Welcome to PJ’s Pantry
I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time researching food, and I am shocked at the often conflicting, confusing, and even misleading information there is on the internet regarding what is in our food chain, what is healthy, and what is not. Not to mention that the health care and food industry changes its mind daily about what’s good for us and what isn’t. How many people avoided eggs for years because of the cholesterol scare? How’s a person to keep track and not go off the rails eating whatever suits their mood?
Keeping well stocked with healthy food options is the best way to combat those moments of weakness that can easily derail even the best of intentions to stay on track with making good choices. I want to note here that there are caveats to many of the foods I’ve listed. I’ll share with you my findings and best practices, but as well intentioned as I may be, I don’t know everything, and new information is always coming to light–which is why I’m posting this information here rather than in my book OVERCOME your SEDENTARY LIFESTYLE (A Practical Guide to Improving Health, Fitness, and Well-being for Desk Dwellers and Couch Potatoes).
I’d love to hear from you if you have opinions regarding any of the products on my list. I’m always open to ideas, feedback, and suggestions.
The following is a list of foods I like to keep on hand. I’ll mention here as a reminder, that I have no affiliation with and receive no compensation from endorsing any product, manufacturer, or retailer. The items listed are simply those that I have found meet my requirements for healthy eats for me and my family. I encourage you to shop around, try new-to-you items, and be open-minded about the possibilities, but READ THE LABELS. Know what you are putting into your body and choose items wisely. They may cost more, but because these foods are nutrient dense, you will feel fuller and more satisfied with smaller portions. And think of all the money you’ll save on co-pays when you’re so healthy you don’t need to go to the doctor as often because you are taking such good care of yourself. Nutritious organic whole foods cannot be underestimated in their ability to keep you healthy and have your body running like a well-oiled machine.
Here we go, in no particular order.
Plant Fusion (Vanilla Bean) and Greens Plus Organics (Amazon Chocolate) are two plant-based, nutrient dense powders I keep stocked at all times. You may find several other good plant based protein powder options available at your local Whole Foods or Health Food store. These items offer a tasty, power packed option for meal replacement at any time. They make a great base for smoothies or simply add them to almond milk or water for a quick pick-me-up. Both of these products meet my requirements for being dairy free, GMO free, gluten free, all organic, and easily digestible—not to mention great tasting. Each offers a host of nutritional benefits. Plant Fusion has a whopping 21 grams of protein per serving and is loaded with muscle building/tissue regenerating amino acids, while Greens Plus is an organic superfood loaded with an essential blend of raw green foods, super fruits, sea vegetables, probiotics, and Amazon cocoa with 21,224 certified total ORAC factor, equivalent to 7 servings of fruits and vegetables!
Organic Maca Powder is another nutrient dense superfood packed with vitamins, essential minerals and amino acids. Studies have identified four alkaloids in Maca which are known to nourish the endocrine system. Its adaptogenic properties are commonly used to increase stamina, boost libido, and combat fatigue. Add to smoothies, shakes, teas, or sprinkle it on cereal or yogurt for a boost of energy and nutrition.
Soups are of course a staple in every pantry, but not all canned soups are loaded with additives, preservatives and sodium. Amy’s offers tasty low sodium soups that have a third as much sodium as most other canned soups, is organic, and vegan. I particularly like the lentil soup as it boasts a generous eight grams of protein per serving and six grams of dietary fiber. I make my own soups from bone broths made at home, organic meats, a variety of beans, and whatever veggies I have on hand. Jillian Michaels has an awesome and easy Vegetable Soup recipe in her meal plan.
Legumes are a staple pantry item. I keep a wide variety of beans, peas, and lentils to add to soups, salads, stews, and side dishes for a burst of protein and fiber. Legumes, in the vegetable family, supply the valuable B-vitamin called folate that helps guard against DNA damage. They are also low in calories, fat, and sodium, and are high in beneficial soluble and insoluble fiber necessary for healthy digestion. A good source of protein, legumes can be a healthy substitute for meats, which are higher in saturated fats and cholesterol. Dried versions are best, but can take extra time to prepare as they need to be soaked and cooked for long periods. A pressure cooker can speed the process, but I don’t mind buying the canned versions as long as they’re organic and have no preservatives other than sea salt. I drain and rinse them before use, which removes much of the sodium anyway.
Pasta is one of those foods that dieters weep over and miss when trying to beat the battle of the bulge. All that starchy carbohydrate load with little nutritional value makes for pasta-non-grata on the approved foods lists. There is an alternative. Jerusalem artichoke pasta, made by DeBoles is made from the tubers of a sunflower-like plant that is surprisingly non-starchy, is organic, and has inulin, a pre-biotic that helps promote the growth of healthy bacteria in your digestive system. It also has seven grams of protein and three grams of dietary fiber per serving. Not too shabby for a “white” food. It also tastes great. Don’t overcook it though. It only takes about 5-7 minutes to cook and will lose both its nutty flavor and firm texture if overdone.
Brown Rice, Wild Blend Whole Grain Rice, and Quinoa are my go-to grains. Costco has a nice selection of organic options and offers them in bulk quantities so I can stock up for relatively little cost. I keep them in airtight containers so these products last for months in my pantry and are readily available for a wide variety of soups, salads, and side dishes to add to any meal. As opposed to white rice, brown rice and wild rice are less processed and retain higher amounts of protein and unique phytonutrients.
Brown rice also has:
- Twice the manganese and phosphorus as white rice.
- 2 ½ times the iron.
- 3 times vitamin B3.
- 4 times the vitamin B1.
- 10 times the vitamin B6.
It is a great source of manganese which is essential for energy production, antioxidant activity, and sex hormone production. Because it also has higher fiber content, it has a lower glycemic load and breaks down slower in the digestive system, beneficial in keeping blood sugar stable.
NOTE: White rice may be a better option for someone who is convalescing or who has weak digestion. Since the protein in white rice is more available to the body, and rice is generally low in protein to begin with, white rice is a staple in most countries around the world as a primary food source. However, since we Americans have ready sources of proteins through a wide variety of meats, nuts, and legumes, and have higher rates of obesity, brown rice is clearly the better option for American and Western diets.
As for Quinoa, it’s an excellent source of protein (1 cup of cooked quinoa contains a little over 8 grams of protein), is low in fat, high in fiber, and is loaded with calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron. All good stuff!
Steel Cut Oats-The difference between rolled and steel cut oats is that while both contain whole grain oats, they are processed differently. Rolled oats are steamed, rolled, steamed again and toasted, ending up as thin flakes. Steel cut oats are made from oat kernels that have been chopped into thick pieces and are less processed, helping them keep more of their natural nutrients. I recommend choosing steel cut (Irish) oats over rolled oats because they digest more slowly than their rolled counterpart. Like all other grains in whole or cracked form, steel cut oats rank lower on the glycemic index than rolled oats. The reason is that it takes longer for digestive enzymes to reach the starch inside the thicker pieces, slowing down its conversion to sugar.
Bread-I’ve become a bit of a bread snob the past few years. I get frustrated with whole grain breads that advertise as “healthy” and then are loaded with high fructose corn syrup, preservatives/additives with names I can’t pronounce, and which have very little fiber. I stick to Ezekiel 4:9 for the most part, made only from organic live sprouted grains of wheat, barley, millet, lentils, soybeans and spelt. Each serving has 4 grams of protein, 3 grams of dietary fiber, no sugar, no flour, no saturated fat, and no cholesterol. They even make a cinnamon raisin version that is healthy, nutritious, and yummy! NOTE: Keep these breads refrigerated as they grow mold quickly. See? Even mold spores know what’s good for them!
Almond Butter/Nut Butters-I choose almond butter over peanut butter because peanuts are slightly higher in saturated fat, have less of the heart healthy omega 3’s, less fiber, lower levels of vitamin E, calcium, iron, potassium, and zinc, and are known to have a goitrogenic effect (swelling of the thyroid gland) which can interfere with thyroid hormone regulation and derail weight maintenance efforts. I’ve switched completely to almond butter for these reasons, but also because I prefer the taste and texture. Other nut butters such as hazelnut, cashew, and macadamia are tasty alternatives as well, but none packs the nutrient dense benefits of almond butter and most are more expensive. (Also, you can try seed butters such as pumpkin, sesame, or sunflower for a variety of high protein alternatives.) Making your own nut butter is easy with a food processor or good blender and is less expensive than the shelved versions.
Coconut Sugar-A tasty sugar substitute made from the sap of the coconut palm that contains inulin (a fiber that may slow glucose absorption, making it lower on the glycemic index than refined cane sugar). Coconut sugar contains several nutrients. Most notable of these are the minerals iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium, along with some short chain fatty acids, polyphenols, and antioxidants that may also provide some health benefits. NOTE: Coconut sugar has the same number of calories as table sugar and should be used in limited quantities if you’re trying to lose weight.
Agave-A nice choice for vegans who don’t eat honey, it has a more neutral flavor and is 1 ½ times sweeter than sugar so you can use less. There are small amounts of micro-nutrients like vitamin K, as well as trace amounts of vitamins C and E. It also contains potassium, calcium, and magnesium. It is lower on the glycemic index than honey and sugar, but is slightly more processed than honey.
Honey-This ancient powerhouse of sweetness and flavor offers a variety of nutrients, including minerals like iron, copper, niacin, riboflavin (B vitamins), potassium, and zinc. It’s about 25-50% sweeter than sugar so you use less, which is good since a tablespoon carries about 64 calories (significantly more calories and carbs than agave but slightly more nutrient dense). NOTE: Babies under the age of one year shouldn’t eat honey as it contains botulism spores that their underdeveloped immune systems can’t handle.
Additional NOTE: You might notice that I have no zero calorie sweeteners on my list. These, for the most part, are man-made chemicals that, despite lacking calories, still trick your brain into believing that you’re eating sugar because of the sweet taste, then when the sugar doesn’t show up, you crave MORE sugar. Stevia is probably the exception since it is derived from a plant (indigenous to Paraguay and Brazil), and is 200 times sweeter than sugar so you need very little of it. However, I find that it does have a bit of an after taste and the jury is still out on its safety in terms of interactions with certain medications. Do some research and talk to your doctor or pharmacist before adding a zero calorie sweetener to your diet.
How about those Eggs? I’m definitely a fan! I love them best poached or in omelets. Hard boiled eggs are also a great grab-and-go snack. I cook up a half dozen on Sundays and have them throughout the week for snacks, sandwiches, and in salads. I buy organic here for humanitarian reasons as much as for health benefit. Short of raising them myself (which I’ve done and plan to do again soon), this is the only way I know that the source of my eggs—quirky and fun-loving chickens—are treated humanely, not pumped full of antibiotics, and are fed only organic feeds without pesticides, drugs, antibiotics, or animal byproducts. Store bought eggs should be organic and cage free. They cost more—almost twice as much as “regular” eggs, but worth it to me.
A single egg has only about 72 calories and boasts an energy boosting, muscle building 6.3 grams of protein. Eggs are a significant source of cholesterol (about 186 mg), but the latest research shows that eggs are not as bad for us as they once believed. The 4-5 grams of fat in an egg is nicely divided between saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats, putting it on the “good fats” list, or at least on the “not so bad for you” list. In moderation (no more than six a week), eggs—hardboiled, poached, or used for baking—are back on the menu! NOTE: Check with your doctor regarding how many eggs per week are safe for you if you have cholesterol issues.
A note on meats: I don’t eat a lot of meat but I’m not a vegetarian either. When I buy meats, I choose to buy organic, grass fed beef, organic free range chicken, and uncured sandwich meats with no nitrites—those nasty carcinogenic preservatives added to cold meats found at the deli. Applegate makes some nice uncured sandwich meats that have a superior flavor as well as being devoid of nitrites.
Almond Milk, Coconut Milk, or a blend of the two-These tasty alternatives to cow’s milk are staples for me for their rich taste and nutrient density since I am lactose intolerant and can’t drink cow’s milk without taking a Lactaid. If you do drink cow’s milk, choose organic milk that has been taken from grass fed cows to avoid all the pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics. Goat’s milk is another healthy alternative. Both are loaded with essential vitamins and nutrients. If you can, try to find raw milk that has not been pasteurized to gain the greatest nutritional value and to avoid the added synthetically made vitamins.
As for non-dairy alternatives, I stay away from soy milk due its high level of plant estrogens—which are endocrine disrupting isoflavones—and its gastric inflaming phytates. Not to mention the fact that in the U.S., 90% of the soy is genetically modified and loaded with pesticides.
Rice milk is high in carbohydrates and low in nutrient density—not the best choice for nutritional benefit or weight management. Perhaps the exception is for someone recovering from illness or who has digestive issues, since typically, rice milk breaks down quickly and easily.
I opt instead for almond, hemp, or coconut milk, which are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. The medium chained fatty acids may even assist with metabolizing fats more efficiently, and experts say, may help with weight loss.
I now make these nut-milks at home for the following reason.
NOTE: Unfortunately, there is a down side to these off the shelf popular “milk” alternatives. The nut-milk and nut-milk blends you find in cartons in your grocer’s refrigerator aisle often have additives that are concerning. Synthetically derived Vitamin A Palmitate (the abundance of which is found in many of our fortified food sources and multi-vitamins, is not fat soluble as is the natural form of it found in plants. Research suggests that these manufactured vitamins may be contributing to iodine deficiency and thyroid problems, as well as bone density issues, higher risk of fractures, and liver toxicity). Way to go FDA!
Carrageenan is also on my “NO” list for consumption. Carrageenan is a common food additive that is extracted from a red seaweed, popularly known as Irish moss. Carrageenan, which has no nutritional value, has been used as a thickener and emulsifier to improve the texture of ice cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, soy milk, and other processed foods. Dr. Andrew Weil and several other sources have vocalized their concern about the inflammatory effects of eating products with carrageenan. We know that chronic inflammation is a root cause of many serious diseases including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s diseases, and cancer. Yet, food manufacturers continue to use carrageenan in food sources that are consumed in high quantities in our culture.
Reducing intake of these additives is recommended, especially for individuals already suffering from inflammatory diseases or digestive issues. The only answer to avoiding them entirely is making your own nut-milks at home. I know how labor intensive it sounds, but the flavor, nutritional value, and peace of mind are priceless for me and well worth the effort. It makes for a great Sunday afternoon family project and you’ll be surprised at how easy it really is. It takes me ten minutes to make four cups of almond milk–enough for a three day supply, which is as long as it lasts in the fridge. There are instructions on how to make homemade almond and/or coconut milk on the web.
If you’re set on store bought versions, Silk Almond Milk is one that has no Carrageenan, but watch for added sugars.
Kefir-A beverage made from fermented milk, this tasty yogurt/smoothie-like drink is loaded with probiotics essential to digestive health and may have a positive effect on the immune system. I use plain, low fat kefir as a base for many of my smoothies. Be careful of added sugars in flavored versions.
Plain Greek Yogurt-Another protein packed all around healthy food, plain Greek yogurt has approximately 20 grams of protein, is low in fat (I buy the 0%), and has about 1/3 of the carbohydrates of other yogurts. It has less lactose content, making it perfect for me and others who are lactose intolerant. If you like your smoothies a little thicker, this makes an excellent additive and replacement for protein powders. I sometimes have it for breakfast with slivered almonds, cinnamon, and a splash of vanilla. You could also add some granola for a sweet crunch, or fruit for additional fortification of nutrients. We use this as a replacement for sour cream on baked potatoes, tacos, and stews.
Coconut Oil-I’m sure you’re seeing a theme here and have heard others tout the benefits of coconut oil and other coconut byproducts. Coconut oil can be used for everything from baking and sautéing, to skin and hair moisturizer. There are numerous claims that adding coconut oil to your diet increases energy, balances hormones, and stimulates the thyroid gland. The cholesterol-lowering properties of coconut oil are linked directly to this ability to stimulate thyroid function. Coconut oil raises your metabolic rate, helping to release energy and promote weight loss. Researchers believe that coconut oil is different from other saturated fats because it is composed of medium-chain fatty acids. However, the American Heart Association cautions that the high saturated fat content in coconut oil may be detrimental to cardiovascular health and contribute to heart disease.
My take is that all fats should be consumed in moderation. In reasonable amounts (a few tablespoons per day), and with no existing heart problems or dietary restrictions, coconut oil seems a beneficial addition to my nutrient dense diet. For me, the benefits far outweigh the harm, considering alternatives like corn or canola oils—and even olive oil—turn rancid during the cooking process since they have a much lower flash point. I reserve my olive oil use for dressings and skin care these days.
For sautéing, use high flash point oils such as coconut or avocado oil that don’t turn rancid when heated.
Organic Butter/Butter Alternatives-I use real butter for most things, but only in moderation (usually half the approved serving size of a “pat’ of butter, defined as 1” square, 1/3” high), and I try to buy organic. Butter is relatively high in saturated fat (2.6 grams of the 4.1 gram per serving), but has poly and mono unsaturated fats as well and offers micronutrients that may help ward off some chronic illnesses. As for butter substitutes, watch out for hidden ingredients like hydrogenated oils and additives/preservatives/and dyes.
My picks for butter alternative spreads are:
Earth Balance Margarine Natural Buttery Spread Lactose Free, Olivio Spreadable Butter with Canola & Olive Oil, and Smart Balance Omega Plus™ Buttery Spread (which does have a few preservatives and artificial flavors).
Organic Fruit Spread-I choose organic here as well since I want to eliminate as many possible pesticides and fungicides that were prayed on non-organic berries and fruits prior to processing. Look for “no sugar added” spreads and preserves but read the label to make sure they aren’t adding artificial sweeteners, preservatives or artificial flavors in place of the sugar. Fruit sugars and pectin (and/or citric acid) are necessary for preservation and gelling, so the product is not going to be sugar free, but I do like my almond butter and jelly sandwiches and this is the best option. I love to buy homemade fruit butters like locally made apple or pear butter when they’re in season at the farmer’s markets, but I still ask about what type of sugar they used in the making. I’m often pleasantly surprised that crafters of homemade jams and preserves are using more and more organic and unrefined products.
Organic Vegetable Juice-I’ve found an inexpensive version of this at my local grocer and am very happy with it. As I mentioned, I don’t worry too much about my sodium intake since I don’t eat a lot of processed foods or add it to my cooking very often. I’ve found that about four ounces of veggie juice after breakfast aids in swallowing my supplements with much less effort and starts my day with a serving or two of vegetables right out of the gate. Whenever possible, I substitute a homemade vegetable smoothie and try for the real thing at least a few times per week. (Check out my Beets and Greens Smoothie recipe in the Smoothie section of my book.)
Organic Maple Syrup-I like using organic maple syrup as an added sweetener to some of my smoothies, baked goods, and hot cereals for the superior flavor and host of benefits, including being loaded with immune building antioxidants. Organic maple syrup goes deeper than that, however. Being certified organic means that the maple was harvested with much more in mind than immediate, short-term gain. While pesticides and chemicals may make farming easier, organic maple production is infinitely healthier for the forest, healthier for the environment, and healthier for consumers. It is, however, still sugar, so use this and all sugar products sparingly.
Organic Veganaise-I use this as a replacement for mayo in salads and dressings but opt to use fresh avocado for a spread on many sandwiches. Whenever possible, I suggest making spreads and dressings with whole/raw foods like olive oil, apple cider vinegar, garlic, Cheyenne pepper, and herbs. When I do need to make a potato, tuna, or chicken salad, Veganaise has far less fat and cholesterol than mayonnaise and tastes great. I actually prefer it to regular mayo. Even techno-hubby likes it!
NOTE: Drat, there’s always a downside! One article I read noted that two of the ingredients—soy protein and brown rice syrup (which are in many purported “health” foods)—contain factory created free glutamate, which is a “hidden” form of MSG. Food manufacturers add MSG for flavor since we’ve become a society accustomed to salty foods and won’t buy products that are bland. Regardless of the negative affects it has on a large portion of the population, they continue to add it to commercial products. They also know that consumers have wised up and are too smart to buy anything with Monosodium Glutamate, so apparently, they’ve figured out ways to disguise it. If you are MSG sensitive or prone to migraines, you might want to skip this product and watch for those ingredients in other foods as well.
For the little Veganaise I use, and the small amount of these substances in the product, the benefits for me outweigh the risks once again. We have to eat something, and the fact that Veganaise has fewer additives and preservatives, less saturated fat, cholesterol, and hydrogenated oils than mayo, make it a staple in my fridge. If I eliminated every product that had something in it that I shouldn’t be eating, my refrigerator and pantry would be bare!
Avocado-As I mentioned, I use avocado as a spread on sandwiches, in salads, and as a base for dips. More than 75 percent of the fat in avocados is considered “good” fat, with 3g coming from monounsaturated fat and 0.5g from polyunsaturated fat (per 1-ounce serving). Not only that, but avocados are also completely free of cholesterol and sodium. They contain nearly 20 essential vitamins and minerals & contain beneficial plant compounds like 81 micrograms lutein and zeaxanthin, which research suggests may help maintain eye health as we age. If you need one more reason to add avocados to your diet, the good unsaturated fats found in avocados may also help your body absorb nutrients from other foods and lower cholesterol.
Fresh Produce-Variety-The good news is that if you have a diet rich in whole, raw, and natural foods and eat a wide variety of fruits and veggies, you won’t be eating a lot of processed, canned, packaged, or otherwise “tainted” foods, right? I’ll add more foods to this list as I think of them and make changes as research develops, but for now, this should get you started on stocking your pantry, fridge, and freezer with some healthy options.
Frozen Meals-Amy’s products are my go to quick frozen meals. For organic, high quality simple meals, their Black bean burritos, Vegetarian lasagna, and Rice and beans meals are my preferred frozen dinner choices. They even make organic pizzas that are yummy and just the right size. I’ve found Amy’s products to be great tasting, take less than five minutes, and most are under 400 calories. Woot! Winners in my book.
Do the best you can, be a label reader, and educate yourself about what’s right for you and your family. Moderation in all things!