergencies. Opt for a low salt organic stock. Stock adds a real depth of flavour to cooking in soups, sauces and vegetable bakes.Frances Walsh is the creator and writer behind healthy lifestyle blog, The Honest Project. The Honest Project focuses on plant based eating and cooking, using vegetables, fruits and wholefoods. Frances’ interest is in preparing and eating foods that are made from scratch but are practical and easy to make for even the most inexperienced cook.
For more information visit thehonestproject.com.