Seven years ago, I weighed 340 pounds and had a 52-inch waist. My cooking skills were limited to microwaving packaged foods and boiling Top Ramen. I primarily subsisted on a “window diet,” meaning most of my meals were prepared by someone else and handed to me through my car window or the front door of my home. Then, as described in my new book, Walking with Peety, the Dog Who Saved My Life, I turned my health around by switching to a plant-based diet, and by adopting a dog and walking him for a half hour twice daily. After some trial and error, I’ve learned how to best manage a plant-based diet, and I’ve put together a list of pantry essentials for your plant-based kitchen to help you get started, too.
As part of my journey to a healthy weight, I learned to prepare my own meals from whole plants. Out of season and during winter months, I buy frozen and canned vegetables to fill in what I can’t buy fresh. I always make sure my canned foods have BPA (Bisphenol A) free liners. BPA is a polycarbonate resin used in many food containers that has been linked to various health problems, including obesity, cancer and enlarged breasts in men.
I also learned what bulk foods and ingredients to stock in my pantry to supplement the fresh plants I prepared, and how to cook those products. By learning how to cook my own meals and changing from a standard American diet to a plant based diet, I lost 150 pounds in less than one year, and have maintained my new weight and 33-inch waist ever since.
Pantry Essentials for Your Plant-Based Kitchen
Arrowroot powder and cornstarch
Excellent thickeners for sauces, gravies, with various uses in baking.
I have known several people to gain weight after transitioning to a plant based diet, because that is when they learned to bake. Baked goods are calorie dense foods that should be minimized or avoided if you want to lose or maintain your weight. If you aren’t trying to manage your weight, there are thousands of excellent standard and gluten-free vegan baking recipes on the Internet, just search and try the ones that look good to you. In my limited baking, I get by nicely with these products:
Baking powder leavens bread by causing an acid-base reaction to release carbon dioxide gas bubbles into batter or dough. Double acting baking powder causes this reaction twice, first when added to the dough or batter, and again when heated in the oven during baking. There are many brands of baking powder, so look for one that is both double acting and aluminum free, based on health concerns about ingesting aluminum.
This is another leavening agent that produces gas bubbles to lighten and improve the texture of baked goods. Baking soda must interact with an acidic ingredient to produce this reaction, and apple cider vinegar is an ideal reactant. The only active ingredient in baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, so I recommend a pure formulation with no additional ingredients.
Active yeast is another leavening agent, and depending on the recipe, may be used instead of, or in addition to, baking powder and baking soda.
Flax seed and aquafaba
I use each of these products as egg replacements in baking. To replace one egg with flax seed, mix 1 tbsp ground flax seed with 2 tbsp of water, whisk well, and refrigerate for 20 minutes. The result will be a sticky egg substitute. Or use aquafaba, which is the liquid byproduct from cooking garbanzo beans. Use three tbsp of aquafaba from a can of chickpeas as a complete egg replacement in baking. You can make your own aquafaba by saving the leftover liquid from cooking chickpeas in your slow cooker, and freeze excess liquid for later use in ice cube trays.
I don’t use wheat flour because I’m gluten intolerant, but there is no harm using wheat flour if you do not have this limitation. I prefer Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free All Purpose Baking Flour as a substitute for wheat flour, and rice flour, oat flour, and coconut flour for other baking and culinary uses.
Why pay $3 or more for bread crumbs at the supermarket, when you only need to toast a few slices of bread and drop them into a food processor or blender to make crumbs.
I keep a few cans of coconut cream in my pantry for use in sauces and other recipes. The difference between coconut cream, coconut “milk” and reduced calorie or “lite” coconut milk involves the proportion of water in each, so I just use coconut cream and thin as needed.
Legumes, including beans, offer excellent nutrition and high protein, and provide the full spectrum of amino acids when served with rice. Canned beans are convenient, but beans made from scratch can be made to taste better, with the lowest cost per serving of just about any meal. You can buy dry beans in bulk for pennies on the dollar compared to canned beans. As a rule, one cup of dried beans equals three cups cooked. I usually cook as many beans as I can eat in a week, since beans keep well for up to a week in the refrigerator, and almost indefinitely frozen. Dried beans yield the best result when cooked within a year after harvested. Beans cook faster, more uniformly and may be easier to digest when soaked overnight before cooking, and with salt in the water. The gaseous properties of beans may be minimized by adding a piece of kombu (seaweed) to the water before cooking. Other legumes, such as adzuki beans and lentils, cook quickly and don’t require soaking, and are great additions to soups and salads. I always keep my pantry stocked with pinto beans, black beans, red beans, and lentils.
I use cashews to make ice creams, imitation cheese sauces, and other recipes requiring a creamy texture. For best results, soak cashews for at least 30 minutes then puree with the least water possible in a high-speed blender. I also use almonds, and walnuts in various recipes. To toast nuts, preheat your oven to 350° F and spread them on a baking sheet. Different nuts require different toasting times, usually between 5 and 15 minutes. When you smell your nuts from the oven, they are done. Nuts are high in fat, and should be used sparingly, if at all, if you are trying to lose or maintain weight.
Oats provide a concentrated source of fiber and nutrients and a legion of health benefits. As a breakfast food and baking ingredient, I prefer old-fashioned oats to steel cut and other types of oats. Oats are listed within the category of “gluten grains,” but as someone clinically diagnosed as gluten intolerant, I do not have any gluten reaction to oats, while I do with wheat. Buy no more oats than you can use within two months, since oats go rancid more quickly than other grains.
I use onions in most of my cooking. Onions can be grouped into two main types: (1) expensive artisanal varieties of sweet onions, and (2) more familiar varieties commonly found in supermarkets. The first type, sweet onions, are usually only available from April through August, depending on place of harvest. These include the Walla Walla from Washington, “1015” from Texas, Vidalia from Georgia, and Maui sweet onions from Hawaii. Each of these onions have a fabulous light flavor. You should buy and use them for all cooking needs when in season and affordable. Common onions are marketed by color, as yellow, white and red. These common onions are available year-round, have more pungent flavors, and are less expensive than sweet onions. Store all onions outside of the refrigerator. You should store them in wire or other ventilated baskets, and away from potatoes. The ethylene gas released by each potato will spoil the other. The nutrients of onions are most concentrated in their outer layers, so peel off as little of the outer layer as possible when prepping onions for cooking. And never throw away onion peels and tops, use them to make vegetable broth as described below.
I only use gluten-free pasta, and prefer Tinkyada brand organic pasta, which has brown rice as its sole ingredient. I prefer this brand because it holds its shape wonderfully in cooking, and friends often cannot tell the difference between it and wheat pasta. Whatever brand you use, be sure to read the ingredients to avoid pasta made with eggs. I stock various shapes of dry pasta in my pantry, including penne, elbow, spaghetti, pad Thai noodles, and lasagna shapes.
Baked, roasted, boiled or steamed, potatoes are a low calorie, high fiber comfort food with significant nutritional benefits. I only buy organic potatoes based on concerns about the toxic effect of different pesticides and herbicides used to treat non-organic potatoes. Potato skins are so nutritious and high in fiber that I leave them on for cooking. Discard potatoes that are sprouting or have green tinted skin, since that indicates the presence of a toxin that may degrade taste and cause unwanted health effects. Store potatoes in a cool, dry, ventilated place away from onions, since each emit gases that may shorten the life of the other. These are the most common types of potatoes in US supermarkets, which I use for the purposes listed:
- Red skin: Red potatoes have firm flesh and hold their shape well when diced. They are the worst to use for mashing but are great for potato salads, soups, and oven roasting.
- Yukon gold: These moist, general purpose potatoes are great for mashing, baking, roasting, boiling, and grilling.
- Russet: The most common potato in the US, these are light and fluffy, but do not hold their shape well when diced. Therefore, they are great mashed or baked, but are not a good choice for potato salads and other dishes that require diced potatoes.
Rice and Quinoa
Rice makes up about half of the calories consumed by half of the world’s population. I eat some type of rice almost every day, since it goes well with so many other foods. I primarily use brown rice, and use white rice only sparingly, since the process of converting brown rice into white removes most of the nutrients from the rice. A meal of brown rice and beans includes the full spectrum of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. No matter which rice you use, rinse it well before cooking to clean, reduce stickiness, and improve fluffiness. I often mix quinoa with brown rice in a 1:1 ratio to get the nutritional benefits of each grain, and enjoy this mixture as much as plain brown rice. Rice and quinoa will store nicely for about six months in a dry, airtight container. I keep these varieties in my pantry for different uses:
- Basmati: A long grain, aromatic brown rice primarily grown in India and Pakistan.
- Jasmine: A long grain, aromatic rice in both brown and white varieties, primarily grown in Southeast Asia.
- Paella rice: Traditional paella rice is exceptional at absorbing flavor and produces cooked grains that are nutty, dry and separate well. Some people substitute Arborio rice for paella rice, but in my experience Arborio produces a creamier result and is better suited to risotto. I prefer Matiz brand Valenciano rice in my paellas.
- Quinoa: Quinoa is traditionally grown in the Andean region of South America. Quinoa has higher protein than rice and can be cooked and used in the same manner as rice. I stock both white and red quinoa in my pantry.
Sprouts offer one the most cost effective, concentrated nutrition sources of any food, if you grow your own from seeds. The cost of organic home-grown sprouts is just pennies per serving. Grow sprouts in one-quart Ball jars with stainless mesh screens and plastic screw tops. I consume sprouts every day in smoothies, salads and sandwiches. I always have these sprouts growing in jars next to my kitchen sink:
Add 1/3 cup of mung beans into a one-quart sprout jar, fill with water, and allow to soak underwater overnight. In the morning, drain, rinse and drain again. The only time you should allow the beans to soak covered in water is during the first 10-12 hours after you add them to the jar. After this initial soaking, drain, and then only “water” the beans by rinsing then completely draining them twice each day. Harvest your beans when the jar is fully sprouted and filled, which should occur in 3-4 days. Once harvested, spread your sprouts out in a mesh bag and air dry them for a few hours. Store in refrigerator and consume within a week. You can store any excess in Ziploc gallon freezer bags. Defrost them at room temperature and consume within one year.
Broccoli sprouts offer one of the most concentrated sources of nutrition of any food. One cup of organic broccoli sprouts costs about 25 cents to grow on your kitchen countertop, and contains about the same amount of the phytonutrient sulforaphane as 27 cups of broccoli. Start broccoli sprouts by adding 3 tbsp of seeds to a 1 quart sprouting jar. Next, grow and store exactly as described for mung beans above. The only difference is that broccoli sprouts will be slower to mature and typically fill your sprout jar in 5 to 6 days.
To vary the nutrients I get from sprouts, I also use a few different seed mixes. I purchase most of my sprouting seeds from Sprout People. This is based on my long-term satisfaction with their germination rates. My favorite seed mixes are Italian and French seed mixes. With each of those mixes, I use 2 tbsp of seeds in my sprouting jar. Then, I process exactly as described above for broccoli seeds.
Sweet potatoes and yams are members of different botanical families. Because of similarities, they are often confused and mislabeled by supermarkets. My advice is to not worry about whether you are buying sweet potatoes or yam. Instead, just make sure eat them often. These are among the most nutritious of all edible plants. The more orange the flesh, the higher the beta carotene content. I keep my pantry stocked with a combination of light, orange, and purple-flesh variations. Then, I combine them in my cooking for nutritional diversity. I try to purchase organic, when possible. This makes me feel confident about avoiding pesticides and herbicides when leaving the nutrient-rich skin on for cooking. Sweet potatoes cook faster than regular potatoes. They can be ready to eat in about six minutes when microwaved whole or cut into cubes and steamed. Eat yours before they sprout, usually within two weeks of purchase. Store them in a dark, dry, cool place outside of the refrigerator.
I often hear people say that they hate tofu. When I ask why, it’s usually because they have only tried it once or twice. Their experiences are often at an Asian restaurant where it was served as slimy white chunks. I also dislike tofu served in this manner! Fortunately, after much experimentation, I have learned why millions of people around the world eat tofu every day. First of all, it’s a complete source of protein and a delicious meat alternative. Grilled, baked, or sautéed with vegetable broth, tofu can be browned and cooked without oil. By coating with arrowroot powder or cornstarch and any flour, tofu chunks can be sautéed until golden brown. Tofu is sold based on firmness and water content: Silken, medium, firm, and super firm. Tofu is a chameleon food and has little flavor of its own. Soaking tofu in a marinade for at least an hour will imbue it with the flavor of the marinade. Simmering browned tofu in a sauce will imbue it with the flavor of the sauce.
Stop buying vegetable broth and make your own! Recycle vegetable tops, peels, and expiring produce to make broth rather than throw them in the garbage or composter. Keep a gallon plastic bag in your freezer. Fill it with the vegetable ends and peels you generate while preparing meals. When the bag is full, dump it into your pressure cooker, add 8 cups of water, and salt to taste. I also add a piece of kombu (seaweed) to my vegetable broth for additional nutrients and ocean flavor. Set the manual timer on your pressure cooker for 10 minutes. Next, use the quick pressure release when the timer beeps. Strain and refrigerate unused vegetable broth and use within one week or freeze. Freeze some broth in ice cube trays for small needs.
Eric O’Grey is an inspirational speaker with a bachelor of science in finance from San Jose State University and a juris doctor from Emory University. Eric enjoys long-distance running with his dog, Jake; gourmet plant-based cooking; and spending time with his wife, Jaye. He is passionate about animal kindness, plant-based nutrition, and helping others reverse obesity and achieve their optimal weight and happiness. Learn more about Eric and his initiatives at EricandPeety.com and in his new book, Walking with Peety.