Healthy Diet Makeover, Phase One: Foundations

shiny new pots and pansKitchen Outfitting

There are a few tools that every cook needs, and a few more that are especially helpful in a real food/ whole food/ veg-friendly kitchen.

Basics include:

  • 1-2 non-porous cutting boards; if you plan to eat meat, it’s a good idea to have one for meat only, to avoid contamination of veggies that might be eaten raw.
  • 1 large stew pot (with lid), 1 medium saucepan (with lid), 1 large skillet (preferably with lid), a 9″ x 12″ glass casserole dish (with lid), and 1 large baking sheet.
  • measuring cups
  • measuring spoons
  • large colander
  • at least 1 of each: large flat-bladed knife; small paring knife; serrated bread knife. Again, if you plan to eat meat, consider having an additional knife specifically for meat, to avoid cross contamination of foods that might be eaten raw.
  • plenty of glass storage containers with lids, as well as aluminum foil and freezer-strength storage bags for leftovers or make-ahead meals. Pyrex makes a good product, in various sizes. 1-2 cup sizes are perfect for lunches, or for freezing made-ahead ingredients like beans or pasta in single servings, for fast food later.
  • lemon juicer. The inexpensive 2-piece kind, with a juicer top that attaches to a base jar, works great.
  • kitchen timer. Cheap works fine; you can also use the timer on your cell phone, or if your computer’s usually on (and where you can hear it from the kitchen) http://www.online-stopwatch.com/ is both free and effective.

If you’re drawn to muffins for breakfast or snacks, and think you’d use it, add a large muffin pan to the list. There are unlimited other specialized pots, pans, and kitchen implements you can add later, if the spirit moves you; but this will get you started.

For veg-friendly and slow-food-friendly kitchens, a few other basics are highly recommended. As I wrote in a prior EDB post about vegan cooking,

A good blender and/or food processor is absolutely essential. Cooking with fresh veggies can involve lots of chopping, and many delicious veggie soups, sauces, spreads, and cheezes need a blender for best results.

Slow cookers make it ridiculously easy to cook dried beans, lentils, chickpeas, or root veggies for later use in recipes. Cook dry black, red, or navy beans on high for 8 hours or so; black-eyed peas and chickpeas cook a little faster, and are usually done in 4 hours on high heat.  As a budget-stretching tool, make almost effortless veggie broth in your crock pot for use in soups, stews, roasts, sauces, and casseroles…

A rice cooker with a steamer basket makes good food fast, and is highly recommended. Cook rice, quinoa, or whatever grain you like while simultaneously steaming marinated tofu, tempeh, or veggies– so you can make healthy meals very quickly even when you don’t have time to plan ahead.

‘George Foreman’ style grills are also very handy for preparing veggies, tofu, grilled sandwiches and wraps, bean burgers, quesadillas, and other foods quickly and easily.

I love my bread machine, and will never go back to store-bought bread; but for initial transition to a food-based diet, I’d prioritize the items listed above. You can always add a bread machine to your kitchen later; first let’s work on cooking with real ingredients for the main part of your meals, and we’ll deal with bread another day.

Pantry Build!

New eating habits completely depend on new shopping habits. Because of the messed-up way our farm subsidy system works, many unhealthy high-fat high-cholesterol animal-based foods sport artificially cheap price tags.

To replace these unhealthy foods without increasing your grocery budget, shop with an emphasis on basic staple ingredients: fruit, veggies, beans, rice, and pasta are good starting points. By shopping for whole-food, real-food ingredients, and limiting the processed and animal-based foods in the cart, you can exponentially increase the quality (and variety) of food you eat — without breaking the bank.

First of all, go to localharvest.org and find out if there’s a farmers’ market or CSA program nearby. If so, use it: fresh local in-season produce is delicious and inexpensive!

If you join a CSA you’ll get a big basket of food at set intervals, often once a month. You won’t know how to cook some of it — perfect! That will challenge you to try new healthy foods, and seek out simple recipes for cooking them.

At a farmers’ market, good first staples to look for include: potatoes, sweet potatoes, garlic, and onions. These keep well for a long while, so you don’t have to know how to cook with them right away. Also look for any kind of fruit, any kind of squash, or any fresh herb that catches your eye. These are versatile, tasty, and easy for new cooks to find delicious ways to eat, either raw or cooked.

Plan a ‘Brave New Grocery’ day, one afternoon when you won’t have to rush. Leave out 5-6 processed food items you would normally put in your cart. Instead pick up a few cans of black beans and vegetarian chili beans, brown rice, wheat tortillas, jarred salsa, jarred marinara sauce, and whole wheat pasta.

Look for unsalted or lightly salted peanuts or sunflower seeds, and the cheapest raw nuts in the produce aisle, such as walnuts or pecans. From the salad aisle, grab a package of fresh spinach, a lemon or two, and 2 kinds of fruit that you like. Eventually you won’t need this shortcut, but here at the beginning look in the frozen foods section for vegan/ vegetarian burgers, patties, or cutlets that you’d like to try on wraps or sandwiches.

Get in the habit of reading food labels — watch out for animal ingredients in weird places, if that’s important to you, and look for foods without a lot of extra non-food ingredients.

If one brand of peanuts lists ingredients as ‘peanuts, peanut oil, and salt,’ and a competing brand lists ‘peanuts, monosodium glutamate, corn starch, maltodextrin, corn syrup solids, high fructose corn syrup, natural flavor, gelatin, torula yeast, and yellow dye #4,’ —  drop that first one in your cart. Try to buy food made out of real food ingredients, and generally the fewer the better.

You’ll also want to boost your spice cabinet: salt and pepper alone won’t do! It doesn’t have to be all at once, of course, but start working on it. Each time you shop, pick up a new spice or seasoning tool. Start with extra-virgin olive oil, toasted sesame oil, rice or red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, liquid smoke flavoring, garlic powder, onion powder, basil, oregano, and parsley. A well-stocked pantry takes time to build, but is key to versatile cooking from basic ingredients.

Next>> Eat Your Homework, and Play With Your Food!

  1. Kelli Hall

    GREAT article! Since my husband’s heart attack, I’ve been looking for ways to have ‘heart-healthy’ options in the fridge for his many (MANY) snack attacks. This has DEFINATELY helped! Thank you, Ms. Sitton! I look forward to your next article!!

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