Oof, this has been a doozy of a week. Every day I wake up and for a split second can convince myself this is all just a bad dream. School closures, so many jobless, beloved local restaurants and small business closed (some likely permanently), really sick people, and of course the general buzz of anxiety that can be felt on many Seattle streets, where we live, and in the voices of my family and friends near and far.
My own anxiety is palpable as my husband goes to work daily in a downtown Seattle hospital and frequents the ICU to care for his patients. I’m finding that all I can do to manage my stress and maintain a level head for my sanity and for our darling baby boy is to stay busy, which means I mostly stay in my kitchen. My happy place. The place I meditate, nourish my family, create, inspire, learn, grow, and for the foreseeable future, happily distract myself from life outside our home.
These are extraordinary times that require us to think outside the box (and refrigerator) and outside of our normal routines. We aren’t totally certain what’s in store for us regarding our access to food, but we’re encouraged to prepare for “worst case scenarios” that may (but hopefully won’t) include staying at home for months and potential food rationing as already seen in some European countries.
In Seattle, the once dependable and well-oiled machine that is grocery delivery is now a broken system that does not deliver (pun intended) and is not available today or even tomorrow, if at all. If you’re lucky enough to find the magic delivery window, at least half of your online cart will eventually be replaced with “comparable” items that, sorry to say, don’t compare.
And while we’re all encouraged to stay home, many of us now have to go grocery shopping… A conundrum at its best. So if you have to go to the store, what should you buy and stock up on for a healthy and well-rounded pantry?
Here’s my advice on:
- Creating a Healthy Pantry
- Simple and Nourishing Recipes Using Pantry Ingredients
- Extending the Life of Perishable Foods
- Immune-Boosting Foods
- Emotional Eating and Comfort Food
Creating a Healthy Pantry
When looking to stock a healthy home pantry, I recommend items with a long shelf life, that don’t require refrigeration. Here are nine essentials along with my suggestions for each category. There are multiple choices you can make depending on availability and preference and you don’t need all of them. I encourage you to consider the physical size of your pantry and storage capacity, your family size, amount needed, and taste preferences.
1. Canned or dried beans and legumes: Black beans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), kidney beans, lentils, pinto beans, organic soybeans (tofu, tempeh), white beans (cannellini, Great Northern, corona–yikes! but truly, corona beans are delicious and completely unrelated).
2. Whole grains: Short- and long-grain brown rice, polenta (corn grits), masa harina (corn flour), quinoa, rolled oats, wild rice, wheat berries, sprouted whole-grain bread, whole-grain or corn tortillas, whole wheat pasta, barely, farro.
3. Canned or frozen meat or plant-based proteins: Shelf stable packaged tofu, canned beans/legumes, canned tuna, canned salmon, canned sardines, canned chicken.
4. Frozen or canned/jarred fruits and vegetables: Fruits: apples, bananas, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, dates, lemons, limes, oranges, peaches, pears, pineapple, raspberries, strawberries, tomatoes. Vegetables: cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, bok choy, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, leafy greens (beet, kale, mustard, red leaf lettuce, spinach, swiss chard), starchy vegetables (beets, potatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, yams), carrots, celery, garlic, onions.
5. Cooking oils: Avocado oil, cold-pressed unrefined coconut oil, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, cold-pressed flaxseed oil, ghee, unrefined toasted sesame oil.
6. Nuts and seeds: Almonds (butter, flour, whole nuts), cashews (butter, whole nuts), chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, pecans, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds (paste, whole seeds), sunflower seeds, walnuts.
7. Miscellaneous canned/jarred foods: Canned tomatoes, coconut milk, jarred pesto, crackers, cookies, preserved or pickled vegetables and fruit, protein and snack bars, rice cakes.
8. Flavor makers: Fish sauce, hot sauce, mustard, pesto, salad dressing, salsa, simmer sauces, tamari/soy sauce, vinegar.
9. Baking essentials: Flours, natural sweeteners, extracts, dark chocolate, nut butters, baking soda and powder.
Simple and Nourishing Recipes Using Pantry Ingredients
I’ve compiled a list of delicious and easy to prepare recipes to make using some of the more common pantry ingredients such as whole grains, beans/legumes, and canned or packaged seafood that don’t require too much time or ingredients. I’ve organized them in groups according to the dominant pantry ingredient.
You can substitute canned beans for cooked dried beans in most recipes that call for beans, just remember to read the recipe instructions in full ahead of time so you don’t miss any important or necessary steps along the way. In dishes that call for whole grains, you can likely swap one grain for another as long as it’s already cooked or you adjust the cooking time accordingly. Freshly cooked salmon or chicken, for example, can be substituted for the canned varieties used in many recipes and vice versa. Feel free to send me any questions that come up about recipe substitutions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- (How to Cook Whole Grains)
- (How To Make A Grain Salad without a Recipe)
- Peanut Butter Overnight Oats
- Breakfast Quinoa
- Fruit, Nut, or Berry (whatever you want them to be) Whole-Wheat Muffins
- Roasted Carrot and Quinoa Salad with Fresh Dill
- Farro Salad with Roasted Sweet Potatoes, Red Onion, and Goat Cheese
- Grain Salad with Olives and Whole-Lemon Vinaigrette
- Edamame Fried Rice
- Pumpkin Oatmeal Drop Cookies
- Healthfull Double Chocolate Cookies
- Almond Flour Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Canned or dried beans/legumes
- Adzuki Bean and Yam Hash
- Baked Eggs and Beans on Toast
- Black Bean Huevos Rancheros
- Sweet Red Pepper Hummus
- Chickpea Curry
- Spicy Chili with Adobo
- Pork, Bean, and Winter Squash Stew
- Coconut Curry Red Lentil Stew
- Spiced Chickpea Stew with Coconut and Turmeric
- Vegetarian Split Pea Soup
- Mushroom and Lentil Pappardelle Bolognese
- White Bean Chocolate Chip Cookies
- Black Bean Brownies
- Baked Salmon Cakes with Lemon Yogurt Sauce
- Salmon Curry
- 5-Minute Salmon Salad
- Salmon Burgers
- Salmon and Chickpea Toss
- Sardines with Rye Crackers and Whole Grain Mustard Dressing
- Anchovy Pasta with Garlic Breadcrumbs
- Pickled Pepper and Boquerones Toast
- Spanish Potato Salad with Tuna
- Quinoa, Tuna, and Chickpea Salad
- Spaghetti with Tuna Puttanesca
- Tuna Salad Bruschetta
Extending the Life of Perishable Foods
Fresh fruits and vegetables are highly nutritious and add so much flavor, color, and texture to recipes. I crave a ripe and juicy pear at the peak of autumn, tender and delicate baby spinach leaves in my salad, and the crunch of a bell pepper dipped into the lemony, garlicky, drool-worthy hummus I just made. If you eat meat and other animal products (dairy, cheese, etc.), these foods can provide you with a lot of nutrients in just a few bites and can be used in so many different ways and preparations.
Fresh and perishable foods are at their prime for mere days it seems, maybe even only hours (dang avocados!). You can count on heartier fruits and vegetables like apples and sweet potatoes to last you a little longer, but regardless, if it’s perishable, as soon as you get home from the grocery store or farmer’s market, the clock starts ticking.
Now, with COVID-19 limiting our access to some food and potentially even more in the near future, we need to know how to extend the life of these prized and perishable foods.
Here are some tips and tricks to consider for extending the life of perishable foods:
- Make sure your refrigerator is set at the proper temperature. 36-38 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for maintaining and preserving perishable foods.
- Never wash your produce before storing. Adding moisture to your produce allows bacteria to grow at a faster rate and spoil more quickly. Wash only what you’re about to eat.
- Consider different ways to store your fruits and vegetables–check out this e-book that explains in detail how to select and store over 40 different fruits and vegetables. Worth the $10 dollars for the author’s thorough research. I also recommend Real Simple’s free database on food storage.
- Do you have a vacuum sealer? If so, now is the perfect time to use it! An oxygen-free environment will preserve your food (both meat and produce) longer. Remove smaller portions of produce or meat and keep it readily available in your refrigerator while vacuum sealing the rest and storing it in your refrigerator or freezer for later use.
- “Best before” and “use by” dates are oftentimes only suggestions. Read this article to learn more ways to prevent food waste.
- Try to use all edible parts of an animal or plant. Consider adding broccoli stems to your favorite curry the next time you make some or use the leftover bones from the whole chicken you roasted last night to make bone broth. You can also make different stocks from leftover scraps of produce or cooked meat. Read more about how to make vegetable stock here and meat and seafood stocks here.
- Make soups and stews with the older produce that’s past its prime. Wilted leaves, soft carrots, or floppy broccoli all make for tasty additions to soups, omelets, frittatas, stews, casseroles and curries.
- Transform leftovers into other dishes. Leftover rice for fried rice, roasted vegetables or meat from last night’s dinner for breakfast hash.
- Besides cooking, consider different preservation methods like salt curing or smoking meat, pickling, canning, jarring, freezing and fermenting fruits, vegetables and even dairy.
- Learn how to best freeze your produce and meat to extend the edible window. Eating Well created this great resource on how to freeze fruits and vegetables. And Food52 interviewed a butcher to learn tips and techniques for freezing meat.
In the winter months during flu season and now with the COVID-19 outbreak, we need to do everything we can to protect ourselves and boost our immune systems. Studies have shown that some foods actually promote a healthy immune system. Please keep in mind, though, that these foods are not cure-alls and will not protect you after direct exposure to any flu, especially COVID-19. Instead, they should be considered one of many helpful ways to stay healthy.
Protein malnutrition has been linked to decreased immune function. A diet that provides high quality protein sources such as eggs, fish, meat, beans/legumes and complementary proteins has been shown to improve and support immunity. Read more about complementary proteins here.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
This specific type of healthy fat is produced in the body from essential A.L.A. or alpha-linolenic acid which has been shown to have a powerful and positive effect on inflammation and the immune system. Diets low in omega-3 fatty acids are often associated with chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases. Some foods rich in omega-3s include salmon, flaxseed oil, leafy greens, and walnuts.
Fiber has been shown to improve gut health, create a stronger gastrointestinal barrier which protects you from toxins and helps maintain regular function and elimination. Fiber sources include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans/legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grain pastas, cereals, breads.
Our microbiome has a powerful influence on our health and immunity. It helps to create a gut barrier that protects us against pathogens, interacts with immune cells, maintains the antimicrobial barrier in the gut, helps us digest foods that inhibit the growth of pathogens, promotes immunity, and so much more. Some popular and easy to find probiotics in foods include but aren’t limited to yogurt, tempeh, miso, kimchi, kefir, and buttermilk.
Vitamins A, D, E, K
These are all fat-soluble vitamins that contribute to our overall health and have been shown to improve antibody function and T-cell activity — both important to a healthy immune system. Vitamin D specifically helps us regulate a healthy immune response and may help prevent inappropriate immune responses such as autoimmune diseases. Vitamin E is an important antioxidant that promotes healthy cell function and immunity. Vitamin K helps with normal blood clotting function and helps to heal infections and injuries. Read more about the many different food sources that contain these vitamins here.
Different B-vitamins contribute to a healthy immune system. Some promote the production and release of antibodies, others increase T-cell production and healthy lymphocyte levels. Deficiencies in some B-vitamins have been linked to irregular antibody response and inhibited immune function. A variety of food sources containing different B-vitamins can be found here.
Vitamin C is widely known for supporting a healthy immune system. It’s noted as an immune stimulant, decreasing the length of time and severity of symptoms associated with viral respiratory infections, immune cell function, and antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. Some potent food sources containing vitamin C include kiwi, grapefruit, oranges, strawberries, brussel sprouts, red bell peppers, and broccoli.
Immune cells are highly active and reproduce quickly which both require folate. They also help to create new immune cells so the body can have a proper immune response. People with severe folate deficiency often show decreased numbers of T lymphocytes–important immune cells. Folate-rich foods include dark leafy greens like spinach and kale, as well as lentils, chickpeas, and garbanzo beans.
Iron is a structural and functional component of various enzymes that are crucial for healthy immune function. Iron is also required for the production of immune cells and is used to fight off infectious agents and pathogens. Some iron-rich foods include red meat, poultry, lentils, beet greens, and collard greens.
This is a trace mineral needed to support healing and inflammation—both important factors in immunity and protecting the body from oxidative damage. Fish, shellfish, tofu, and whole grains are all good sources of selenium.
This mineral is required for so many immune-related functions including the growth and development of immune cells, creation of antibodies, and structural and functional contributions to proteins and enzymes needed for normal immune function. Some but not all food sources of zinc include oysters, crab, turkey, yogurt, and Brazil nuts.
Emotional Eating and Comfort Food
After all of this talk on pantry planning, food preparation, and nutritional science comes potentially one of the most important subjects of the hour: emotional eating and comfort food. For many of us, stress is at an all time high right now. I want to acknowledge that it’s the wild west out there and living in the moment, right now, is all we have (and ever had).
As my 11-month old son and I spend most of our days indoors and at home practicing social distancing and attempting to grasp the vastness of what’s happening, I have fully and emotionally dived into food. I’m eating more comforting foods like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, making “just because” apple almond cake, and scheming where my next source of dark chocolate will come from. And I know I’m not alone.
Many of us might find that we’re comforting ourselves more than usual with food these days. This is completely normal! Food is inherently emotional and that’s not a bad thing! It’s when food becomes our only means for coping with our emotions that we can find ourselves out of balance. Give yourself permission to eat food that makes you feel good right now (whatever that means to you) and find compassion not to judge yourself for the choices you make during this extraordinary time in history.
One way to help you stay mindful and maintain balance while honoring your feelings is to take note of how you feel in your body immediately before and after eating something. Be curious and investigative. Does this food feed my head hunger (emotional hunger) or my body hunger (physiological hunger)? Outside of food, do I have other ways for coping with my feelings?
Another interesting observation I’ve made over the past couple of weeks regarding comfort food, but on a whole other level, is the amount of comforting food projects I’m seeing on social media and that I hear my friends and family are making. I’m doing this too! I just finished making my first whole grain sourdough bread starter and I’m considering drowning myself in Chinese soup dumplings next. Anyone else? Perhaps we can chalk this up to one of the (very few) slightly sweet things that’s come from our new reality?
And anytime I hear that people are flocking to the kitchen to spend more time preparing and cooking food, it makes my heart sing! As a dietitian, I believe wholeheartedly that this is where your health journey truly begins. Preparing and cooking your own food gives you the opportunity to turn your food into medicine and directly improve your health (and likely your family’s too). So, whether you’re working on your #isolationbaking skills or just cooking dinner, it’s something to be proud of and grateful for. And maybe, just maybe, if you’re one of the lucky ones, it’s something that also makes you smile and for a minute or two grounds you in the present moment. What a beautiful thing.
Header photo by Austin Kehmeier