These pantry items can add nutritional value to everyday meals
The grocery store offers plenty of food options, but most of us gravitate to the same items each and every shopping trip. By switching out a few pantry staples with the following easy-to-find-and-use items, your everyday go-to meals will get a flavor makeover and a hearty dose of healthy nutrients, too.
By Rebecca Schneider
Instead of: Salt
Try: Kelp granules
Why: Sea salt and iodized salt have their benefits, but kelp granules’ mild salty flavor and naturally occurring iodine from the sea—without the sodium—make it a worthy alternative. Although sprinkling sea vegetables on your food might seem strange, once you try it you’ll be hooked. The granules even come in a salt-like shaker to make this substitute super simple.
Instead of: Garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
Why: While all beans are a nutritionist’s dream, because they deliver lots of fiber and protein without the fat and cholesterol of meat, lentils win by a landslide. In a head-to-head between garbanzo beans and lentils, the latter boast two times the amount of iron, as well as higher levels of fiber, protein, B vitamins and folate. If that’s not enough reason to switch, consider this: Lentils don’t require time-consuming soaking like other dried beans, making them a cinch to add to soups, stews and homemade veggie burgers.
Why: Everyone knows that whole-grain brown rice trumps refined white rice. Now there’s a slightly more exotic variety to add to the mix: black rice. Also called Forbidden rice, black rice is packed with iron, protein and health-promoting anthocyanin antioxidants. If brown rice seems a little bland, Forbidden rice is the perfect way to impart color, flavor, a nutty texture and a whole grain to your favorite dishes. It cooks up sticky and sweet, with a beautiful deep-purple hue.
Instead of: Sugar, honey or artificial sweeteners
Try: Xylitol or stevia
Why: All sweeteners have drawbacks: Plain old sugar packs a caloric punch without any nutritional value; honey contains a few nutrients but increases blood-sugar levels almost as much as sugar; and artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose are now thought by some to disrupt our satiety signals, causing us to crave even more sweets. Fortunately, xylitol, which is naturally derived from the birch tree, provides satisfying sweetness with 45 percent fewer calories than sugar. And it can be substituted cup for cup in baking. It’s also been shown to reduce the frequency of colds, and ear and sinus infections.
Another sweet option is stevia—a liquid or powder derived from the stevia plant. Stevia is 300 times more potent than sugar. It’s best reserved for sweetening beverages and yogurts instead of for baking, because it doesn’t brown or caramelize like xylitol and sugar. We should all dial down our sweets intake, but at least stevia and xylitol are thought to possibly prevent cavities.
Instead of: Whole-wheat pasta
Try: Soba noodles (buckwheat noodles)
Why: Nutritionists, doctors, chefs and virtually everyone else sings the praises of whole-wheat pasta. But there’s only so much whole-wheat flour one can take! Yes, whole-wheat flour is healthier than bleached processed white flour, but all grains have unique nutritional profiles. Soba noodles are made from buckwheat and water, so they’re suitable for vegans, people allergic to eggs, dairy, soy or corn, and those avoiding gluten (buckwheat is actually wheat- and gluten-free, despite its name). Buckwheat is also a good source of plant protein and has impressive levels of fiber, magnesium, choline and rutin—an antioxidant that could possibly help lower blood pressure. But check the label ingredients to make sure the package contains only buckwheat flour, as some companies add gluten-containing wheat or white flour to soba noodles.
Instead of: Couscous
Try: Bulgur wheat
Why: Couscous sounds exotic, but it’s really nothing more than glorified pasta typically made with semolina flour and water. Whole-grain couscous is available, but bulgur wheat is less processed, contains slightly fewer calories, and delivers more potassium and fiber than couscous. It’s also a breeze to prepare. Just stir 1-cup boiling water into 1-cup bulgur, cover and let stand for 12 minutes. Bulgur works well for tabbouleh and pilaf, and can replace couscous or rice in any side dish.
Why: Soy sauce is a welcome addition to stir-fries, sushi and other Asian-inspired dishes. Bragg Liquid Aminos is almost a dead ringer, taste-wise, and it’s calorie free and supplies 16 amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Our bodies can only create certain amino acids, so we must obtain the remainder from our diet. Seasoning food with this tasty condiment is the perfect way to combine flavor and nutrition. One drawback: This soy-sauce substitute contains 960 milligrams sodium per tablespoon (1 tablespoon of soy sauce contains 1,000 milligrams).
Why: Olive oil is the “oil du jour,” but safflower might be a better—and cheaper—alternative. Although olive oil contains high levels of heart-healthy and cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fat, its strong flavor can overwhelm some foods. And it can be detrimental to health when heated above 350˚ F. Safflower oil solves these problems with a higher smoke point and a neutral flavor. And it’s also high in the same type of fat as its more-expensive, less-versatile fellow fat.
Why: Dried fruit may seem like a healthy snack, but appearances can be deceiving. What seems like an innocent treat often contains boatloads of sugar and controversial additives, including sulfur and sodium benzoate. On the other hand, freeze-dried fruit has plenty of flavor, but no added sweeteners. And it provides a satisfying crunch. Because freeze-drying doesn’t shrink fruits as much as conventional drying, freeze-dried fruit can bulk up trail mix and granola (store-bought or homemade) without adding loads of extra calories.
Why: Coffee often jumps from the bad list to the good list and back again in no time. Hate it or love it, coffee gives us a jolt when our energy lags. To get a boost without all the caffeine controversy, give Teeccino a try. Made from a blend of roasted herbs, grains, fruits and nuts, Teeccino comes in a variety of flavors, including French roast, chocolate mint and hazelnut (some are organic). This coffee alternative is as comforting as your usual cup of joe, and even gives you a hit of energy without the ups and downs of caffeine. Teeccino can help you kick caffeine while providing a dose of potassium and soluble fiber.
Instead of: Oats
Try: Amaranth or quinoa
Why: Oats are a classic comfort food and a filling way to start your day. But maximizing this grain’s benefits by cooking less-processed steel-cut oats or oat groats is time-consuming. A breakfast of amaranth or quinoa ups the protein and iron quotients, while saving you time. Although oats don’t inherently contain gluten, they’re often a source of cross-contamination, making them questionable for people sensitive to gluten. Both amaranth and quinoa are considered complete proteins that are gluten-free and calcium-rich. To cook these nutritional powerhouses, simply boil water, add the grains (1 part grain to 21/2 or 3 parts water, depending on how thick you like your porridge), reduce heat and simmer 15-20 minutes, or until porridge is thick and grains are tender.
Instead of: Peanuts
Try: Pistachios or Brazil nuts
Why: Even if you don’t have a peanut allergy, there are plenty of reasons to replace peanuts in your diet. If you’re counting calories, pistachios are your best bet. Shelling pistachios slows down snacking, making you consume less. Pistachios are also among the lowest-calorie options in the nut family, but still contain heart-healthy fats and protein levels similar to their more caloric counterparts. But the real nutritional standout is the Brazil nut. Just one nut provides more than nine times the daily requirement of selenium, a trace mineral that helps the immune system respond faster and more effectively. And the nut’s rich, buttery flavor quickly satiate.