10 Foods You Should Have in Your Kitchen

I am often asked about what I eat on a regular basis.  I try to stock my pantry and refrigerator with healthy staple items, which makes it easier to cook healthy meals.  Making healthy food choices begins with stocking your kitchen with nutritious foods.  It is much easier to create a healthy meal when you have nourishing foods readily accessible.  I know there are numerous lists of the top foods you should have in your kitchen, but I want to share with you the foods most likely to be spotted in my kitchen.  And it just so happens that these are all functional foods, that is, they provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition.  

Functional foods may play a role in reducing or minimizing the risk of certain diseases and other health conditions.  The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines functional foods as: "whole foods along with fortified, enriched or enhanced foods that have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis at effective levels based on significant standards of evidence". 

So...…….let's dive into my list!

1. Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes are packed with beta-carotene (a vitamin A derivative), pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), pyridoxine (vitamin B6), thiamine (vitamin B1), niacin (vitamin B3), riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin C, potassium, fiber and carotenoids, which are antioxidants that protect the body against cellular damage.  Despite having more sugar, sweet potatoes do not spike blood sugar as dramatically as white potatoes.  Sweet potatoes have more vitamin C, fewer calories, more fiber and fewer total carbohydrates than their white counterparts.  Sweet potatoes can be baked, roasted, pureed, mashed and fried (yes, fried....but due to the high fat content, nutritional perks are cancelled out, so don't over-indulge!!).

2. Kale
Kale is a cruciferous vegetable (i.e., same family as broccoli, cauliflower and collards) that is an excellent source of vitamins A, K, and C.  Kale also contains numerous antioxidants called flavonoids, which have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral and anti-carcinogenic properties. It can be eaten raw or cooked (steamed, sautéed, baked -- ever tasted kale chips?).  I love to use kale in salads and smoothies.  Try making this Roasted Sweet Potato and Kale Salad.

Roasted Sweet Potato and Kale SALAD
Adapted from: SkinnyTaste.com
Hands-On Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

For the salad:
2 medium sweet potatoes, diced into cubes
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. maple syrup
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 cups chopped kale
For the dressing:
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. fresh orange juice or lemon juice
1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. maple syrup
¼ tsp. salt 
Pepper, to taste
For the topping:
¼ cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
¼ cup feta cheese crumbles
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup canned chickpeas, rinsed and drained

1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
2. Place cubed sweet potatoes on baking sheet, drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil.   Toss evenly and roast for 20 minutes. Add maple syrup and garlic, continue roasting for 15-25 minutes until tender.
3. While the potatoes are cooking, prepare the dressing:  Add all ingredients to a bowl – whisk until smooth.  
4. Pour dressing all over the chopped kale and use your (clean) hands to gently massage the dressing into the kale for a few minutes. This helps remove any bitterness from the kale and adds flavor to the leafy green.
5. Add sweet potato, pepitas, feta cheese, cranberries and chickpeas to kale. 
(Tip: Don’t add the cheese or pumpkin seeds until you are ready to eat; you want them crunchy not soggy.)
Nutrition Information (per serving): 288 Calories; 11 g Total fat;  3.6 g Saturated fat;  8 mg Cholesterol; 386 mg Sodium; 42.5 g Total carbohydrates; 6 g Fiber; 8.5 g Protein; 16 g Sugar

3. Garlic
Garlic is often used to flavor many of our food dishes.  It is packed with vitamins B1, B6, C, manganese, calcium, copper, selenium and the cancer-fighting compound, allicin.  Garlic provides numerous health benefits such as lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, and improving heart health.  It can be added to salad dressings, soups, stews, sauces and stir-fry.

4. Tomatoes
Tomatoes (which are vegetables or fruits -- you pick, but technically, they are fruits) are so versatile!  They are an excellent source of vitamin C and the antioxidant lycopene.  Tomatoes can be eaten raw (e.g., in salads or on sandwiches) or cooked.  Tomato sauce is also an option, but it is best to make your own.  If you must buy tomato sauce, read the food label as some sauces are loaded with sugar!

5. Black beans
Black beans are often prized for their high protein, fiber, folic acid and antioxidant content.  It is a popular addition to chilis, salads, soups and dips.  They serve double duty as both a vegetable and a protein! Nutritionally, canned and dry beans are equals.  However, canned beans may contain more sodium, so please check the labels and opt for "no salt added" varieties.  Aim for <140mg of sodium or less per serving or simply rinse canned beans in a colander before using them.

6. Peppers
Mild, hot, spicy -- any pepper has some type of phytochemical (a compound with protective or disease-preventing properties) or vitamins A and C, potassium, folic acid and fiber.
The spicy ones (i.e., jalapeno, serrano, cayenne, habanero) can add life to bland dishes!  The "fire" in hot peppers comes from capsaicin, which has been shown to decrease cholesterol and triglycerides and boost immunity.  Peppers can be eaten raw, added to dips, stir-fry, salads and other dishes.  A word of caution -- you may want to keep a glass of milk on hand if eating really hot peppers.  Capsaicin does not dissolve in water - you need some fat to neutralize it!  Try making this Black Bean and Sweet Potato Chili.

Adapted from:  Eating Well, 2016

Hands-On Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 50 minutes  
Yield: 8 servings
Serving size: About 1½ cups
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp. sea salt
1 large sweet potato, peeled and chopped
4 tsp. lime juice
1 28-oz can diced tomatoes with juice
4 15-oz cans black beans, drained and rinsed
2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and chopped
1 Tbsp. cumin
1 Tbsp. chili powder
1 Tbsp. cocoa powder
1 cup water

1.     Heat oil in a large pan over medium heat.  Add the onion, red pepper, garlic and salt.  Sauté until soft, about 4 minutes.
2.      Add sweet potatoes and cook 10-15 minutes stirring occasionally.  Make sure the mixture does not stick, adding additional olive oil when needed.  Add tomatoes, black beans, jalapeño, lime juice, cumin, chili powder, cocoa powder and water.  Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook for 30 minutes.
Nutrition Information (per serving): 260 Calories; 4.5 g Total fat; 0.5 g Saturated fat; 2.5 g Monounsaturated fat; 0 mg Cholesterol; 360 mg Sodium; 45 g Total carbohydrate; 10 gm Dietary fiber; 8 gm Sugars; 13 gm Protein

7. Salmon
Salmon (especially the wild caught variety) is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins B12, D, and high quality protein.  It can help lower inflammation, which has the potential to reduce risk factors for several diseases and alleviate or improve symptoms for those who suffer with inflammatory conditions.  You can steam, bake, grill, saute, smoke or poach salmon and it pairs well with many other foods.  Feel free to use canned salmon as a quick and inexpensive option that provides the same health benefits as the fresh fish.  Try making this Broiled Salmon with Peppery Dill Compound Butter.

From: Mary Younkin, barefeetinthekitchen.com
Hands-On Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Serving size: 1 fillet

4 salmon fillets (1½ pounds total)
1 lemon 
1 Tbsp. olive oil, plus more for greasing
1 tsp. kosher salt (adjust to taste)
1/2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper (adjust to taste)
1/4 cup butter (room temperature
1 Tbsp. minced dill
1.       Preheat oven to broil. Lightly grease a baking sheet with olive oil. Place the salmon on the baking sheet and squeeze lemon generously over the salmon. Drizzle lightly with 1 Tbsp. olive oil and then generously season with salt and pepper. Broil for 8-10 minutes, until the salmon barely flakes with a fork.
2.      While the salmon is in the oven, mix together the butter, dill and pepper. Place in the refrigerator to chill until ready to serve. When the salmon is finished cooking, serve each fillet with a small scoop of butter on top. Enjoy!

Nutrition Information (per serving): 360 Calories; 29 g Total fat; 12 g Saturated fat; 0 g Trans-fat; 90 mg Cholesterol; 55 mg Sodium; 1 g Carbohydrates; 0 g Fiber; 0 g Sugar; 23 g Protein

8. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds contain heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats (a.k.a. "good" fats), fiber, and are plant-based sources of protein.  I love to flavor nuts and seeds for snacks by adding spices and baking them.  Try to limit yourself to a handful, or 1 ounce (2 Tbsp.); nuts and seeds are calorie-rich!  Try making these Spiced Mixed Nuts or Spiced Pumpkin Seeds.

From: Jennifer McLagan, Fine Cooking
Hands-On Time: 5 minute
Total Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 cups (16 servings)
Serving size: ¼ cup

1 lb. (4 cups) mixed unsalted nuts (such as cashews, macadamias, walnuts, pecans, or almonds)
½ tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. ground cumin
1 Tbsp. olive or canola oil
2 Tbsp. dark brown sugar
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary
¼ tsp. cayenne
1½ tsp. kosher salt

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F.  Scatter the nuts on a rimmed baking sheet and bake, shaking the sheet a couple of times during baking, until the nuts are nicely toasted, 10 to 15 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, set a small heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle in the coriander and cumin and toast until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Remove the pan from the heat and add the olive or canola oil, brown sugar, rosemary, and cayenne. Return the skillet to low heat and stir until the sugar dissolves, 2 to 2½ minutes. Keep warm. 
3. Tip the nuts into a large bowl, pour the warm spiced oil over the nuts, and add the salt. Stir until the nuts are well coated. Taste for seasoning and add more salt if necessary. Let the nuts cool completely.
** The nuts can be made up to a week in advance; store in an airtight container.

Nutrition Information (per serving): 190 Calories; 17 g Total fat;  3.5 g Saturated fat; 3.5 g Polyunsaturated fat; 10 g Monounsaturated fat; 5 mg Cholesterol; 110 mg Sodium; 8 g Carbohydrates; 2 g Fiber; 4 g Protein

From: Amy Chaplin, At Home in the Whole Foods Kitchen
Hands-On Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 1 cup (4 servings)
Serving size: ¼ cup

1 cup raw pumpkin seeds
4 tsp. fresh lime or lemon juice
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
½ tsp. sea salt

1.       Preheat oven to 300°. 
2.      Place seeds in a bowl and fill with water; swish seeds around; strain. Rinse and drain. 
3.      Toss seeds with lime or lemon juice, cayenne, and sea salt. 
4.      Spread on a parchment-lined baking sheet and toast in oven for 12 minutes. Stir and continue toasting for 10-12 minutes more, or until puffed and fragrant. Remove from oven; cool. 
Nutrition Information (per serving): 182 Calories; 16 g Total fat;  3 g Saturated fat;  7 g Polyunsaturated fat; 6 g Monounsaturated fat; 0 mg Cholesterol; 87 mg Sodium; 4 g Carbohydrates; 2 g Fiber; 10 g Protein

9. Flaxseed
Flaxseed is high in fiber and contains omega-3 fatty acids.  You can get flax either as the whole seed, ground or as flaxseed oil.  I usually use ground flaxseed, as the grinding process helps you to absorb both types of fiber it contains.  Flaxseed has been shown to improve digestion, skin, heart health, cholesterol, hormonal balance and fight cancer.  I add flaxseed meal to my oatmeal, smoothies and use flaxseed oil in salad dressings and baked goods.

10. Berries
All berries are low in calories and rich sources of antioxidants, phytochemicals and vitamin C.  Berries are also a good source of fiber, which slows down the rate at which food moves through your digestive tract, thereby leading to reduced hunger and increased feelings of fullness.  Because of their low calorie content, berries are ideal to include in meals, snacks, or desserts.  I add berries to my oatmeal, smoothies, yogurt parfaits, salads or just eat them alone!  Try this Mixed Berry and Flaxseed Smoothie. You can use either fresh or frozen berries -- I usually use frozen so that I do not have to add ice which can dilute the flavor at times.

Hands-On Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 5 minutes
Yield: 1 serving
Serving size: 1-2 cups

1 cup light vanilla almond milk
1 cup strawberries 
½ cup blueberries 
¼ cup raspberries 
¼ cup blackberries
2 Tbsp. flaxseed meal
1 Tbsp. dried kale
1.       Add 1 cup of almond milk to a blender.  You may also use other milk alternatives (e.g., soy, hemp, cashew, rice, etc.).
2.      Add berries, flaxseed meal and dried kale to blender and blend until smooth.  Add a little honey or another alternative sweetener if you need to do so.  I drink mine as is though!
Nutrition Information (per serving): 250 Calories; 9 g Total fat; 1 g Saturated fat; 2.6 g Monounsaturated fat; 5.4 g Polyunsaturated fat; 0 mg Cholesterol; 169 mg Sodium; 42 g Total carbohydrate; 11.8 g Dietary fiber; 17 g Sugars; 4.8 g Protein
All photos courtesy of Jeffrey E. Hall (my dedicated and very patient spouse😊)

As always, thanks for reading!

Yours in good health,


  1. Thanks for the reminder. I find myself wondering what food I absolutely need to keep on hand!
    Thank Dr. Nina

    1. You’re welcome, Trina! Let me know if you try any of the recipes.


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