A fan of Rural Spin recently asked for my top recommended food items for the home kitchen. I’ve pondered this question before myself, and took the question as the nudge I needed to make decisions when it came to a kitchen run by someone who might be limited in time, space, money, or all three. This selection of my top 20 essential food items (in no particular order) is what I would recommend as a starting point for someone wanting to pare down their kitchen pantry and maintain a varied, tasty diet that is both healthy and nutritious. But I encourage you to look at this list and adjust it to your own personal tastes and preferences. If you have some food favorites you can’t live without, feel free to note them in comments!
1. LENTILS: Any bean will do, but I find lentils to be the most versatile of beans. They cook quickly and can be used in a variety of dishes from pilaf to chili, and when soaked in water overnight, can be eaten raw as a salad along with some chopped onion, garlic, and tomatoes.
2. QUINOA: This pseudocereal is closely related to spinach, and is considered a true superfood thanks to its nutritional value and as a source of complete protein. It cooks quickly and can be eaten hot as part of a meal with beans or vegetables, as a warm or cold morning cereal, and as an addition to a salads.
3. BARLEY: Barley is underrated in my book. It is more forgiving to cook than rice, and is just as versatile. It can be used as a substitute for any grain, including pasta! It has a chewy, pleasant taste and can be stored dried until ready to cook. It can be ground and made into bread, and can be boiled into a porridge for an oatmeal substitute. Keep in mind, though, that barley does contain gluten if this is a concern of yours.
4. CORNMEAL: My list does not include wheat, but does include cornmeal to take its place as another supplier of bread, not to mention polenta, corn cakes, and a source for morning hot cereal. To get the most nutritional benefits, make sure you’re buying whole corn meal, and not the degermed variety. Check out my post on blue cornbread for a recipe (you can use yellow cornmeal for this recipe, and substitute almond milk for the milk called for in the recipe)!
5. COCOA NIBS: Chocolate has many health benefits (read more about the benefits of cocoa here, along with how I drink it instead of coffee many mornings), not to mention as a building block for many tasty treats. But roasted cocoa nibs, with their nutty taste, are a staple in my kitchen for a few reasons: I can grind them into cocoa powder and use in baking and for morning hot chocolate, I toss them in salads for a crunchy bite, and I mix them in with stews, soups, and other savory meals for some texture and seasoning. I also enjoy them right out of my hand, eaten like a nut. Speaking of nuts….
6. ALMONDS: Nuts are wonderful for nutrition, and almonds in particular are very useful in the kitchen. They can be ground into flour and used as a flour substitute in different sweet treats, added to soups as a thickener, and can be used to make almond milk. Not to mention how tasty they are as a snack on their own (or combined with cocoa nibs!)
7. COCONUT OIL: If you have only one fat in your kitchen, coconut oil should be it. It is a healthy fat and the flavor lends itself to both savory and sweet cooking. It can substitute for butter in corn bread, just as well as sauteing kale. Its dual purpose as a great beauty product for your hair and skin is an added bonus!
8. HONEY: Like coconut oil, if you have one sweetener in your kitchen it should be raw, local honey. It never spoils (if it crystallizes, just heat it gently until the crystals dissolve), is 100% natural and unrefined if raw, and tastes great. It also has medicinal benefits for what ails you, both inside and out. Add it to breads, mix it with ground cocoa nibs and coconut oil to make chocolate treats, and add it to my next ingredient…
9. TEA: It was a tough choice between coffee and tea as a hot (or cold) beverage, but tea won for its medicinal benefits. Plus, I find tea to be a bit more versatile than coffee; iced tea can be light and refreshing while iced coffee can feel like more of a commitment sometimes (note that I think commitment is a wonderful, wonderful thing!) Tea is also easier on the stomach than coffee can be.
10. SALT & PEPPER: While overuse of salt can cause some health problems, we need it to live, and salt and pepper are the dual pillars of the spice cabinet. If you’re forced to pick among spices, salt and pepper have to be it (though it would pain me to lose cinnamon, vanilla, and many other herbs and spices). Plus, salt is an important food preservative and as the most basic of all food seasonings. Salt & pepper enhances most of your savory meals and adds depth of flavor to your sweet dishes (try adding pepper to your hot chocolate for a Mayan twist). Feel free to use whatever kind of pepper you like, from the standard black variety to dried and ground hot red peppers.
11. PUMPKIN: Frankly, I can’t get enough pumpkin. It’s orange color rounds out our healthy food palette, and it is great baked, roasted or stewed with barley, lentils or quinoa. I also like it pureed as a breakfast or treat item when mixed with cocoa and honey.
12. BERRIES: Of all the fruits, I consider berries to be some of the tastiest with the most nutritional bang. My preferred is the blackberry, with blueberries coming in a close second. But strawberries and raspberries are also great choices for fresh eating or as an addition to sweet treats. They also make for a tasty and nutritious addition to morning breakfast quinoa, cooked cornmeal, or yogurt
13. TOMATO: Tomatoes are one of the most versatile forms of produce available. They can be easily canned into sauces and soups, and incorporated into meals, both hot and cold. Tomato juice is also a healthy beverage. Tomatoes can also be made into condiments, such as jams and chutneys. And they are easy to grow yourself in a container garden. Either large slicing tomatoes or small grape tomatoes will do.
14. LEMON: A food preservative as well as a palate enhancer, lemons can be zested and juiced into many savory meals, and made into lemonade. And let’s not forget their important role making sweet treats using almond flour, cornmeal, and barley flour as your base for sweet breads, fruit crumbles, or cobblers. My beverage of choice is also plain cold water with slices of lemon floating in them: great for your skin and body!
15. KALE: A healthy green that withstands cooking without melting away into nothing, kale also happens to be a food powerhouse from a nutritional standpoint. While it can be eaten raw in salads, I prefer it added to soups and roasts. I also enjoy it cooked into kale chips in the oven with a bit of salt and pepper. I’ve known toddlers to swoon over that crunchy treat!
16. ONION: I’ve never met a kitchen that didn’t make regular use of onions. Grilled, sauteed, or roasted, stuffed or stewed, they do it all. They can even be made into a jam! They store easily and for long periods of time, which means they’re practical when purchased in bulk. They are also full of health benefits, along with #17…
17. GARLIC: Eaten sauteed, baked, pickled, or stewed, garlic makes life worth living! Not only does it provide a wonderful taste to almost any meal, the health benefits and imminity boosting powers of fresh garlic are legendary. It also stores well, which makes it friendly for the kitchen with limited refrigeration space.
18. YOGURT: The probiotic health value of yogurt, and its versatility in many dishes both sweet and savory, make this the only dairy product on my list. I eat it frequently with almonds and honey for breakfast, as readily as I top it on lentil and onion stew. It also serves as a base for many spreads and sauces when mixed with other ingredients, like garlic, onions, salt and pepper, and even cocoa nibs.
19. EGGS: Eggs are so versatile in so many forms, including an ingredient for savory and sweet dishes alike, that I think eggs should be a mainstay in any kitchen. In fact, they pretty much are! And freshly laid eggs don’t need to be refrigerated. As long as it hasn’t had its external layer of “bloom” washed off, a fresh egg will keep for several weeks unrefrigerated, though the taste does decline a bit. Just be sure to wash them right before you use them.
20. BAKING SODA: This unassuming ingredient is a staple in my kitchen and taken for granted in others. If you’re paring down you will find it very useful not only to cut the acidity in tomato soups and stocks, but also as a leavening agent in any breads baked using your cornmeal, barley, or almond flour.