The key to cooking stress-free healthy food that tastes good is to keep your kitchen well stocked with versatile ingredients that have a decent shelf life. That way, your regular weekly shopping list only needs to include fresh stuff like fruit, vegetables, fish, meat and milk.
Below are a few of our favourite ingredients that we always have on hand, all of which you can buy at a regular supermarket. Always check the label to avoid added sugar, salt, colours, flavours, and preservatives. And don’t be afraid of home brands – they have come a long way in Australia!
Anchovies – these tiny fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and add depth of flavour to sauces such as in our Seafood, Tomato and Cannellini Bean Stew.
Canned tuna – a great source of protein, iodine, and omega-3 fatty acids, canned tuna is ideal to throw through pasta or a simple salad. Don’t eat it every day though because like all big fish, there is a small amount of mercury. Opt for the tuna in springwater or oil instead of the flavoured varieties, which often have added sugar and sodium.
Canned tomatoes – like fresh tomatoes, the canned type are low in calories and packed with fibre and vitamin C. They trump the fresh type though when it comes to the antioxidant lycopene, which has been shown to help lower the risk of heart disease, prostate cancer and macular (eye) degeneration. They are the star ingredient in our smokey tomato pasta sauce recipe.
Canned beans/legumes – these are not only healthy, they are very cheap! High in dietary and soluble fibre, they are also a good source of carbohydrates and have a low GI (Glycaemic Index), which helps to keep hunger at bay for longer after eating. The ones we use most in cooking are cannellini beans, chickpeas, lentils and black beans. We also regularly serve up canned baked beans (navy beans) in tomato sauce because they are quick and kids love them but try and get the low salt variety.
Dates – an excellent natural sweetener, dates are high in fibre and contain a range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Eat them in moderation though because they’re higher in calories than fresh fruit (and too much may lead to tooth decay). They are a key ingredient in our carrot, date and apple muffins.
Dried herbs and spices – these add flavour so you don’t need to be heavyhanded on sugar and salt. A must in any pantry is ground cinnamon, coriander, cumin, fennel seeds, smoked paprika and chilli flakes.
Eggs – economical and nutrient-rich, eggs have lost their bad reputation for contributing to high cholesterol and heart disease and Australian Dietary Guidelines suggest you enjoy up to 7 eggs per week as part of a healthy, balanced diet. Use them in our frittata and shakshuka.
Hazelnuts (raw) – they taste so good (we are suckers for the Lindt Roasted Hazelnut chocolate) and like many other nuts, hazelnuts appear to have beneficial effects on heart disease risk factors. Try them in our baked cauliflower risotto.
Miso – the health benefits of these fermented beans are widely documented and it lasts for ages in the fridge. There are different types (white, yellow and red) – it really comes down to personal taste with white being the mildest and red being the most pungent/salty. We love it in our peanut miso dressing and with our roast pumpkin and radish.
Muesli – while we make our own on rare occasions, our favourite supermarket muesli brand is Sunsol 10+ natural variety because it’s full of oats, nuts and seeds with no dried fruit (we like to add our own fresh fruit on the top).
Oats – these whole grains are hands down one of our favourite ingredients. They are low in sodium (salt), a good source of protein and carbohydrates so give you energy but are low GI and one of the richest sources of beta-glucan, a soluble fibre, that can help to lower cholesterol re-absorption. We love them because they are so versatile and can be used in sweet and savoury dishes.
Olive oil – made up of mainly monounsaturated fats, which help lower cholesterol in the blood and, in turn, reduce cardiovascular problems, olive oil is splashed through most of our cooking. Extra virgin is considered to be the premium grade because the extraction method involves no chemicals and only a small amount of heat. Keep the cheaper stuff for heating in your cooking and the fancier stuff for dressings and drizzling at room temperature. Best to buy in small quantities and use within 6 months, otherwise it goes rancid.
Pasta – demonised unjustly when the world was swept by the ‘carbs are bad’ fad, pasta makes an excellent base for sauces packed with protein and/or vegetables. The regular white durum wheat semolina variety is most common and while it less nutrient dense than wholegrain alternatives such as wholemeal or spelt, it really does come back to what you’re putting on it. Try it with our bolognese sauce or other vegetables and aim to serve with a green salad.
Peanut butter – opt for the brands that contain only peanuts and a little salt, such as Mayver’s or Pics. This healthy spread has high levels of healthy (mono and polyunsaturated) fats and low levels of unhealthy (saturated) fats. Peanuts are also a good source of fibre, protein, antioxidants and have a low GI. Lather it on toast or sandwiches (except in kids’ lunchboxes!) or use it in salad dressings or baking.
Popcorn – it can be tricky to find healthy lunchbox snacks that kids will actually eat, are nut free and don’t perish in the heat. Another whole grain, popcorn ticks all these boxes. But steer clear of the multicolour variety, which is more sugar than corn and the salty, buttery stuff at the movies. Even better, pop your own!
Rice – when we have time we cook rice from scratch but the microwaveable packets are really handy and now come in different nutritious varieties. Brown rice is better for you because you are eating the whole grain (white rice has had the bran and germ removed, which are the most nutritious parts of the grain). Experiment with the packs that have rice mixed with different grains like quinoa and millet.
Sriracha sauce – look, there’s not a lot say about the health benefits of this spicy sauce that’s made of chillies, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt but it tastes phenomenal and you don’t need a lot of it. Use it in noodles, rice, marinades, omelettes, sauces, pizza, burgers or anywhere you want a delicious, spicy taste.
Tahini – this paste made from ground sesame seeds is rich in calcium and a range of vitamins and minerals. Use it in our brassica and chickpea salad or add it stir fries and dips.
Vita-Weats – made with 100% wholegrains, these are perfect for a range of toppings and the school lunchbox. We love the 9 Grains version.
Yoghurt – go for the low-fat plain variety where the only ingredients are milk and live yoghurt cultures. We love the Chobani’s Greek Style yoghurt with less than 0.5% fat, which we use in smoothies, simply topped with fruit, on muesli or in muffins and pancakes.
Tell us, readers… what ingredients can’t you live without in your kitchen?
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