6 Steps to a Healthier Pantry

by | Mar 15, 2023 | General Wellness, Nutrition

A few weeks ago, I talked about food prep methods you should avoid and what to choose instead in this article. Food prep is only one part of healthier cooking and eating, though. Creating a healthier pantry matters just as much.

Creating a healthier pantry and kitchen can set you up for success. If your pantry and kitchen are full of healthy foods and helpful appliances, it will be easier for you to make and choose healthy foods. Set yourself up for success. Learn how to create a healthier pantry.

1. Learn About Additives 

One of the biggest problems with overly-processed foods is additives. Here are some of the additives you need to avoid when creating a healthier pantry:

  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG): MSG is a common food additive that can enhance the flavor of certain savory foods. It’s commonly found in canned soups, frozen dinners, salty snacks, and fast foods. MSG may have a negative impact on your neurological health, growth and development, weight gain, and metabolic syndrome (1, 2, 3). It may lead to food sensitivities, headaches, sweating, and numbness (4).
  • Artificial food coloring: Artificial food coloring is commonly used to improve or brighten the appearance of various food items, including candy, cakes, frosting, and condiments. Many food dyes, including Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, have been linked to allergic reactions (5). Artificial food coloring may also increase hyperactivity in children (6) and increase the risk of thyroid issues and cancer (7, 8).
  • Sodium nitrite: Sodium nitrite has been used as a preservative to reduce bacterial growth in processed meat, such as hot dogs, sausage, and bacon. It also adds a reddish-pink color and salty flavor to them. Sodium nitrate may increase the risk of stomach, colorectal, breast, and bladder cancer, as well as diabetes (9, 10, 11, 12, 13).
  • Guar gum: Guar gum is a long-chain carbohydrate. It is used to thicken and bind certain foods, including sauces, soups, salad dressings, and ice cream. For some people, guar gum can be irritating, but it other cases, it may be beneficial. It may increase the risk of bloating, constipation, and other symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) (14, 15). It may increase the risk of esophagus and small intestine issues in large amounts (16). Potential positive effects of guar gum however may include reduced snacking, improved blood sugar, and lower cholesterol (17, 18, 19). In fact, it is used for prevention of SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) in some protocols so its effects can vary from person to person. Listen to your body.
  • High fructose corn syrup: High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)  is a sweetener derived from corn. It’s commonly found in sodas, juice, candy, snacks, and breakfast cereal. It may increase the risk of weight gain, blood sugar issues, insulin resistance, diabetes, chronic inflammation, inflammatory conditions, heart disease, and cancer (20, 21, 22). More worrisome is that products that list HFCS as an ingredient may contain trace amounts of mercury, and there’s no known safe level of exposure to mercury. 
  • Artificial sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners include aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, and acesulfame potassium. They are used to increase the sweetness of drinks and food products without adding calories. They may increase food sensitivities, headaches, indigestion, inflammation, and chronic health issues (23, 24).
  • Carrageenan: Carrageenan is a thickener, preservative, and emulsifier derived from red seaweed. It is commonly found in coffee creamers, almond milk, cottage cheese, ice cream, and dairy-free dairy-like products, such as vegan cheese. It may increase blood sugar imbalances, glucose intolerance, inflammation, and gastrointestinal issues (25, 26, 27).
  • Sodium benzoate: Sodium benzoate is a preservative. It can be found in carbonated beverages, fruit juices, pickles, condiments, and salad dressings. It may increase the risk of hyperactivity and ADHD (28, 29). It may also increase the risk of cancer (30).
  • Trans fats: trans fats are unsaturated fats made with hydrogenation to increase consistency and shelf-life. It’s found in margarine, microwave popcorn, baked goods, and many other products. Transfat may increase the risk of heart disease, inflammation, and diabetes (31, 32).
  • Xantham gum: Xanthan gum is a thickener that’s commonly found in soups, sauces, dressings, and syrups. Though it may help to reduce blood sugar and cholesterol, xantham gum may also increase gas, soft stools, and digestive issues, especially in larger quantities (33, 34, 35).
  • Artificial flavoring: Artificial flavoring is chemically made flavors that mimic the flavor of natural foods. They may be found in any processed foods, from popcorn to candy. Artificial flavors may have toxic effects on your bone marrow cells and increase the risk of all kinds of other chronic health issues (36, 37).
  • Yeast extract: Yeast extract or otherwise known as hydrolyzed yeast extract or autolyzed yeast extract, is used to increase flavors in salty snacks, cheese, soy sauces, and other savory food items. Yeast extract contains glutamate and sodium, both of which may cause health issues. Glutamate may increase the risk of headaches, numbness, and sensitivities (38, 39). Sodium may increase high blood pressure (40).

2. Read Labels  

Another important tip for creating a healthier pantry is reading labels. Always read labels when buying packaged foods or going through items in your kitchen.

  • Look at the ingredient list. Check for additives and other unusual ingredients. Check the ingredient list for your food allergies, food sensitivities, and other triggering foods. If you have histamine intolerance, look for high-histamine ingredients. Check if there is a chance of cross-contamination. For example, if you have celiac disease, you need to avoid gluten completely. If a gluten-free item is made in a factory where gluten foods are also made, there is a risk of cross-contamination. This low risk may be okay for most people but may not be for you if you have celiac disease.
  • Check the serving size. Looking at the serving size will give you a clue on how many calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients to expect in one suggested serving. Looking at the serving size may be particularly helpful for higher-calorie foods and snacks. For example, if you see 100 calories, 10 grams of carbs, and 7 grams of fats on a bag of chips, you may think it’s not that bad. But once you realize that a serving size is only about 10 chips, you may think again. If you eat the entire bag, the story may be very different.
  • Check the nutrient value. You can look at the macronutrient ratios. Move beyond the total fat value. How much saturated and trans fat it contains? You want your saturated fats to be zero to low and trans fats at zero. Look beyond total carbs. How much sugar and added sugar does it contain? This number should be low. Carbs coming from fiber, on the other hand, are good news. 
  • You may also look at if the food item contains any micronutrients, like minerals and vitamins. Check the daily value percentage (DV%). This shows how much of your daily value you would be receiving by consuming a serving of this specific food. If you see 1% or 5%, that’s very low. If you see 20% or higher, then this food is a good source of a certain nutrient.
  • Check the ‘sell by’, ‘use by’, and ‘best if used by/before’ dates. ‘Sell by’ is a recommendation to the store or seller to suggest when to sell the item by. Aim to buy items before this date. ‘Use by’ suggests the peak quality of the food. Though many packaged foods are still safe to eat after this date, they may taste stale or otherwise less tasty. It’s best to use everything before the ‘use by’ date. ‘Best if used by/before’ is another way to tell you how long the food will have the best quality and flavor. Remember, these dates are recommendations. A food item may still be good after the date. But it may also taste good, bad or stale before the date, depending on the temperature, storage, and other factors. Always check the quality after opening and before eating something.
  • Be aware of misleading claims. Natural doesn’t necessarily mean the food is even remotely natural. It may only mean that there is one natural ingredient source, like rice, in the products.
  • Multigrain doesn’t automatically mean healthy. It simply means the product has more than one type of grain. It can still be refined, high in sugar, or high in additives. Chances are, it contains a gluten-rich grain, such as wheat or rye.
  • Light, low-fat, low-sugar, low-carb, and so on are diet terms, not health terms. Light often means the product is watered down. Low in fat often means high in added sugar or artificial sugar. Low or no sugar often means it’s high in artificial sugar, additives, or refined oils. Low-carb, low-sugar, and low-fat packaged foods are often overly processed and full of unhealthy, artificial ingredients. Gluten-free products are also often overly processed and full of artificial additives. 
  • Look for certifications. USDA Organic means the food is certified organic. The Gluten-Free Certification Program (GFCP) ensures that a product is gluten-free. When buying meat, look for organic and grass-fed options. When buying poultry or eggs, choose organic and pasture-raised. Buying eggs from a local farmer is often the best option. For fish and seafood, choose wild-caught, low-mercury options, such as salmon, mackerel, clams, crab, crawfish, pollock, haddock, and oysters. In honey, look for organic and local honey.

3. Store Non-Perishable Whole Foods 

The next step for creating a healthier pantry, is storing your non-perishable whole foods properly.

  • Potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, onion, and garlic. Keep them inside a paper bag in a dark, dry, and cool place. If the leaves are still on, you may also store beets and carrots the same way. Once the leaves are chopped, store them in your fridge.
  • Buy dried beans, rice, quinoa, amaranth, gluten-free pasta, nuts, and seeds in bulk and store them in glass containers in your pantry. You can keep dried beans for 2 to 5, sometimes even up to 10 years. Nuts and seeds usually keep well for up to 6 months at room temperature.
  • Stock up on dried herbs and spices, like Himalayan sea salt, black pepper, oregano, rosemary, turmeric, ginger, basil, and so on.
  • You may store shelf-stable boxed non-dairy milk in your pantry. Make sure to choose options without additives and added sugar.
  • You may store canned or boxed soups and broths in your pantry. Homemade and fresh is the best, but boxed and canned can be convenient. Choose organic and low-sodium options with the fewest ingredients possible without added sugar, additives, and unnatural ingredients.
  • Avoid refined oils. Choose extra virgin oil, olive oil spray, avocado oil spray, and coconut oil.
  • Choose and store healthier snack options. Nuts and seeds, gluten-free granola and granola bars (ideally homemade), popcorn (air-popped at home!), dates, dried figs, natural nut butter, freeze-dried fruits, sun dried tomatoes, kale chips, and sugar-free banana chips are great options.

4. Use Your Refrigerator 

Don’t forget about your refrigerator and freezer when creating a healthier pantry and kitchen.

  • Store fresh, organic produce in your fridge. Buy lots of organic greens, vegetables, fruits, fresh herbs and spices, and sprouts.
  • Unless you have histamine intolerance or SIBO, buy fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented veggies and herbs, coconut kefir, coconut yogurt, and kombucha.
  • Store any non-shelf-stable or open-boxed non-dairy milk in your fridge. If you consume dairy, such as cheese or yogurt, store it in your fridge as well. 
  • Store healthy snack options in your fridge, such as fruits, vegetable sticks, coconut yogurt, hummus, and other dips.
  • Any leftovers that you are ready to consume the same or the next day should be stored in your fridge. Freeze any other leftovers. The longer the leftover foods sit in the fridge, the more you may have a problem. In many circumstances, I hear people, consulting with me for histamine issues, say they keep food for 5 – 7 days. And their symptoms reflect this! Unless you can eat your leftovers the next day, freeze them instead.
  • Use your fridge wisely. Store fruits, veggies, and salads in the bottom drawers. Any raw meat, poultry, or fish you are about to use, should be on the next shelf, otherwise, freeze them. Ready-to-eat food, including ready-to-eat meals, leftovers, dairy, yogurt, and so on, should be at the top. You may store condiments, dressings, and dips at the top or in the door. Keep leftovers in glass containers.

5. Let It Go

If you are new to creating a healthier pantry and kitchen, going over everything you have is an important step. It may also be an emotionally difficult step.

  • Get a big garbage bin ready to let go of things you don’t need. You may also consider local food pantries. It may be a good option to donate non-expired canned and packaged food items to local pantries.
  • Check expiration dates. Throw away everything that’s expired and looks funky. 
  • Throw away foods that you will never touch. We all have cans and boxes that we once thought we would need but will never use.
  • Check the ingredients. If you see additives, added sugar, gluten if intolerant, food allergens, food sensitivities, too much sodium, trans fats, or other unhealthy ingredients, let go of them.
  • Letting go of foods that you are used to eating and may love can be difficult. It requires mental discipline to throw them away and not let them back into your home again. Remember: you’re worth it. It will become easier. Your taste buds will change. You will try new recipes. You will start loving new foods. And most importantly, you will start to feel better and more energetic when making better choices. As you notice these subtle changes in your health and energy, you will be less likely to miss unhealthy foods.

6. Use the Space to Store Useful Appliances 

Don’t forget about leaving some space to store useful appliances. An instant pot, high quality blender, and an air fryer are great options to keep or purchase when creating a healthier kitchen.

  • A Vitamix or other high-quality blender is fantastic for making green smoothies, protein shakes, soups (both cold and hot soups!), dressings, dips, nut butter, and nut milk.
  • The Instant Pot is a great way to make quick, healthy, and low-histamine meals. The instant pot decreases cooking this, which means that it also reduces the risk of histamine buildup. It is a great and faster alternative to a crock pot. However, you can cook just about anything in your instant pot, including vegetables, stews, meat, sautees, soups, broth, frittatas, hard-boiled eggs, and even dessert. I also use my Instant pot for reheating instead of the microwave. I recommend avoiding using a microwave oven as much as possible.
  • An air fryer is another simple and useful appliance for your healthier kitchen. The air fryer is not a fryer. Instead of frying, it uses hot air. The hot air circulates at high speed to create a crispy layer and similar results to frying. It is actually faster than frying and it also spreads heat more evenly than frying.  An air fryer is a great option for making vegetable fries and French fries, but it’s more than that. You can make more elaborate meals, including meat, quiche, hash browns, falafel, baked potatoes, sweet potato fries, kale chips, and apple fritters. Or simply add your flash-frozen trout fillet straight from the freezer to the air fryer basket, season it part way through, and cook right alongside chopped-up vegetables for a simple and nutritious meal. When using your air fryer, use your olive oil or avocado oil cooking spray, or try an oil-free option.
  • You may also consider a high-quality food processor for shredding, grating, mincing, grinding, and pureeing food. 
  • You may benefit from a good mandolin slicer, other vegetable cutters, and graters to create versatile dishes. A spiralizer can help you to create ‘noodles’ out of zucchini, carrots, sweet potatoes, and cucumbers. Don’t forget about a high-quality knife set and some glass cutting boards, either.
  • For storage, use glass containers, silicone zip lock bags, cloth bags, paper bags, and beeswax wraps, depending on the food. Avoid plastic, especially BPA. 
  • Avoid non-stick, aluminum, and copper cookware. Choose stainless steel, cast iron, glass, and ceramic cookware, depending on your needs. 

(I have zero commercial interest in any appliances, mentioned or otherwise.)

Next Steps

I recommend that you follow my steps for creating a healthier pantry. I recommend that you also check out my article on healthy food prep tips. If you are dealing with chronic health issues or looking for advice on how to improve your nutrition and health, I welcome you to start a functional medicine consultation with me for further personalized guidance to improve your health. You may book your consultation here. 

Learn more about working with Dr. Gannage