Does your pantry need a makeover? Stocking the right ingredients can help put your family on the road to healthier meals and snacks, and even help reshape the way you think about food.
“It is important to establish healthy eating habits early on in a child’s life, and having healthy, nutritious foods around will set a good example for the basis of a family’s diet,” says Peggy O’Shea, a Boston-based registered dietitian and a member of the Massachusetts Dietetic Association board of directors. “Also, by keeping healthy foods on hand, it will be easier to maintain healthy eating habits for the entire family since choices for both snacks and meal ingredients will be more healthful overall.”
Dr. Andrew Larson, author of The Gold Coast Cure: The 5-Week Health & Body Makeover (HCI, 2005), agrees. “Children are very much influenced by their parents’ food choices,” he says. “Once you start leading by example you will be amazed to see the influence you have on your children’s food choices.”
Dump the Junk
Because parents are responsible for buying and storing the family’s food, they ultimately have control over the contents of the pantry. “Keep in mind, kids don’t have much money and rarely would they choose to waste this valuable resource on food!” Dr. Larson says. “If you as parents refuse to buy junk food your kids are going to be way ahead of the game. By default they’re going to eat healthfully the vast majority of the time, at least at home anyway. Sure, they might try to sneak junk when you aren’t looking, but how much junk can they realistically sneak, if there isn’t any junk in the house?”
Dr. Larson says the No. 1 thing a parent can do to help prevent or reverse the health problems associated with poor childhood nutrition is to step up to the plate and take responsibility for the foods you bring into the house. “This means you can’t buy cookies and chips for yourself and then expect your little one to munch on carrot sticks,” he says. “You have to lead by example. The best solution is one that involves the entire family.”
A pantry stocked with healthy food choices also helps busy families with something Roberta L. Duyff, a dietitian, spokesperson for the Canned Food Alliance and author of American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide (Wiley, 2002), says is key for busy families: convenience. “When you have a variety of nourishing foods on hand, it’s easier to provide healthful meals and snacks with little effort,” Duyff says. “If nourishing foods are within easy reach, it’s easier for you and your family to make nutritious food choices from a variety of foods, including vegetables, fruits and whole-grain foods. Especially for adults, the many canned ingredients flavored with herbs and spices makes food preparation even more convenient.”
“I like to keep a lot of extra canned foods, [for example] olives, carrots, green peas, string beans, applesauce, things like that, because that way if you have nothing more to serve with meat or something, you can broil a steak and serve olives and string beans with it,” says Bethany Ritchey from Newport, Ore., who has an 18-month-old and 2 1/2-year-old. “My kids for one go crazy over olives and applesauce with steak.”
Shopping and Stocking Snafus
Duyff feels the biggest mistake parents make when shopping is poor planning, and not taking the time to have a variety of nourishing foods in the pantry in the first place. Her solution is to keep track of ingredients as they’re used so you can easily restock. “Another mistake is simply not knowing what you do have, perhaps hiding in the corners of your pantry,” she says. Her solution to that is to rotate your pantry every few months and bring the foods you’ve had for a while to the front. “Use a marker to write in the date on the label if you need a reminder,” she says, adding that canned ingredients retain their quality for up to two years. After that, she says, they’re still safe to eat if the seal is intact and if the can isn’t leaking.
Nava Atlas, author of The Vegetarian Family Cookbook (Broadway, 2004) and The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet (Broadway, 2001), says there are many mistakes parents make when shopping for their families: “giving in to impulse buying and getting a lot of a certain items because it’s on sale, then having it go stale; duplicating what you already have at home because you’ve shopped without a list; and giving in to the ‘nag factor’ when shopping with small children, which is exactly what the food marketers want to happen,” she says. “If going out shopping with young children, which is inevitable, have them help you make a list and explain that you need to stick to it when you shop.”
Dr. Larson feels parents fall victim to misleading advertisement claims made on packaged foods. “For example, ‘fat-free’ foods are often loaded with empty-calorie sugars and refined flour,” he says. “‘Cholesterol-free’ foods can contain deadly trans fats. Cereals, breads and baked goods advertised as ‘multigrain’ do not necessarily mean they are ‘whole grain.’ The most important thing to do when buying food is to read the ingredients and ignore the marketing gimmicks.”
Dr. Larson says to use this quick guide to help guide you through food shopping:
- Avoid buying foods made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils (these contain trans fats).
- Avoid buying foods made with vegetable shortening (also contains trans fats).
- Unless the food is intended to be a dessert, avoid buying foods with the first ingredient as sugar (also be on the look out for sugar proxies such as high fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, corn syrup, etc.).
- Avoid foods made with bleached or enriched flour; instead look for whole-wheat and whole-grain flours.
- Avoid buying foods made with low-quality, overly processed vegetable oils (such as corn oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil and “pure” vegetable oil). Instead look for products made with healthful oils rich in monounsaturated fats (such as extra virgin olive oil) or essential fats (such as canola oil or walnut oil).
- Avoid buying white rice and white pasta – instead buy brown rice and whole-grain pasta.
Duyff agrees that it’s important to read food labels. “Besides the obvious (the product name and description, and net amount in the can or package), savvy shoppers can learn a lot from food labels, including from the nutrient content claims, the Nutrition Facts panel and the ingredient list,” she says. “If someone in your family has food allergies, new allergen labeling is important information, too. If you see a ‘Contains…’ statement, that’s allergen labeling. It’s meant to help you easily find foods that contain common food allergens, such as wheat, egg or milk if your child has a food allergy.”
A Whole New World
How can parents use pantry staples to introduce new flavors to their children? “Start by having your children walk the supermarket aisle with you and learn (and have fun) talking about the variety of foods you find there,” says Nava Atlas, author of The Vegetarian Family Cookbook (Broadway, 2004) and The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet (Broadway, 2001).
“By taking a little time, you might be surprised by the variety, too, in the supermarket aisles – blueberries, mango, zucchini, corn with red peppers, baby carrots and much more. Even kids who can’t read yet can identify and talk about foods by the pictures on the label. Let them pick out some new fruits, vegetables, beans, soups, pasta sauce, pasta and more, for example, to put on your pantry shelf.
And Atlas says when children help choose foods to keep on hand, they are more likely to try those new foods, too. “Let them help you prepare pantry staples,” she says. “For young kids, you handle the can opener; let your children dump the ingredients into the pot or bowl.”
So you’ve decided your pantry needs a makeover. What are some basic staples all parents should have in their pantries? Nava Atlas, author of The Vegetarian Family Cookbook (Broadway, 2004) and The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet (Broadway, 2001), says all parents (and indeed, all health-conscious people) should stock their pantries with the following basic categories of foods:
- Canned beans of all sorts
- Grains, including barley, brown rice and the fast-cooking couscous and quinoa
- Healthy oils, especially olive oil
- Pastas and noodles of several shapes and varieties
- Tomato products (diced, crushed, sauce)
- Prepared condiments – these are a real life saver for making easy meals – including barbecue sauce, pasta and pizza sauce, salad dressings, salsas, Thai sauces, stir-fry sauce and soy sauce
- Pantry vegetables like onions, garlic, potatoes and sweet potatoes
- Nut butters
- Nuts (almonds, cashews, etc.)
- Dried fruits
- Organic juices
- Asceptic containers of silken tofu
- Baking staples such as whole-grain flours, baking soda, baking powder
- Canned and jarred “gourmet” items like artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, coconut milk, green chilies – things that augment fresh foods and make meals exciting
Bethany Ritchey from Newport, Ore., likes to keep extra spaghetti noodles available because of their versatility. “One of my favorites that is easy is salmon with olive oil and cilantro all mixed in with boiled noodles,” she says. She just adds a little salt and pepper to taste and serves. “It’s delicious!” Ritchey says.
And don’t forget that children love snacks – and lots of them! Atlas, who has two vegan teenage sons who eat three square meals a day and still like to graze from the pantry, recommends these basics not only for small children, but older ones as well:
- Natural fruit leathers
- Low-fat fruit and cereal bars
- Granola bars
- Dried fruit (raisins, apricots, pineapple rings, etc.)
- Trail mix (dried fruits mixed with nuts and seeds; of course nuts are not for very young children)
- Rice cakes, mini-rice cakes, popped corn cakes and other whole-grain cakes
- Individual containers of applesauce
- Naturally sweetened dry cereals (mix a few varieties together for a crunchy sweet snack for home and for school)
- Natural whole-grain graham crackers – great for spreading with peanut butter
- Veggie sticks, carrot chips, root vegetable chips and other low-fat, low-salt snacks
- Sesame breadsticks
- Bagel or pita crisps
- Organic stone-ground tortilla or corn chips
- Naturally sweetened cookies
Atlas adds not to forget the fresh foods, and though these are fridge items and not pantry staples, it’s good to have lots of fresh seasonal fruits on hand for snacking for kids of all ages, as well as organic baby carrots.
Peggy O’Shea, a Boston-based registered dietitian and a member of the Massachusetts Dietetic Association board of directors, says it’s important to remember that snack foods can be healthy and provide good sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutritious substances. “They don’t have to be ‘junk foods’ at all,” she says. “And the more healthful choices you have on hand, the more likely everyone in the family will be reaching for choices that not only taste good, but are also good for you!” She suggests the following staples for young children:
- Breakfast cereals (but stay away from the sugar-loaded ones!)
- Cream of wheat
- Animal crackers
- Small water bottles for on-the-go drinking
- Whole-wheat bread
- Peanut butter (but remember children should be 1 to 2 years old before they are given any nuts, especially if there are food allergies in the family, and that peanut butter can be a choking hazard for very young children)
- Dried fruits like raisins
- Whole-grain crackers
Canned goods are a great convenience for busy families. Roberta L. Duyff, a dietitian and spokesperson for the Canned Food Alliance, and author of American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide (Wiley, 2002), recommends keeping a variety on hand for quick meals. Some of her favorites include the following:
- Canned vegetables for side dishes, mixed dishes, soups and stews (whole and cut-up tomatoes, tomato sauce, green beans, corn, carrots, sweet potatoes, potatoes, red and black beans)
- Canned fruit for salads, snacks, smoothies and desserts (peaches, mandarin oranges, pears, blueberries, pineapple)
- Canned lean protein foods for soups, stews and mixed dishes (tuna, salmon, chicken, turkey, meat)
- Canned heat-and-eat prepared foods (a variety of soups and stews)
- Canned evaporated milk for smoothies, sauces and creamy soups
- Bottled juices or juice drinks
Many canned ingredients are great for small children, Duyff says. “Because they’ve already been cooked in the can, canned fruits and vegetables are soft foods that young children won’t choke on, such as carrots, peaches and mandarin oranges,” she says. “Canned applesauce and vegetable soups are great for little ones, too. You’ll find some flavorful products created with kids in mind, such as alphabet vegetable soups. A few simple ideas: Canned mandarin oranges add sweet flavor to peanut butter sandwiches, canned tomatoes add nourishment to macaroni and cheese and to spaghetti meals.”
Dr. Andrew Larson, author of The Gold Coast Cure: The 5-Week Health & Body Makeover (HCI, 2005), suggests the following “must haves” for a healthy pantry:
- Whole-grain bread: Rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals.
- Canned fruit packed in fruit juice or no-sugar-added applesauces: Important source of vitamin C and other antioxidants and vitamins.
- Dry roasted or raw nuts and seeds: Rich in healthy monounsaturated fats, vitamins, minerals and protein.
- All-natural nut butters: They have the same health benefits as nuts and seeds.
- Canned tuna: Rich in omega-3 essential fats and protein.
- Flaxseeds: Rich in omega-3 essential fats and fiber.
- Whole-grain cereals: Important source of vitamins, minerals and fiber.
- Whole-grain pasta: Good source of fiber, vitamins and protein.
- Pasta sauces: Kid-friendly source of vegetables.
- Canned beans: Great vegetarian source of protein and rich in antioxidants, iron, potassium, folate and fiber. Kids especially seem to love chickpeas and black beans (just be sure to rinse canned beans with water before serving to eliminate any trace of “tinny” flavor).
- Brown rice: Good source of B vitamins, selenium and magnesium. Kids seem to like short-grain brown rice better than long-grain brown rice.
Foods to Avoid
There are several things that most parents have in their pantries that should really be eliminated all together. “First, foods that are high in saturated fats or trans fats should be eliminated all together,” O’Shea says. “This includes lard, shortening (such as Crisco), prepared and packaged foods that contain trans fats (including prepared pancake mixes, cookies, crackers, etc.). Also, stay away from products made primarily with white or refined grains like white bread, cakes and crackers.”
Trans fats top Dr. Larson’s list. “Any food containing trans fats should be eliminated,” he says. “There is no safe level of intake for these deadly empty-calorie trans fats. These fats are much more harmful than natural high-fat foods such as butter. Feeding your child foods containing trans fats increases their risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes and exacerbates inflammatory conditions such as asthma and allergies. Because trans fats greatly increase the risk for heart disease, children who start eating a steady diet of processed foods loaded with these artificial processed fats can be expected to develop heart problems earlier than kids who eat a trans-fat-free diet.” He says researchers have shown many children as young as 8, 9 or 10 years old already starting to develop cholesterol plaques that clog arteries.
Dr. Larson says as a parent you can take the following precautions to clear trans fats from your kids’ plates:
- Learn how to identify foods containing trans fat. Read the nutrition label and avoid products containing trans fats. Trans fat content is listed as a sub-category under the total fat content on the side of the package. You should also read the ingredient list of all the packaged foods you buy. Avoid foods containing “hydrogenated oil” or “partially hydrogenated oil” of any type.
- Learn which categories of foods are most likely to contain trans fats; then look for more healthful alternatives. Foods that often contain trans fats include vegetable shortening; margarine; donuts and muffins; most cookies (including prepared cookies, boxed mixes and ready-made dough); many crackers; most boxed cakes and frostings; Pop-tarts and breakfast cereal bars; microwave popcorn; and most processed baked goods (such as biscuits).
Oils are another area in which parents can usually improve. “Stop buying overly processed, nutrient-poor vegetable oils including corn oil and ‘pure’ vegetable oil,” Dr. Larson says. The goal is to eat oils that are either rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 essential fat or rich in healthy monounsaturated fat. “Omega-3 fats are the best choice for no-heat recipes while monounsaturated fats are the best choice for cooking. While oils safe for cooking can also be used in no-heat recipes such as in a salad dressing, oils that are not intended for heat will spoil and lose their health benefits when used for cooking.”
Dr. Larson says the best oil for cooking is extra virgin olive oil, followed by avocado oil, macadamia nut oil, high-oleic canola oil, high-oleic sunflower oil and high-oleic safflower oil. The best oil for no-heat recipes is flaxseed oil, followed by expeller-pressed canola oil, hazelnut oil and walnut oil.
The Made-over Pantry
Dr. Larson offers this substitution list for common pantry staples:
- Use extra virgin olive oil and canola oil instead of vegetable oil (such as corn oil or “pure” vegetable oil).
- Buy salad dressings with extra virgin olive oil or canola oil instead of vegetable oil.
- Buy pasta sauces made with extra virgin olive oil.
- Buy whole-wheat/whole-grain flour instead of white/bleached flour.
- Buy brown rice instead of white rice.
- Buy whole grain pasta instead of white pasta.
- Buy whole-grain bread and whole-grain crackers instead of bread and crackers made with white/bleached flour.
- Look for cereals containing at least 2 to 3 grams of fiber per 25 grams of carbohydrates.
- Buy old-fashioned oats verse instant oats or packaged oatmeal with added sugars.
- Buy all-fruit preserves instead of jelly made with high-fructose corn syrup.
- Buy all-natural peanut butter instead of peanut butter made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.
- Buy all-natural packaged snacks (such as granola bars) and avoid products made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.