It’s not that I have a magic pantry or perfect eating habits, but I do keep nutrition in mind when feeding my family. Years of experience have taught me the importance of incorporating a variety of healthy foods into the menu. However, there are a few items that are always available for use in my recipes. These go-to ingredients serve as a base for multiple dishes and provide nutritional benefits.
As an integral part of the Mediterranean diet, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is a staple on the pantry shelf. Extra virgin means the oil is extracted without heat or chemical solvents, allowing it to retain beneficial polyphenols, antioxidants and vitamins. Look for certifications, like the California Olive Oil Council to ensure quality. At 120 calories per tablespoon, the oil is mainly heart healthy monounsaturated fat, helping to lower bad LDL cholesterol and maintain cells. It also contains anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory compounds that impact diseases like Alzheimer’s and diabetes.
From balsamic vinaigrette in strawberry almond salad to sautéing chicken breast, this versatile oil is used in hot and cold dishes alike. And contrary to popular belief, recent evidence suggests this multipurpose oil stands up to higher temperatures without degrading.
At 75 calories, a large egg carries a high nutrient value at a low cost. They also can serve as a complete protein, providing all the amino acids the body needs. Historically, we’ve gotten a lot of mixed messages about the health value/risks of eggs. But they are now widely recommended for their contribution of choline, lutein and zeaxanthin. Choline, an essential nutrient, is needed for metabolism and plays a role in memory, mood, muscle control and the nervous system. Lutein and zeaxanthin serve as strong antioxidants, important for eye health.
One egg provides two thirds of your recommended daily cholesterol consumption. But keep in mind that saturated fat is the main culprit responsible for bad LDL cholesterol in the blood. So, unless you have high cholesterol, enjoy up to seven eggs each week. They’re easy to prepare — from microwaving to boiling — and are a convenient food to have on hand.
Packing a powerful and pungent punch, garlic has been shown to play a role in cancer prevention while also improving high blood pressure as well as blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Preferring fresh garlic, I look for a firm bulb with papery skin and store it in a cool cupboard. It’s used in almost every recipe at our house. We use it as a base for pasta sauce — mixed with Roma tomatoes, onions and quinoa — or for seasoning chicken breasts. I take full advantage of the flavor profile and health benefits of garlic.
Basil is one of my personal favorites. I like it in Caprese salad or spaghetti sauce. I love going to the yard to pick fresh herbs for a recipe. They possess antioxidant power matching their deep green leafy vegetables cousins — loaded with lutein, zeaxanthin and beta carotene.
You can break herbs down into two general types: tender and woody. I prefer tender herbs like basil, chives and cilantro, which are best added at the end of cooking. Heartier woody herbs like oregano, rosemary and thyme better tolerate the cooking process and flavor the dish from the start. Seasoning food with herbs makes flavors pop, reduces the need for salt and may decrease your risk for chronic disease.
It’s hard to think of peanut butter without recalling memories of that age-old comfort food — the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But there’s no reason you can’t work that old favorite into your diet. Nut butters supply protein, fiber and healthy fats. They’re also filling and help with weight, cholesterol and blood sugar control.
Consider using them for breakfast with bananas on toast, in a smoothie for a chocolate peanut butter treat or as a dipping sauce for grilled chicken skewers. The best part — nut butters provide not only great flavor but also great nutrition.
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