Sugar, flour, table salt, vegetable oil—all basics in the average American pantry. Nowadays, though, being called “basic” is a downright insult. The same goes for these kitchen staples—and that means it's time for a culinary reboot.
The aforementioned ingredients are not only blah compared to healthier foods that have hit the mainstream in recent decades, but also, when consumed regularly, those old staples can be precursors to health problems including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and obesity.
Fortunately, upgrading your pantry is cheaper and more simple than you might think. Let's be real—some healthy ingredients like coconut sugar or raw honey can get pricey. So here are 10 healthy, awesome, and affordable new basics that will reanimate your daily diet.
Whole-grain brown rice
Rice gets a bad rap since many people believe carbs are a one-way ticket to weight gain. Truth time: Rice is a perfectly healthy staple to keep in the pantry. Whenever possible, though, choose whole grain brown rice rather than white; it contains more natural fiber, nutrients, and vitamins, including iron, zinc, thiamin, niacin, magnesium, and B-6. While white rice is a high-glycemic food, brown rice is low glycemic, meaning it doesn’t increase blood sugar as much or as quickly.
Wanna take your grains a step further than rice? Experiment with quinoa, a whole grain with plenty of protein (about 8 grams per cup, cooked). First timers might find the texture unusual, but give it a try! There are so many varieties that one is bound to float your boat.
These legumes are hearty, a healthy vegan protein alternative, and they’re super cheap, too. Grab a bag of organic sprouted green lentils rich in vitamins, micronutrients, and digestive enzymes and whip up a giant pot of nutritious stew or soup. In a pinch? Organic canned lentils could do the trick—just rinse them thoroughly to ensure they’re easier to digest.
Also loaded with fiber and protein, black beans can fill a burrito and your belly, too. They’re a great addition to any soup, and pair well with both brown rice and quinoa—so versatile! They’re low in sodium and contain potassium, calcium, and magnesium—all things that can help regulate blood pressure. Make sure to rinse canned beans thoroughly, as well.
Extra virgin olive oil
Throw out your vegetable oil and cook with extra virgin olive oil instead (it’s safe for frying, contrary to what some people believe). Not only will the distinct flavor elevate your cooking, but it also contains beneficial fatty acids and antioxidants that can reduce inflammation and promote overall everyday health. It’s multi-purpose, too—aside from sautéing with it, you can drizzle it on many savory dishes and salads to add sophistication to any meal. (Or, use it as a key ingredient for DIY beauty treatments.)
Apple cider vinegar
Some people hail apple cider vinegar as a kind of magical potion that solves everything from regulating blood sugar, to food preservation, to digestive issues, and even acne. It really is a versatile ingredient to keep around the house—drink it as a shooter to give your digestive system a jolt, or incorporate it as an ingredient in a tangy salad dressing. Studies also show that fermented foods like ACV can be good for mental health. (Oh, and you can wash your hair with it, too.)
Replace ordinary table salt with the more flavorful sea salt. It has an amazing mineral content, since it's minimally processed. This kind of salt is made through the evaporation of saltwater from the ocean or lakes. Table salt, on the other hand, is usually mined from the earth and processed heavily to remove mineral content. Sea salt’s concentrated flavor also means you can use it more conservatively and lower your sodium intake.
A ton of salt isn’t necessary to flavor dishes. Open up culinary possibilities by experimenting with herbs and spices. Consider turmeric, a golden spice whose benefits are immense. This orange-hued powder is a staple in curry dishes. Not to mention, turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties, can reduce the risk of heart attacks, and delay the onset of diabetes in pre-diabetic people. Its potent flavor goes a long way in jazzing up dinner, too. It can even double as a natural pain reliever due to the power of the compound curcumin.
Ditch refined white sugar, which has been linked to obesity and diabetes, and instead, sweeten with raw sugar. Still, use it sparingly—it is sugar, after all. Willing to splurge for even healthier alternatives? Try luxurious raw honey or maple syrup.
To get really adventurous, stock up on sea vegetables like dried and toasted nori, seaweed gomasio, or kelp noodles. They will add a savory umami flavor—that mysterious fifth taste you might have heard about—to your meals. They’re super tasty on their own even—crispy seaweed snacks are satisfying enough to make adults and kids alike shun traditional chips. Sea vegetables are highly nutritious, too—rich in iodine, which promotes thyroid and hormone health.
These new basics will change the face of your pantry, amp up your meals, and be a gateway to better health—and you’ll barely notice an increase on your grocery receipts.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont