Which ingredients to choose — and which to lose? Here’s a quick guide to revamping the pantry and sizing up other common kitchen staples.
1. Choose: No-salt-added tomatoes (in cans and cartons) over tomato sauce.
The ingredient list for tomato sauce should be short and simple: tomatoes and perhaps a few seasonings. But that’s not always the case. Many varieties contain added ingredients like oil, sugar and salt (up to 500 milligrams of sodium per serving). Opt for no-salt added tomatoes and add the seasonings yourself. For a smooth sauce, puree the tomatoes in a food processor and then strain the solids.
2. Choose: Whole-wheat panko bread crumbs over regular and seasoned bread crumbs.
Ever read the label on Italian-style bread crumbs? The ingredient list is monstrous and contains some undesirable (and unpronounceable) things, including high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oil and various preservatives. The ingredient list on the panko label is short (wheat flour, yeast, salt), and the crumbs have half the calories of the Italian kind. Panko is made from crust-less bread and the crumbs are lighter, coarser and can coat food without “packing.” The crumbs also absorb less oil, stay crisp longer and, because they’re crunchy without frying, are a better choice on breaded (and baked) chicken, fish, shellfish and meat.
3. Choose: Quinoa over white rice and refined pasta.
Quinoa is a quick-cooking whole grain and complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids (those not produced by the body, so we need to get them from food). In fact, compared to white rice and pasta, quinoa has two times the amount of protein. It’s also a great source of iron and zinc (key nutrients for healthy cells), making it a nutritious and delicious addition to meatless meals.
4. Choose: Olive and canola oil over vegetable oil.
Vegetable oil sounds healthy, but it’s often a blend of several plant-derived oils, mostly soybean oil with a few other oils sprinkled in. The problem is, these oils are high in Omega-6 fatty acids. Yes, we need some Omega-6s, but they don’t reduce disease-causing inflammation in the body the way Omega-3s do. Plus, it’s best to stick with single-ingredient oils so you know what you’re actually consuming. For salads and vinaigrettes, opt for olive oil; it lends a grassy, fruity flavor and is an excellent source of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that suppresses hunger. Canola oil’s mild flavor and high smoking point make it ideal for sauteing and stir-frying.
5. Choose: Avocados over butter.
When cookie, cake, muffin, and quick bread recipes call for room temperature (soft) butter, use an equal amount of fresh avocado instead; amazingly, the healthy vegetable lends a rich creaminess to batters without imparting its flavor. And check this out: 1/2 cup of unsalted butter has 803 calories and 58 grams saturated fat, while 1/2 cup of fresh avocado has 120 calories and 1 gram saturated fat. One simple swap, and you’ll dodge 683 calories.
6. Choose: Nuts over croutons.
Croutons offer very little besides fat and salt to an otherwise healthy dish. Opt for nuts instead (walnuts, almonds), and you’ll get nutrients and the crunch you crave (almonds pack more fiber and calcium than most nuts and they have a super-long shelf life). For a more intense flavor, toast the nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat for a few minutes, until golden brown and fragrant.
7. Choose: Whole-wheat white flour over all-purpose flour.
When you think “white flour,” you probably think “refined flour,” but that’s not the case here. Whole-wheat white flour is really whole, meaning it contains the endosperm, germ and bran (hard outer layer of the kernel), key nutrients stripped away in refined flour. The bran in white wheat is colorless and mild in flavor, making it an excellent choice for folks accustomed to refined flour (you get the same results with more nutrition). And because white wheat doesn’t contain the pungent phenolic compounds found in traditional red wheat, baked goods require less sugar (or other sweeteners) to reach the same level of sweetness.
8. Choose: Low-sodium chicken, beef or vegetable broth over regular broth.
Get this: One cup of regular broth contains 40% of the recommended daily sodium intake – and that’s without any additional ingredients in the recipe. Opt for lower sodium varieties (450 milligrams or less per serving) and slash sodium without compromising flavor (your taste buds won’t notice the difference but your heart will). Add broths to soups, stews and sauces. For added flavor, you can also steam your favorite vegetables in broth instead of water.
9. Choose: Artichoke hearts over olives (half of the time).
Olives contain wonderful, heart-healthy fats, but fat is fat at the end of the day. Artichoke hearts provide the same salty, briny flavor with zero fat. And, ounce for ounce, they contain more antioxidants than any other vegetable (and about 50 percent more than blueberries). Add them to your crudités platter, nestle them on salads, roast them with other vegetables, arrange them on pizzas, and stir them into your favorite tomato sauce and serve over pasta.
10. Choose: Chunk light tuna packets or jarred Italian tuna over canned albacore tuna.
Tuna is an excellent source of heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids and even the oil-packed varieties have just 40 calories per serving. One caveat: Chunk light tuna and white tuna have the same nutrients and protein, but white tuna has three times the mercury. If you don’t like darker tuna, opt for troll- or pole-and-line-caught white fish – the fish are younger and smaller, so they’ve had less time to accumulate harmful mercury.
Robin Miller is host of Quick Fix Meals, a nutritionist and author of 10 cookbooks, including “Robin Takes 5” and “Robin Takes 5 for Busy Families.” She is the busy mom of two active boys. Her boys and great food are her passion. Check her out at www.robinmillercooks.com.