Whether you are in a cooking rut, a lack-of-ingredients jam or are just looking to make the most out of your meals, here are 3 non-food staples that are guaranteed to improve your dishes and your health.
1. Spices & Herbs
Centuries ago, spices were one of the most sought-after commodities in the world—and for good reason! In addition to their ability to disguise less-than-fresh food (a bit “eww” nowadays), spices can add pizazz to a variety of dishes. Spices are often plant-based (which means a lot of zest for very few calories) and have numerous health benefits.
Herbs are similarly wonderful for elevating your cooking and are spectacular at adding extra “oomph” with minimal effort and calories. They can also pep up canned foods. By utilizing both spices and herbs, you can easily make the most of a limited pantry.
New to the spice and/or herb world? Here are a few essentials to get started!
(Note: Opting for dried instead of freshly ground is optional, but it may be a good decision, since dried herbs last longer than their fresh counterparts, which may be more cost-efficient in the long run.)
Cinnamon: This spicy/sweet spice is perfect to mix into hot drinks, to sprinkle over oatmeal or cereal and to accompany baked goods. In addition to tasting great, cinnamon has numerous health benefits, but the most impressive may be its ability to help regulate blood sugar levels.
(Dried) Basil: This iron-rich herb adds an interesting twist to salads, pizzas and dozens of other dishes.
(Dried) Oregano: This herb is a wonderful way to add flavor to chicken, pasta dishes and even cooked vegetables. Plus—in addition to being both delicious and nutrient-rich—oregano is known for its antioxidant properties.
It is important to experiment and figure out what works best with your budget, taste buds and lifestyle. I prefer to stick with spices and herbs that compliment cooked veggies, as I am a mostly-vegetarian who also refuses to stock up on seasonings more than once every few months.
2. Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar serves tons of purposes around the house, so having a bottle of unrefined ACV is always a good choice. In addition to internal health benefits when ingested, ACV can also be used to ensure your fruits and veggies are squeaky clean.
Think about all of the hands that may have touched your produce on its way to you! While I am personally obsessed with avoiding pesticides, this particular home remedy is especially great for hygienic reasons, since ACV is both an anti-fungal and an anti-bacterial agent. There are a variety of methods out there, but simply filling a cheap, plastic spray bottle with an ACV-water mixture (2 tablespoons of ACV per every/8 oz. of water) and spritzing on fruits and veggies a few minutes prior to rinsing will do the trick. Bonus: This may also help prevent premature molding!
Oils are an easy way to enhance already existing flavors and to incorporate some healthy fats into your diet to boot! Oils can also be used for do-it-yourself salad dressings. There are tons of oil options out there and it really depends on what types of food you are planning on cooking, but here are two of my personal favorites.
Coconut oil is very “in” these days. In addition to the fact that it is an anti-fungal and anti-microbial when ingested, coconut oil is an especially great way to add some “healthy fats” into your diet. Stir in a spoonful to your morning coffee or use it in place of butter when baking. It has just enough of a coconut taste to compliment desserts, but not enough to overpower other ingredients. I started adding a teaspoon into a cup of green tea when I vowed to give up coffee back in January and I have seen improvements in my skin, hair and nails.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Most people probably already have some in their pantry, but if you don’t, I highly suggest getting your hands on some extra virgin olive oil. It may seem like a given, but olive oil is one essential that you shouldn’t underutilize. Use it instead of butter to slick pans. Mix it with some dried (or fresh!) herbs and drizzle over any meat, pasta or vegetable dish you cook.
While it also has several benefits, olive oil also has a lot of calories, so keep that in mind.
What are your kitchen staples? Have you found any other tried-and-true methods to transform your meals with minimal time and cost?
Bree Steinbronn is a Bay Area native who enjoys hiking, drinking green tea and going on as many adventures as she possibly can.