While I originally wasn’t sure if I was going to incorporate the COVID-19 pandemic into my blog content, as quarantines and shelter-in-place orders are now the reality for almost all of us here in the United States, it felt a bit ignorant not to. Over the next few weeks—and maybe even months—“running” out to the store will no longer be an option, which means when it comes to meals, everyone is going to be forced to plan ahead and often make do with what they have on hand already. Honestly, both of those ideas feel a tad daunting…and that’s coming from a girl who already writes out her daily menus a week in advance. So while I totally understand how easy it can be to fall back on pasta, frozen pizzas, and grilled cheese during a time like this, I promise you it doesn’t have to be that way. And not that I’m throwing shade! I can assure you I will have ingested all three of those delicacies myself before this whole mess is over. I’m just here to offer a little tough-love reminder that making good nutritional choices can still be very attainable at a time like this…as long as you continue to make it a priority.
So, instead of complaining, let’s use this as the perfect excuse to get back to basics, shall we? Not to trivialize the situation by an means, but this does afford us a great opportunity to (1) accumulate those perfect pantry staples and (2) identify our “old reliable” dishes that will see us through virus outbreaks and busy weeknights alike—because we will be back there eventuality! To help, I’ve decided to come up with a list of my top 20 essentials for your freezer, fridge, and cupboards, all of which can be used countless ways to create healthy, versatile meals. Do a sweep to identify your gaps, write down a list, and slowly chip away at it over these next few weeks (’cause real talk, oils are stupid expensive). While I’ve done my best to throw out some different tips and ideas for using each to get you started, I cannot stress how much Google is your friend at a time like this. Healthy recipe resources are in abundance so please, PLEASE make use of them! No matter what you’re craving or in need of, there will be at least five recipes on how to create your own simplified, healthier rendition. Alrighty, now in no particular order, my essentials are as follows:
1. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
High in healthy fats, vitamin E, and antioxidants, extra virgin olive oil is one of the best oils you can ingest. Use this for suateeing and frying on the stovetop and as the base of your homemade dressings, dips, and sauces.
2. Avocado Oil
You may be wondering why I recommend having both avocado oil and extra virgin olive oil on hand, and the answer is smoke point. While olive oil is great for stove-top cooking (like sauteing) and lower-temperature oven use, once your cooking temps rise above 400 degrees or so, olive oil breaks down and loses a lot of its essential nutrients. With a smoke point over 500 degrees, avocado oil is a great source of healthy fat that can be used for any sort of cooking technique as well as alone in dressings, dips, and sauces.
3. Coconut Oil
Be sure to grab yourself a jar of unrefined, solid coconut oil for all your healthy baking needs. From muffins to breads to cookies, almost every “clean” baked good recipe I’ve ever come across requires this stuff, so having it on hand is crucial for those days when you’re feeling inspired to get your bake on. If you need tips on how to use, check out my post all about it here!
4. Sesame Oil
Last oil, I promise. While not as critical as items 1 through 3 above, I find many Asian-inspired recipes call for sesame oil. In fact, even something as simple as mixing together a bit of sesame oil, cornstarch, and coconut aminos (see below) generates a quick but lovely little stir-fry sauce that you can dip, drizzle, and mix to your heart’s content. Craving homemade cauliflower fried rice, thai noodles, or spring rolls? You’re going to want to incorporate sesame oil to get the authentic flavor you’re looking for.
5. Coconut Aminos
Also referred to as “liquid aminos,” coconut aminos is a great gluten-free, lower-sodium alternative to soy sauce. Substitute it in any recipes requiring soy sauce for a lighter, healthier option. Sometimes I’ll even just add a few drops to my roasted veggies when I’m craving a little kick of flavor.
6. Balsamic Vinegar
Balsamic vinegar often serves as the base for many homemade salad dressings, which alone makes it a must-have for any Resourceful Rachel out there. However, it can also be used to add a bright acidity when added to tomato-based dishes like pasta sauce and chili or to marinate meat, fish, or tofu. Feeling extra fancy? Make a simple balsamic reduction with a little honey to drizzle over sandwiches, fruit, cheeses, or even ice cream. Whip that out for your significant while you two #stayathome and I guarantee they’ll be impressed!
Honey is one of the most popular “natural” sweeteners out there. Get your drizzle on to sweeten up oats, yogurt toast, tea, or smoothies. Use it in your healthy baked goods. Remember, honey can almost always be used interchangeably with maple syrup in many recipes, so don’t think your S(hit) O(utta) L(uck) if you’re staring at an ingredient list that calls for one over the other. Combine it with #8 below for a homemade honey dijon dressing, #5 above for a honey “soy” glaze, or with any other mixture of basics you have on hand for countless DIY sauces, dressings, and marinades.
8. Dijon Mustard
This one might seem random but hear me out. First and foremost, any type of mustard is actually the healthiest way to go when condiments are concerned, so if you ever need a topping to spice up your ‘burg, dawg, or sausage, mustard is the play. Moreoer, just like honey, the dressings, dips, and sauces calling for this variety of mustard are plentiful. When I am in a pinch, a tablespoon each of vinegar (I use ACV but any will work), honey, dijon mustard, and extra virgin olive oil (plus a dollop of #20 below) is my go-to dressing to add a tangy-sweet punch to anything.
9. Frozen Fruit and Vegetables
So while these two are admittedly kinda boring, their lack of pizzazz makes them no less necessary. While I will always advocate for fresh over frozen, having a bag or two of a mixed vegetable medley chilling in the freezer (see what I did there?) is beyond helpful when you haven’t been able to get to the store all week but don’t want to succumb to takeout for the third night in a row. Use these guys for a quick veggie stir-fry or pasta dish or to add vegetables to an omelet (or anything else for that matter). Also, don’t hesitate to freeze anything you originally bought fresh but haven’t gotten around to using! I often freeze my riced cauliflower or spinach so I can use it later in smoothies. I know I’ve mentioned this before but the silky consistency both generate is divine. Similar to frozen vegetables, frozen fruit is great to have on hand when the guarantee of fresh fruit is, well, not guaranteed. Frozen fruit of any variety is great to toss into overnight oats, protein pancakes, or muffins or top waffles and fro-yo. And again, yes, smoothies…all the smoothies.
10. Low-Sodium Vegetable Broth
While I think we’ve all mentally made the transition to spring, at least here on the East Coast, we’re still holding onto winter weather. For example, the high temperature today is a balmy 41 degrees, and there are still remnants of snow on the ground from our little storm on Tuesday. Between this raw cold weather and the fact that I’m spending more hours than normal snuggled under blankets on the couch, I’m feeling very inspired to make soups and stews these days. Having some vegetable broth (low sodium if possible!) readily available means I can be well on my way whenever the mood strikes.
11. Plant-Based Milk
If you haven’t kicked your dairy milk habit to the curb by now, allow this to be the motivation you need. Most people, even if not technically deemed “lactose intolerant,” struggle to break down dairy in larger quantities. Therefore, if you’re going to be using cups on cups of the stuff for your oatmeal, overnight oats, baked goods, smoothie bowls, and plain-old coffee (guilty as charged), it’s best to make the switch. Your gut and your skin will thank you. I’m an unsweetened vanilla almond milk–kinda girl and I finally convinced Matt to make the switch using Chobani’s vanilla oat milk.
While I don’t think these need too much of an explanation, they are certainly crucial. Whip up some egg cups, a healthy veggie scramble, or a burrito for breakfast. Make some healthier french toast. Use them to get your bake on. Fry one up on the stove and toss on a healthy salad or roasted veggies for a little brunch or lunch action. It’s an egg, just do your thing.
13. Plain Greek Yogurt
You know how makeup gurus have their “holy grail” products they can’t live without? Yeah, that’s how I feel about my nonfat plain greek yogurt. What can I say? I’m a simple girl. In all seriousness though, I use this shit in, on, and in place of everything. Use it to make healthier versions of your favorite creamy dressings and dips or whip it up with chicken, tuna, or chickpeas for mayo-less salads. Tacos, quesadillas, baked potatoes, or chili on the menu? Use a dollop in place of sour cream. Use it in baked goods or mix it in with your oats for an extra boost of protein. Slather a healthy serving on a slice of toast and top with berries, cinnamon, and a sprinkle of honey for a delicious snack. The (delicious) list goes on and on and on…
14. Old-Fashioned Oats
My grocery store has been completely sold out of oats for the past two weeks, so I’ll just be over here hoarding my little cardboard cylinder until further notice. Use them to make oatmeal, overnight oats, or baked oat cups. Roll them up with some honey, nut butter, and protein powder and refrigerate to make protein energy bites. Add them to your smoothies for a little extra thickness and protein. And while they’re obviously great as is, did you know you can whole oats up in the food processor to make your very own oat flour?! Fucken genius, I know. You can find tons of baked good recipes incorporating oat flour with just a basic search, but I also found this resource to help with any substituting you might want to do on your own. Convinced oats can only be consumed after noon? Think again! Oat flour is great to add substance to and help bind homemade veggie burgers and falafel patties.
15. Dried Complex Carbs/Legumes
Most grains can be used fairly interchangeably with one another in recipes, so identify your favorite complex carbs—quinoa, brown rice, farro, lentils, etc.—and get yourself a tub to always have on hand. Quinoa is my personal go-to, and I love using the stuff as the base for my vegetarian stir-frys or mixed into my favorite slaws and salads to make them more filling. Use it to make taco bowls, buddha bowls, or poke bowls. Spoon it into a wrap to make a yummy roll-up or burrito. Combine it with some black beans and corn and stuff it in baked sweet potatoes or peppers for a delicious, Mexican-inspired vegetarian dinner. The best part about dried grains and legumes is that they really can’t go bad, so I highly recommend slowly starting to build up your dried good repertoire so you can pull from it as needed.
16. Canned Beans and Vegetables
These should be a no brainer. My only word of advice is to aim to get “low sodium” or “no salt added” versions and obviously drain and rinse before serving. While I’m sure we all know that any sort of canned bean can be used to add protein to any sort of vegetarian dish (think salads, slaws, pastas, and sandwiches), I also encourage you to branch out a bit here. Chickpeas and black beans can easily be whipped into homemade hummus or tapenade, processed into vegetarian patties, or used in baked goods. Don’t believe beans are for baking? Just do a quick Pinterest search on chickpea blondies or fudgey black bean brownies. I won’t say “I told you so,” don’t worry.
17. A Healthy Flour
Because when in doubt, bake it out. While being stocked up on oats means you will always have oat flour available at your finger tips, I recommend having another healthy flour alternative in the pantry (e.g., almond flour, coconut flour) for a little more baking bandwidth so to speak. If I had to choose, I’d recommend almond flour. It’s a little pricey, but similar to coconut oil, I find that it is the variety most often called for in healthy baking recipes. No matter what you’re craving, from cookies to muffins to cupcakes, a quick “almond flour [insert craving here]” search will satisfy.
18. Nut Butter
Nut butters are another one of those great staples that can be used fairly interchangeably. Therefore, if a recipe calls for smooth almond butter and all you’ve got is crunchy PB, just use the damn peanut butter! Especially when it comes to baked goods, you can (almost always) rest assured knowing you haven’t made a catastrophic mishap. Mix your favorite nut butter into your oats or drizzle it on top of your smoothie bowls. Use it in your baked goods. Slather it onto a piece of bread or sweet potato toast for a savory breakfast and use it to whip up your own rendition of a thai peanut sauce or marinade. Or, hell, just slam down a spoonful from the jar when you’ve had an extra long day. No? Just me?
19. Healthy Loaf of Bread
I’ll be honest, I don’t eat a ton of bread in my day to day, so I usually get myself a great healthy loaf and keep it in the freezer to extend its shelf life. This way, I just pull out a slice or two as I need it, and in doing so, I find I can make a loaf last a solid three or four weeks. The thing with bread is that while I don’t reach for it regularly, I make sure I’m never without it. Because here’s the thing: bread has come through for me in the past. Even when you think your cabinets and fridge are barren, I guarantee there’s something you can toss on a piece of bread to feed yourself. Do we want it to get to that point? No, of course not…that doesn’t exactly fit into our whole “planning ahead” mindset, does it? My point is just to say that it’s helpful to have a (healthy) loaf on hand for emergencies. Oh, and if you need help making your selection, check out my blog post here for some pointers.
20. Minced Garlic (in a jar)
Ah, my trusty old friend. Is it just me or does pretty much every recipe out there call for minced garlic? Not for nothing I might add. Garlic really is that bitch. I almost always add it to my homemade dressings, soups, sauces, and sautes whether specifically called for or not. And while there’s some things I advocate for fresh (I’m looking at you grated ginger!), I personally find little difference between the minced garlic in your fridge and if you were to whack away at a clove yourself. Something that saves me both time and effort but is guaranteed to make my dishes taste better? Das an essential!
Plus a few more tips…
- Great fresh fruit options right now include bananas, berries, and melons. Berries yield a high volume-to-price ratio and can be easily frozen if for some reason you don’t get around to using them right away. Bananas are inexpensive and have a great shelf life. Plus, you can freeze them or bake with them once they do start to brown. Finally, buy yourself a big watermelon, cantaloupe, or honeydew melon, slice it up yourself, and store in the fridge for a fresh fruit option you can pull from for days! Lemons are also inexpensive, easy to keep, and ideal to have just laying around, since many sauces, dressings, and dishes are made by a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
- For vegetables, carrots, peppers, onions, cucumbers, and celery are all super hardy and multifunctional. Spinach can be used in eggs, added to salads and sandwiches, and blended into smoothies. Worried it’s going to go bad? Pop it in the freezer! I literally had never thought about doing that until a few weeks ago and it has been a game-changer ever since! Finally, potatoes of any variety—regular, sweet, fingerling, etc.—are a good bet. Whip up a healthy hash over the weekend to make breakfast feel special or load up a baked sweet potato with beans and veggies for an easy vegetarian dinner. Try making your own chips or fries (y’all know I love using roast sweet potatoes as the base for my healthier nachos!).
- When planning recipes, think about things you can make in bulk and reach for throughout the week. Whip up a huge salad or make a hearty soup and divide it into multiple servings. Grab a bag of slaw, add a can of beans, and a quick 3-ingredient dressing, and you’ve got a healthy lunch for 2 or 3 days. Muffins, breads, egg cups, and baked oatmeal are also all great breakfast options that will serve you multiple days in a row. I also highly recommend divvying out your food ahead of time if you’re going to be stuck at home 24/7. It might sound silly using tupperware when you’re just going to be eating 20 feet from the fridge anyway, but trust me when I say it’s much easier to keep portions in check when everything is already measured out.
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Did you guys find this helpful at all? I know it’s a weird, scary time, but sticking to a routine and keeping yourself focused on positive things is the best way to stay sane. If you ever need any recipe inspo or tips on using one of the 20 items above, please don’t hesitate to slide on into my DMs. After all, we are all #alonetogether so let’s lean on and learn from each other. Stay well, my friends!