Updated: Sep 23, 2022
Interested in eating more plants but unsure where to start? Having the right plant-based essentials on hand is one of the first steps to eating more plant-based foods.
Plant-based eating can be daunting at first. I remember when I first went vegan in 2013 and asked my husband to join me. Thankfully, he was open to trying it for a couple of weeks. After the first week and the last plate of steamed broccoli (there may have been a few pasta nights in there too), he said, "If we keep eating like this, I don't think I'll last another week." I couldn't agree more. Pasta was my go-to. And, don't get me wrong, steamed broccoli is a lovely choice for a veggie, but it certainly wasn't sustainable as a recurring meal. That day, I purchased a plant-based cookbook to start learning how to properly prepare plant-based meals that are delicious, satisfying, nourishing, and would keep us coming back for more. (By the way, Isa Does It! is still a go-to for me when I'm looking for cooking inspiration.)
I've also witnessed another scenario and curious if it sounds familiar to you: You're standing in the middle of the grocery store, staring blindly at the vegan foods section. You're thinking, well, it all looks interesting, but where the heck do I start? It’s possible that you go home with a few new items that scream plant-based, like black beans, bananas, berries … and chocolate covered almonds (I mean, the label says “made with plants” and “dairy-free” so, why not?) Or, perhaps just being in the grocery store, with hundreds of options, like plant-based meats, dried beans in bulk, and vegan cheese, is enough to cause your brain to explode so you grab a few familiar snacks, head home and call it a day (been there!). Sigh. There’s always tomorrow.
Maybe you’ve been diving into plant-based eating for some time now and curious if you’re “doing it right.” Or, perhaps you’ve been a plant-powered enthusiast for years and are looking for new inspiration and ideas to stock your kitchen.
Whether you’re brand new to plant-based eating, have been getting your feet wet for some time, or a long-term devotee to plants, I'm about to give you a glimpse and offer ideas on how you might stock your own plant-powered pantry.
Why is it Important to Keep Your Pantry Stocked?
Having plant-based ingredients on hand is the very first step to creating healthy and delicious plant-based meals and snacks. For example, have you ever searched for a recipe online, found one that looks perfect, scanned the ingredients in your kitchen and yelped with excitement that you actually had all of the ingredients on hand? 🙋🏻♀️ Having a well-stocked kitchen means you can create all kinds of fun and delicious recipes.
(For those of you who are currently thinking, but I hate cooking—stay tuned for a "Plant-Based Culinary Short Cuts" article coming soon, which will include how to minimize cooking but still stay nourished eating plant-based foods. In the meantime, I'd still encourage you to keep some of the foods below on hand that can easily be thrown together in minutes, even if you dislike cooking! For example, purchasing precooked brown rice, adding drained canned beans to the rice, throwing some microwave broccoli on top, and drizzling your fave healthy sauce on top can be simple AND plant-based. Frozen veggies, canned beans, and pre-made whole grains are okay!)
Here are five fabulous reasons that may inspire you to keep a well-stocked pantry:
1. Minimize trips to the grocery store since you have everything on hand (this is a big stress reducer when it comes to creating recipes).
2. Save time in the kitchen.
3. Cook more and order out less, which actually leads to three bonus reasons:
Save money. (You know this is true if you’ve ordered take-out delivery lately with those exorbitant prices!).
Avoid earth-crushing plasticware, plastic containers, and little condiment packages that typically accompany take-out foods.
Wake up looking refreshed instead of like a blowfish (speaking from experience here—the excessive salt used in restaurant food always leaves me with puffy morning eyes and, no matter what they say, laying down with a layer of raw cucumbers over my face does not help!).
4. Plant-based recipe creation becomes stress free and more efficient when you’re consistently stocked with base plant-based ingredients that can create a variety of meals.
5. Sticking to healthy habits becomes effortless. When you have plant-based ingredients on hand, plant-based eating becomes a healthy habit, which becomes a lifestyle.
What Foods to Stock in Your Plant-Based Pantry
Whole grains and starchy vegetables have historically received a bad reputation. That’s because their processed versions, like white bread and white pasta or potatoes made into potato chips, have been made unhealthy by stripping them of their nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals, causing a myriad of unwanted health conditions. Whole grains are unprocessed whole foods, and are a fabulous source of healthy carbohydrates, B vitamins, magnesium, fiber, and plant-based protein, just to name a few. Keep at least 2–3 whole grains in your pantry to start. Examples include brown rice, black rice, red rice, farro, bulgur, buckwheat, kamut, quinoa, amaranth, teff, and oats.
Stocking what you know and love is a great place to start. For example, if you love pasta, keep a whole grain or legume pasta on hand. That’s one! Now, choose two more. Perhaps brown or black rice, or wild rice, would be your next choice. How about one more? Quinoa is always a fun addition or maybe you’re feeling a little wild and want to experiment with unique grains like amaranth, millet, or buckwheat (one of my personal faves because it's delicious and easy to make!). The point is to start with grains you know and love and, as you create more recipes, experiment by trying one new grain on your next trip to the grocery store. Research shows that incorporating a variety of grains can offer nutritional benefits since they all come with their own set of nutritional values. Check out our blog article, 3 Whole Grains to Try This Week or explore more from this handy Whole Grains Council, Whole Grains from A to Z, list.
Beans, peas, and lentils
Are you already cringing because you know what beans do to your digestion (or maybe your spouse or parter is cringing.) Beans, peas, and lentils are a must have plant-based pantry item because they offer tons of nutrition, including protein, fiber, and phytonutrients. However, they can be tough to digest because they contain a type of carbohydrate that our bodies cannot break down (hence, the gas). What causes the gas is the healthy bacteria in our gut breaking down that non digestible carbohydrate for us (so it's not so bad, maybe just a bit uncomfortable). The good news is that you can reduced that non digestible carbohydrate by rinsing canned beans, soaking and cooking dried beans thoroughly, and adding cumin or fennels seeds to the cooking water. To get all the tips on how to minimize this gassy compound, visit 7 Reasons to Eat Beans and How to Incorporate Them.
Phew, now that we know beans can be enjoyed without wreaking havoc in our bellies and our homes, let's talk about them as part of a plant-powered kitchen. Personally, I like to keep both dried beans on hand as well as canned beans, just in case I forget to plan ahead and need them last minute. All beans are fabulous! Chickpeas, brown, green, or red lentils, split peas, black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, and every other type of legume are packed with plant-based protein, fiber, folate, iron, and other essential nutrients that fuel optimal health. Dried legumes have a shelf life of about one year when stored in a dry cool place. Keep them in the pantry if you plan to use them within a year or store them in your refrigerator or freezer to extend the shelf life. You could also create a fun and colorful kitchen display by storing them in mason jars displaying them on your kitchen countertop. Canned beans are perfect for last minute dishes (or you simply don't want to prepare them from dried). Just look for BPA-free cans to avoid the harmful plastic leaching into your food. There are so many varieties of beans and, similar to grains, they all offer their own nutrient profile. I would recommend keeping 2-3 kinds of beans on hand. Fun fact: Black beans get their black color (which is actually purple) from the same healing phytonutrients, anthocyanins, that give blueberries their purple color!
When you start experimenting with plant-based recipes, you may notice that a variety of flours start to take over your cabinet. (And, trust me, from experience, opening up a packed pantry full of flour may result in a kitchen snow shower that looks like a scene out of an “I Love Lucy” show.)
Oat flour is a great one to keep on hand as it’s healthy and versatile since it successfully substitutes white or wheat flour in a variety of recipes. Almond flour can’t always substitute one-to-one for flour but can be a nice substitute for some of the flour in a recipe. Buckwheat flour is another wonderful white flour substitute in baked goods, pancakes and waffles. It has a lovely nutty flavor, good quality plant-based protein and lots of fiber. Other potential flours to keep on hand include chickpea flour, millet flour, teff flour, or amaranth flour. It really depends on your personal preference and which you find you typically use the most. Most types of flour will stay fresh in a pantry for 3 to 8 months. However, the specific shelf life will depend on the type of flour. Similar to dried beans, you can keep the amount of flour you know you’ll use in the pantry for easy access and store the remaining flour in the refrigerator or freezer to extend the shelf life.
Nuts and seeds
As you know, beans are a great source of protein. Other protein superstars in the plant kingdom are nuts and seeds. They make a tasty sustainable snack, a crunchy addition to creamy oatmeal, yummy plant-based milk, and creamy indulgences when blended into nut and seed butter. Due to their high fat content, nuts and seeds can go rancid quickly. If you’re not planning to eat them within three months, you’ll want to store them in the refrigerator for up to six months or freeze them for a year or longer. Keep 2-3 of your favorite nuts and 2-3 of your favorite seeds on hand. Of course, if there are nut allergies present in your home, keeping all seeds on hand is a great option. There are plenty of yummy seeds from sunflower seeds to pumpkin seeds to chia, hemp and flax seeds. For the nuts, all nuts get a gold star from almonds to hazelnuts to Brazil nuts to cashews. When you have nuts and seeds on hand, as well as dried fruit, another great staple in the pantry, you can easily create your own granola, trail mix or muesli. Speaking of dried fruit, dates are fantastic, versatile, and a staple in plant-based diets because of their ability to naturally sweeten recipes. You can add them to smoothies or soak them in water then blend them with the water to make a date paste that can be used in place of other sweeteners, like maple syrup, in recipes. Other dried fruit, like naturally sweetened cranberries, apricots, and figs, can make great additions to salads, baked goods, and granola. P.S. Tahini (ground sesame seeds) is used in lots of plant-based recipes because of it's ability to create the most delicious plant-based dressings and sauces. It's also packed with calcium, selenium, and B vitamins.
Spices and Seasonings
Not only are spices and seasonings essential in creating deliciously flavored plant-based meals, but they’re also packed with nutrition. You may have staples that you regularly use, such as garlic powder, onion granules, and oregano. It may also be helpful to think about the type of cuisine you most love to eat. Perhaps it’s Italian or maybe you love Mexican or Indian or Thai food. Consider the spices used in your favorite cuisine and start by stocking them in your pantry. Also, know that spices do expire after about a year. They lose both flavor potency and nutrition so make sure to update your spice cabinet, if needed, to maximize the flavor and nutritional value of your dishes.
Tamari or coconut aminos are staples in a plant-based pantry because of their ability to lend delicious flavor in exchange for a very small amount. They’re both similar to soy sauce in flavor, but a little less processed. I love using them in recipes because a little bit goes a long way when it comes to adding flavor. Tamari can be super high in sodium so look for reduced sodium.
Having a variety of vinegars on hand is also helpful, like rice vinegar, which is often used in Asian recipes, sherry or red wine vinegar, which can be used interchangeably, and apple cider vinegar which is great for dressings and sauces.
If you haven’t tried nutritional yeast yet, you’re in for a treat! It has a cheesy flavor and is essential to any plant-based kitchen. It tastes delicious sprinkled on top of veggies, pasta, tacos, and popcorn. Bonus that it can also be a good source of protein and B12, if fortified.
Fats are certainly important from a culinary perspective because they help to carry other flavors to the palate, balance flavors, and add smoothness and richness to a dish. But, the type of fat matters! Certain types of fats can be beneficial to health while others may be harmful.
In terms of nutrition, there are two types of fats available for culinary purposes:
Whole food fats are the whole foods, intact, not just a part of the food. Avocado is a good example of a food that contains fat, but also contains many other nutrients like fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.
Oils are extracted from the whole food using mechanical or chemical processing. For example, avocado oil is just the fat from the whole avocado, leaving important nutrients behind, like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that are so important for optimal health.
Using whole food forms of fat, whenever possible, will give you much more nutrition. Good examples include making salad dressings creamy by blending whole avocado with vinegar or lemon juice, and any other ingredients, rather than using just the avocado oil. Or creating creamy sauces by blending whole cashews into a creamy base instead of using oil or plant-based milk.
What’s more, some oils become inflammatory when heated at high temperatures.
Olive oil and flax oil have healthier fats compared to some oils in that olive oil has monounsaturated fat and flax oil has omega 3 fatty acids, both of which may have health benefits. Neither of them should be heated since they’re unstable at high temperature so, if you choose to use them, add them in small amounts after cooking or to cold salads. Also, because flax oil is mostly of the omega 3 variety, it should always be kept in the refrigerator.
Occasionally, oil may be needed to prevent food from sticking to pans as in the case with pancakes or waffles. For these types of items, consider using avocado oil, another unsaturated fat, that can tolerate higher heat.
A Few Last Essentials to Add to Your Grocery Shopping List
A couple of other essentials that can be homemade or purchased from the store—plant-based milk and vegetable broth. If you have time and motivation to make your own homemade plant milk out of oats, nuts or seeds then, yes, go for it! Or, if you make your own homemade veggie broth by simmering vegetable scraps then I’m sending you virtual high fives! Don’t have time to make plant milk and veggie broth from scratch? There are no plant-based awards given for those who have the most time. You get equal high fives for being here and simply stocking up on plants, because that, my friend, is enough.
Whether you’re making homemade or purchasing from a store, you’ll use lots of vegetable broth and plant milk in recipes. One suggestion for plant milk is to keep it unsweetened and unflavored so that it can be used in a variety of recipes from savory to sweet.
A few soy products that are essential to a plant-based kitchen, but belong in the refrigerator and not the pantry, are organic tofu, tempeh, and miso. Both tofu and tempeh are fabulous meat substitutes (click on the links for recipes!) and miso is a soy paste that is used to make dressings, sauces, and soups. It gives a lovely umami flavor. A soy-free version is also available and is made with chickpeas.
Organizing Your Pantry
One way to save money and minimize packaging is to purchase pantry ingredients in bulk. Nuts, seeds, beans, peas, lentils, grains, and more can oftentimes be purchased in the bulk section of grocery stores. To reduce packaging even further, scoop the bulk items into your own bags or storage containers.
One thing I love to do when I bring bulk items home is to store the bulk ingredients (nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and grains) in old glass condiment jars that have been washed. It's cost-efficient, safe (since it's in glass and not plastic), eco-friendly, and a fun way to store a variety of pantry items. For items that don't need to be refrigerated, it can make a really pretty display on your countertop! One thing I learned from experience is that if you reuse condiment jars that once housed VERY aromatic food (looking at you, kimchi), you may need to run the jar through the dishwasher or wash it several times to remove the strong aromas. Otherwise, you may have kimchi-flavored beans (unless that's your jam).
Another thing I learned the hard way, is that it's really important to label bulk items. Trust me, the number of the item on the bin at the store will mean absolutely nothing to you once you get home and even if you think you'll remember what's inside you might not. I mean, sure you can easily tell the difference between something like almonds and cashews. But when it comes time to decipher between wheat berries, farro, einkorn, and kamut, you might be left scratching your head. Why does this matter? Each type of grain requires different soaking and cooking times as well as the amount of liquid that needs to be added. Oh, and flours? Unless they're labeled it'll be tricky to determine which is oat or chickpea or buckwheat flour. So, unless your goal is to go on a mysterious plant-based adventure, label your grains, flour, and legume. Don't forget to include the date you purchased them as they do have a shelf life.
Organize your ingredients in a first in/first out manner so that the older ingredients get used first to avoid waste, which is not good for the planet or your wallet. Learn more about reducing food waste here.
Another way to stay organized is to keep categories of ingredients together, like all grains stay together, beans, peas and lentils stay together, nuts and seeds stay together (best if in the fridge!)_, and spices together with the most frequently used spices front and center, easy to grab.
Are You Ready to Stock Your Pantry?
Grab your pen and paper or simply open up your phone to start creating your plant-powered shopping list. Remember to start with what you know and love. As you get more familiar with ingredients and comfortable in the kitchen, consider trying a new ingredient with each trip to the grocery store. I’d love to hear what key ingredients make up your plant-based pantry and any organizational tips you’d like to share! Please share below.
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