Go ahead -- peek inside your pantry. But beware: The preservatives, sugar, sodium, and fat, may bowl you over in a frenetic rush toward the dinner table. While obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, have become a fact of life, eliminating these threats is certainly feasible. The pantry offers an excellent place to take control and begin the journey toward good health. And having your pantry stocked with the right ingredients will help keep convenience meals as healthy as possible.
Excellent nutrition doesn't equate to dull flavor, and good food needn't be complex. In many cases, with fewer ingredients, exceptional flavors shine. These top 10 pantry items pave the way for a healthy way to cook and snack, without the bad guys lurking.
- Extra-virgin olive oil: In a nutshell, extra-virgin olive oil contains monounsaturated fat, which can help lower bad cholesterol (LDL). According to the FDA, two tablespoons a day can make a marked improvement in heart health, provided you use it to replace unhealthy fats such as butter and other hydrogenated oils. Paired with balsamic vinegar and a dab of Dijon mustard, it makes a fabulous vinaigrette salad dressing. Toss sliced red new potatoes in extra-virgin olive oil and roast them in the oven for a crunchy, heart-healthy side dish.
- Whole-wheat pasta: While it may take a little getting used to, whole-wheat pasta adds an enormous boost to a healthy diet. Whole grain foods aid in digestive health, lower cholesterol, and help control sugar as the body processes it. Whole-wheat pasta also tends to be more filling, so you'll probably eat less. For optimum taste and health benefits, pair it with strong-flavored, nutrient-rich sauces. Fresh tomatoes, garlic, rosemary, basil and olive oil are a great place to begin and then stir in cooked turkey sausage and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
- Canned black beans: Legumes like black beans add protein to your diet without the bad fats associated with some meats. To avoid extra sodium, purchase brands labeled reduced sodium then drain and rinse the beans before use. This eliminates as much as 41 percent of the sodium. Simmer black beans with garlic and cumin and serve atop brown rice for an easy protein-packed dinner. For a tasty summer salad, toss black beans with fresh corn and top with cilantro, chopped green onions, and olive oil vinaigrette.
- Tuna: Don't banish this versatile food from your pantry due to the mercury flap. Tuna's virtues are too numerous to eliminate it from the diet. Consider the healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids, B12, and excellent protein a can of water-packed light tuna provides and you'll be reaching for it at least twice a week. (White albacore tuna, once a week) Drain the tuna and serve on top of spring lettuces. Add fresh green beans, a hard-cooked egg and olives for a Nicoise-style salad. For a quick tuna salad mix drained tuna with low-fat mayo, a dash of balsamic vinegar and spicy mustard.
- Brown rice: Brown rice offers more fiber and vitamins than its highly processed white counterpart. And brown rice's slightly chewy, nutty flavor gives it a distinct personality. Use low-sodium stock instead of water when cooking, and add garlic, mushrooms, carrots, and onion for a delicious side dish. Go Thai and cook the rice and minced ginger in low-fat coconut milk. Since it takes between 30 and 40 minutes to prepare brown rice, prepare a little extra to freeze for another meal.
- Canned tomatoes: Tomatoes are a versatile meal-maker for the healthy diet. Choose brands with no salt added, and labeled organic, as this guarantees the highest percentage of vitamin C and the antioxidant, lycopene. Puree diced tomatoes with low-sodium vegetable broth for a quick vegetarian soup. Add a splash of milk for added calcium and a creamy texture. For a zesty surprise, purchase a can of fire-roasted tomatoes. Simmer with onion and garlic and toss with cooked pasta. Add grilled veggies for extra fiber and nutrients.
- Oatmeal: High in fiber, vitamin E and protein, oatmeal's heart-healthy benefits are often overlooked due to its perceived lack of excitement. However, a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast can get the day rolling in a satisfying manner. Make it with milk for extra creaminess, calcium and protein. Add diced apples and raisins to the pot, or top with fresh strawberries and blueberries for wonderful flavor. Appropriate sweeteners are a sprinkle of turbinado sugar or a drizzle of local honey.
- Peanut butter: A jar of peanut butter can easily make the leap from one meal to the next, and do cameo appearances at snack time too. Rich in potassium, folate and fiber, it also packs more protein than any other legume or nut. Fat-wise, it offers both mono and polyunsaturated fats (the good guys), which potentially help lower blood cholesterol levels. For easy snacks dab apple slices, celery or bananas with peanut butter. For an Asian-inspired meal, melt peanut butter, low-sodium soy sauce, brown sugar and minced garlic, and toss with cooked pasta.
- Nuts: Big things do come in small packages! Almost all nuts contain omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and are an excellent source of fiber. Toasted walnuts and almonds make a great take-along snack, and pair beautifully with a diced, tart apple. Top a salad or bowl of oatmeal with a handful of toasted nuts and get great crunch as well as a nutritional boost. Keep nuts in an airtight container for freshness.
- Low-sodium broth or stock: Everywhere we turn, our diets fall victim to salt. It is well documented that high sodium, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease walk hand-in-hand. A quick, easy way to combat this villain and prepare nutritious meals is to use only natural, low-sodium broths and stocks. Insist on the "natural" label to avoid preservatives and artificial flavoring. Keep a carton of beef, chicken, and vegetable flavors on-hand to bring out for a quick soup, sauce, or rice dish.