Having a well-stocked pantry is essential to building a healthier diet. Keeping healthy, whole foods around the home will keep you cooking and eating well all week long. While everyone will have individual needs for their own pantry, the following are some starter tips to get your plant-based pantry stocked well.
But first, don’t feel overwhelmed by this list! If you’re just starting to add more whole foods into your diet and just beginning to add more plant-based foods into your meals, don’t worry about stocking the whole pantry at once. That can be daunting and expensive, and perhaps turn you off of the project quickly. Rather, think about adding a few new items each week to slowly build the pantry based on the foods that you think are the best fit. But first…
4 tips for preparing for a pantry revision
1. Get the right containers.
We always choose glass jars for storage. Not only are these air-tight to keep foods fresh, the glass doesn’t absorb odors or leech plastic chemicals into foods. You can find glass jars at thrift stores, at craft stores, and often big box stores like target.
2. Label your foods.
As you’re learning new food items, it’s important to label those that might look similar. This is especially true for flours: I’ve never had great results with ‘mystery flour’ from my pantry, and I don’t recommend it. Keeping simple labels on your foods will ensure that you (and everyone else in your house) knows what they are cooking. You can also keep a date on the label to ensure that foods stay fresh.
3. Learn to shop in bulk.
As you build your healthy pantry, there is not better resource than the bulk food bins at your local natural food stores. These bins are often cheaper than buying in packages, but more importantly, they offer you a great opportunity to try new foods a little bit at a time. Buy 1/2 cup or 4 cups of grains, beans, seeds, nuts and flours depending on how you like to stock your pantry. Get the best tips for shopping in bulk.
4. Make a list
As your pantry grows, you’ll find favorites that you’ll cook each week, and specialty foods you cook once in a while. Keep an ongoing list on your smart phone (we use google docs for our house!), so that you can always stock up on the essentials.
Essentials for a Plant-Based Pantry
Learn to Love your Legumes!
We always keep a variety of beans on hand at our house, but some are more important than others for us. We eat a lot of homemade hummus, so you’ll always find chickpeas (garbanzo beans) on hand, as well as a few varieties of lentils (red and brown or black), for quick stews and meals, along with black beans. Learning to cook beans properly is important too, and soaking is a big part of that. There are lots of reasons to soak beans ahead of time, including better digestibility, shorter cooking time, and better flavor and texture.
Kidney Beans, red or white: for stews, soups, and chili
Chickpeas: for hummus, stir-fries and salads
Black Beans and pinto beans: for burritos, stews, dips, refried beans and rice bowls
Black-Eyed peas, lima beans, Adzuki Beans: Excellent alternative beans, for stews and rice bowls.
Mung Beans: great for dal and for making homemade sprouts
Lentils: Lentils come in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes and they are all mostly interchangeable. Brown lentils are good for soups, stews, dips, curries, kitchari and more. Brown/green lentils take about half hour to cook; no need to soak. Try Lentil Wraps or Vegan Sloppy Joes Red Lentils are good to have on hand because they cook very quickly. They have a similar taste as brown, but cook in only about 15-20 minutes for a quicker meal; no need to soak.Try our recipe for Tamarind Red Lentils and Red Lentil Soup.
Whole Grains and Rice
Brown rice: A health food staple. Find our tips for how to make perfect brown rice here.
White rice: Jasmine rice or white basmati rice are my favorite options. This can be used for flavored rice (like our awesome Coconut Curry Rice), for stir-fries, and even in place of sushi rice. Sushi rice is another great option, but only if you like making sushi at home.
Black, Red, or Pink rice: lovely alternatives to brown rice in pretty hues. Cook the same way you cook brown, or mix with brown rice. Get some tips and black rice recipes.
Quinoa: Everyone’s favorite superfood. Cooks quickly, and fluffs up nicely for breakfast porridge, rice replacement, sushi roll alternative, or Quinoa Pilaf.
Oats: Whether you choose whole oat groats or rolled oats, oatmeal is a great food to add into your diet. Whole oat groats take some time to cook, and like wheat berries, can benefit from a good soak beforehand. Whole oats or quick oats can be cooked on the stovetop for a healthy breakfast, baked into granola, or stirred into cookies.
Wheat Berries, spelt berries, kamut, rye berries: The whole-est whole grain, these are wheat before it becomes flour. These grains hold the germ and bran so they are very rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals. They take some time to cook, but the nutty, chewy flavor is fun to use in big salads, in pilafs and as breakfast porridge. Click the ingredient links to find recipes and tips for each.
Buckwheat: Great as a whole grain or as a flour, buckwheat is naturally gluten-free and has a cool, earthy flavor. Use warmed for porridges or pilafs, or bake into a yummy Buckwheat Cereal recipe.
Couscous: Not technically a whole grain, couscous is like tiny bits of pasta. Made from semolina flour, it’s tiny texture lets you cook it in just five minutes. Great for Couscous salads, and for a unique spin on spaghetti night.
Polenta: Course ground cornmeal is an Italian staple, and one of my favorite comfort foods. Polenta takes some time to cook, but yields a creamy, delicious bowl that can be used for breakfast or dinner. If cooked with less liquid, you can make polenta squares, like this Polenta Pizza.
Ancient Grains: Teff, amaranth, kaniwa and millet are fun to experiment with, but their grassy flavor and limited use in recipes makes them not super popular. I think they are each oddly delicious, but not everyone is a fan. Click the links within each name to find recipes and tips about each. In order to try these new grains, it’s fun to mix and match to bring these flavors into your life gradually. For example, you can cook teff and polenta together, or millet and quiona, or kaniwa and quinoa to introduce grains into your diet.
Sugar is tricky: one the one hand, it’s really delicious and makes things like cookies and cakes and coffee taste so dang good. But on the other hand, sugar is linked to lots of health problems and environmental concerns, and it’s recommended to avoid it or minimize it in your diet. However, learning to bake at home means you’re relying less on processed foods, which contain and excess of sugar, and if you’re choosing natural sweeteners, it’s probably a better choice than white sugar or corn syrup that’s found in commercially-made or processed foods.
Raw Sugar/Turbinado Sugar: This light brown ‘sugar in the raw’ is a replacement option for white sugar, and is great in coffee, tea, baked goods and more. It is slightly less processed than white sugar, but like all sugars, should be used in moderation.
Sucanat/Evaporated Cane Juice: Sucanat is a different form of sugar that’s made from dehydrating sugar cane juice. The flavor is rich and molasses-like, and the texture is different, since it doesn’t form granules like sugar. Can be used in baking as a one-for-one replacement for sugar, although the dark brown color may affect final results.
Coconut Sugar: This sugar made from coconut flowers is a super natural sweetener, and we love it’s rich, caramel flavor. It’s great in your morning coffee, in baked goods, and it’s used here to bring a hint of sweetness to many of the recipes. If you don’t have it on hand, use a natural cane sugar or brown sugar as a replacement. Agave also works well in sauces unless noted.
Agave nectar: Made from the sap of the agave cactus– most famous for its connection to tequila– agave is a liquid sweetener that can be used for cooking, baking or mixed into coffee, tea and more. It has a very sweet flavor and a distinct but pleasant taste. Though it’s touted as a healthy sweetener, it’s often heavily processed, so keep that in mind when choosing your sweetener.
Maple Syrup: Maple is for so much more than pancakes! We like the grade B maple syrup, which is a little darker and slightly less sweet than Grade A. Skip the commercial brands which are mostly corn syrup, sugar and maple flavoring and splurge on the good stuff. Use in baking, and try in coffee or tea for a lovely twist.
Honey: Though honey is not technically vegan, many people enjoy having it in their pantry. Be sure to buy local honey, to support your local beekeepers and keep pollinators busy! Local honey is also reported to help with seasonal allergies. Honey is best eaten raw, as some of the benefits of honey degrade as it heats.
Stevia: A plant-based sugar alternative, stevia is crazy sweet. It comes in both liquid and powder form, and I’ve found the dried green stevia (less processed than the white powder) is much more delicious and has less of an aftertaste than the liquid or white powders. The green stevia is also much cheaper if you buy in bulk.
Condiments and Sauces:
Nutritional Yeast: Otherwise known as vegan gold, this slightly weird, yellow flakey powder lends a great cheezy, umami goodness to recipes. Try stirring some into your vinaigrettes too! There is no real substitute for nutritional yeast, unfortunately. If your local natural food store doesn’t carry it you can find it online.
Liquid smoke and smoked salt: These two ingredients play a crucial role in recipes to bring a rich, campfire flavor without the campfire work. Both are affordable, easy to use, and insanely delicious. Liquid smoke is a totally vegetarian option, made by distilling the wood smoke and bottling the essence. Use only a very small bit to add dimension and a special je ne sais quoi to gravy, marinades, and more. Smoked salt does the same thing, but as it is a salt product, be sure to adjust any other salty ingredients accordingly. Frontier makes an Applewood smoked salt, but you can find other types at natural food stores or online. Use as a recipe salt or as a finishing salt, and like the liquid smoke, a tiny bit is all you need.
Coconut milk and coconut cream: Creamy coconut milk makes curries, soups, smoothies and more so deliciously decadant. Most recipes will use coconut milk in a can, which is higher in fat and has a silky texture. For baking, you can use this type of coconut milk, or use the boxed coconut milk to replace any milk in other recipes.
Soy Sauce: For any recipe that calls for soy sauce, you can easily swap it out for Bragg’s Liquid Aminos, Tamari (gluten-free soy sauce), or Coconut Aminos, a soy-free based liquid that’s very similar to soy sauce. Your friendly chefs recommend choosing organic with any of these options, as most soy sauces are made with genetically-modified (GM, or GMO) soy which has a host of health and environmental issues associated with it.
Miso: Miso is one of my favorite ingredients: it’s healthful, super yummy, and versatile for many recipes. Miso is a fermented paste made from soybeans (sometimes chickpeas) mixed with cultured rice. There are lots of good brands out there, but we always recommend choosing an organic miso to ensure you’re getting high-quality, organic soybeans. Learn more about the health benefits of miso.
Mirin: Mirin is a non-alcoholic Japanese rice wine that is used for cooking, and lends a creamy, sweet flavor to marinades and sauces.
Canned beans: Whether your favorite is chickpeas, red kidney beans, or black beans, it’s always good to have on hand for quick meals and impromptu taco nights when you don’t have time to soak.
Canned/Jarred Veggies: Marinated artichokes, roasted red peppers,Capers, sun-dried tomatoes (dried or in oil), peas, corn– if you like these items, keeping a jar on hand can add some great texture and flavors to your meal, especially if your fridge is low on fresh veggies.
Tomatoes: Keep a few cans of crushed tomatoes on hand, and some tomato sauce too. Adds depth to curries, stews, and can make a quick pasta sauce.
Dried fruits: Medjool Dates, raisins, figs are our favorites, but perhaps you’d like to have dried apples, bananas, apricots, or currants for salads, oatmeal, and homemade trail mix.
Nut butters: I love having peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter and coconut butter on hand to make quick nut sauces, use for baking, and of course, for sandwiches! Tahini (sesame seed butter) is my absolute favorite, good for making sauces, dressings, making hummus and baba gannoush, and even for baking.
Vegetable Broth options: I usually like to make homemade vegetable broth from scraps, but having some vegetable bouillon cubes on hand is often recommended too. I usually just use water for my soups though, to save the sodium and the packaging of the boullion.
Noodles: Whole wheat pasta and/or gluten-free pasta (my favorite is the Tinkyada rice noodles), and I’d recommend a few shapes too (one spaghetti-type and one smaller shape, like spirals). We also always have soba noodles and udon for Asian-inspired meals. Rice noodles are great for Thai and Vietnamese recipes, and cook quickly.
Get to know your Vinegars!
Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV): This is our favorite, all-purpose, healthy vinegar that can be used in dressings, marinades and even in baking. It’s naturally fermented from crushed apples that mature in wooden barrels and is literally alive with enzymes and healthy acids. Most bottles of ACV are clear, but contains a slimy blob at the bottom known as the ‘mother.’ The mother is a indication that the vinegar is naturally fermented. It’s ok to eat the mother, or shake the vinegar before use to distribute it.
Our favorite brand is Bragg’s, which sells a mild, sweet ACV that is organic, naturally fermented and unpasteurized, which means it contains all the beneficial minerals, enzymes and probiotics from the fermentation process.
Rice vinegar (or brown rice vinegar): Rice vinegar is a sweet vinegar with a clean finish that is perfect for marinades and Asian-inspired salad dressings. We use rice vinegar in a few recipes here that are focused on Asian-inspired flavors, like toasted sesame oil and mirin. There are always lots of varieties to choose from at natural food stores, and for the recipes here, a plain Japanese rice vinegar will do just fine. Note that rice vinegar is very different from sushi vinegar, which contains added salt and sugar to make rice sticky for sushi rolls. Do not use them interchangeably!
Balsamic: Balsamic is a complex and rich flavor is not interchangeable for other vinegars in other recipes. Use it only when balsamic vinegar is actually listed as an ingredient. White balsamic may be used for a slightly more mild flavor.
Coconut Vinegar: A pricey, fancy vinegar with a good flavor, made from yummy coconuts. It’s a great substitution if you can’t have ACV or rice vinegar, but it’s not a necessary ingredient for your pantry.
White Vinegar: While this may be the vinegar you’re most familiar with, white vinegar is not used in any of our recipes. Its bracing, strong flavor can quickly overwhelm more subtle flavors in your meals. Save the white vinegar for pickle making, or if you have a lot lying around, know that vinegar is great for cleaning and for laundry! Find out how to use vinegar (and other pantry staples) for cleaning.
Infused Vinegars: If you’re feeling fancy, you can grab infused vinegars that taste like lemons, oranges, chili or whatever you fancy. These are a great indulgence, but can get pricy. Learn how to make your own infused vinegars.
Choosing the right flour for your baking is important. Learning how to use natural flours and gluten-free flours is a key to baking success.
Chickpea Flour: An indispensable ingredient that works as a flour, a thickener, and as a sauce. It’s the primary ingredient in the Chickpea Gravy (page xx) and cannot be substituted for anything else. It’s also called garbanzo or besan flour, and needs to be sifted before cooking to remove clumps that have formed. It has a strong beany flavor that disappears when cooked properly. Chickpea flour tends to get stale, so purchase a small amount and store in an airtight container for up to six months. Find a great recipe for Socca, chickpea flour flatbread, here on Eat Drink Better.
Whole wheat pastry flour: This can be your go-to flour; it’s light and fluffy like all-purpose flour, but has all the whole grain goodness of whole wheat flour without the weight. Can use one-for-one in recipes calling for all-purpose flour.
Spelt, einkorn, or kamut : Ancient wheat varieties that are often more digestable than traditional wheat, especially if you have wheat allergies. They do contain gluten, so avoid them if you have celiac disease. Can often be used in place of wheat flour, but different gluten structures will lead to potentially varying results.
Buckwheat flour: A wholesome gluten-free flour with a gorgeous grey color. Use for biscuits, baked goods and more. Find a recipe that specifically calls for buckwheat, don’t use as a substitute for wheat flour.
Amaranth flour, Quinoa flour, Millet flour, Sorghum flour: Great to have on hand if you are a gluten-free baker. Do not interchange these flours in recipes as each has varying protein/starch/fat balance that will impact the recipe.
Almond flour: A beautiful light flour made from blanched almonds. Use for cookies, baked goods and more, but always use in a recipe that specifically calls for almond flour, like our Chocolate Chip Almond Flour Cookies.
Coconut flour: A unique flour made from rich coconuts. A great addition to baked goods, but always use in recipes that specifically call for coconut flour, like our unique Chocolate Cookie Dough Truffles.
Pick a Perfect Oil
Finding the right oil for your cooking needs is really important: some oils work best when heated, others work best when used at room temperature. And of course, they all offer unique and wonderful flavors. Here’s a primer on oil oils from our cookbook, Gettin’ Saucy, that will help you stock your pantry with the best oils.
Olive oil: The most versatile cooking oil, full of green brightness and juicy flavor. Always choose extra virgin olive oil; anything else is second pressing and potentially adulterated or diluted oil, and not worthy of your time. Experiment with a variety of olive oils: Spanish, California, Italian or those flavored with Meyer lemons, orange zest and so much more. Olive oil is best for dressings, marinades and light sauteing only.
High heat oil: A catchall term used here to include oils that can be cooked at higher heats and have a neutral taste profile. These high heat oils include organic canola, grapeseed oil, sunflower, safflower, and sesame oil. These oils are mostly used for cooking, but can be used as the base for dressings and marinades, but for almost all recipes, we prefer the richer, more complex flavors of olive or coconut oil.
Coconut oil: Wonderfully nutty and sweet, coconut oil makes an excellent salad dressing, but the fact that it solidifies at about 74º makes it tricky. Use with warm or room temperature salads only, and be sure to warm it up before using if you have stored any leftovers. Like olive oil, we recommend choosing an extra virgin coconut oil to ensure you’re getting a first pressing and a natural product. Your coconut oil should not contain any ingredients besides coconut.
Toasted Sesame Oil: A wildly delicious flavoring oil to be used for garnish or drizzle only, not for cooking. Use Toasted Sesame Oil sparingly, swapping a few teaspoons of this dark oil with other oils in a dressing recipe.
Supplement oils: Oils like flaxseed, pumpkin seed oil or hemp oil are deliciously rich with a slightly green, grassy flavor. These oils are considered supplement oils because they are full of super healthy omega fats and other healthy components that many people use to supplement their diet. These oils are usually found in the refrigerated section of your natural food store and have a very short shelf life. They can be pricy, but are worthy of exploring. These oils should never be cooked, only drizzled onto foods just before eating or blended into dressings.
Nuts and seeds bring healthy fats, flavor and nutrition to your plant-based pantry. Each has unique properties when used in recipes, but for eating out of hand, they’re all delicious!
Almonds: Great for eating out of hand, making homemade almond milk, and using in recipes, almonds are delicious and healthful.
Walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans and brazil nuts: Great for eating out of hand, baking, chopping onto salads, or my favorite, making raw walnut vegan tacos (seriously, just check out this recipe!). All these nuts are great, but I find that they are more ‘special occasion’ nuts.
Cashews: Potentially the most important nut around our house, raw cashews make a great creamy option for nut milks and nut-based cheeses. Try them in our Vegan Macaroni and Cheese, and our Raw Cheesecake.
Pine Nuts: Pine nuts are classically used in homemade pesto, but they are so pricy that I usually avoid them. They are a nice indulgence though!
Coconut flakes and shredded (both unsweetened): Coconut is super important: use it in oatmeal, in cookies, in smoothies, and for making my new favorite salad topping, Coconut Bacon.
Hemp seeds: Hemp seeds are tiny super seeds from the hemp plant that can add a lot to your diet. Unless you’re in the military, which bans consumption of hemp, we highly recommend adding these little seeds into your day. Sprinkle hempseeds onto salads, oatmeal, toss into granola, stir into smoothies and shakes, and eat out of hand for a quick snack. You can learn more about awesome hempseeds here.
Images from Shutterstock (beans, grains in jars, sugars, nuts, oils)