If you followed the advice in my column last week, you've spring cleaned your fridge. You might have tossed out old leftovers and dated condiments and moved the nuts from the cupboard to the fridge.
Or perhaps you were inspired to cook a batch of dried chickpeas.
Now it's time to move on to the pantry. Taking stock of what's inside your kitchen cupboards – and then deciding what to keep and what to replace – will amp up the nutrition (and flavour) of your family's meals and snacks.
Sort through your non-perishable foods. Check best-before dates on canned goods, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, crackers, peanut butter and condiments. Throw out what's past its prime. (Best-before dates refer to quality, not safety; they tell you how long a product will maintain its peak freshness.)
Open bottles of cooking oils and give them a whiff. If an oil smells off, throw it out. Over time, unsaturated fats go rancid, causing them to smell stale.
Once you've taken inventory of your pantry's contents, make a grocery list of what's missing and what you need to replace.
Must-have foods for a nutrition-minded pantry
Here is a list of many staples you'll find in my kitchen cupboards, plus how to store them for maximum freshness and nutritional value. Having them on hand makes it easy to throw together fast, healthy and flavourful meals.
Cooking oils. I stock a few bottles of different oils: extra virgin olive oil (for salad dressings; high in monounsaturated fat), canola oil (for cooking; contains alpha linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid) and grapeseed oil (for cooking and salad dressings; a good source of vitamin E).
My pantry is also home to a jar of unrefined coconut oil, which I use for making granola and curries. I also use it in place of melted butter on air-popped popcorn. Sesame and walnut oils are staples, too, but I keep them in the fridge.
To prevent throwing out unused oil that's gone bad, I buy small bottles of oils which, when opened, will keep for three months (unopened, six months). Unrefined coconut oil lasts for 18 to 24 months but check the best-before date to be sure.
Store oils in a cool, dark cupboard.
Vinegars. Besides the usual red- and white-wine and balsamic vinegars, raspberry, sherry, champagne, apple cider and rice vinegars also have reserved space in my pantry.
They're key ingredients in salad dressings, marinades, even sautéed greens. I also add a splash of flavoured vinegar to steamed spinach. Opened vinegars keep for 12 months (unopened, two years).
Nut and seed butters. Peanut butter, almond butter and tahini are staples for toast, snacks, smoothies and dips. Once opened, regular peanut butter will keep for three months (unopened, six to nine months).
Once opened, natural nut butters – just nuts, perhaps a dash of salt – should be stored in the fridge to prevent their oils from separating. Here, they'll keep for five to six months.
Canned foods. My staples: diced tomatoes, tomato paste, beans (black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans), low-sodium vegetable and chicken broth, light tuna (I avoid albacore tuna, which is higher in mercury), artichoke hearts (they're great in salads and on pizza) and salsa and hot sauce (to replace those I use up in my fridge).
If a canned good doesn't have a best-before date, label its purchase date on the lid with a marker. Rotate food so the oldest is used first. The colour, flavour, texture and nutritional value (vitamins A and C) of canned foods deteriorate over time.
Unopened acidic foods such as tomato products, fruits and vinegar-based foods last 12 to 18 months. Low-acid foods including canned meat, poultry and fish, soups (except tomato) and vegetables maintain their quality longer, two to five years.
Dried fruit. I keep raisins, dried apricots and dates on hand to add flavour, fibre and minerals to salads and whole-grain pilafs. Of course, I snack on them, too.
Breakfast cereals. I don't stock ready-to-eat cereal (it's just not my breakfast of choice). That doesn't mean you shouldn't though.
Make sure your staple cereals are whole grain and have at least 5 grams of fibre and no more than 6 grams of sugar a serving (there are some than have no added sugar).
I do, however, stock large-flake oats to make porridge and to sprinkle over yogurt. For a filling breakfast, I'll mix raw oats with nuts and dried fruit, which I pour kefir over.
Pasta & grains. I stock a few varieties of dried pasta, both whole wheat and, yes, white (both have a low glycemic index). These days, pasta is a weekly Friday dinner to fuel my husband's long training runs for the Boston Marathon.
My staple whole grains include brown rice and quinoa, but recently I've become hooked on farro and freekeh, which I use to make hearty soups and whole-grain salads.
Whole grains typically keep for one year, and longer if stored in the fridge.
Crackers. I don't eat crackers often, but when I do I make sure they're 100-per-cent whole grain, have at least 3 grams of fibre and no more than 200 milligrams of sodium in a 30-grams serving.
In my cupboard you'll find Wasa Crispbread, Ryvita Crispbread and Finn Crisp (they're all low on the glycemic index scale). I also keep a box of whole-grain Triscuits on hand.
Dried herbs and spices. Essential for adding flavour without salt or fat, herbs and spices also add polyphenols to meals, potent antioxidants linked to numerous health benefits.
Most dried herbs last up to three years and spices two to four years, but their potency diminishes with time. If their colour has faded and they don't release an aroma when lightly crushed in your hand, they're ready to be replaced.
Store dried herbs and spices in airtight bottles, away from light or heat.
Snacks. With the exception of popcorn kernels (and trail mix and nuts, which I store in the fridge), I don't keep a regular stash of munchies (too easy to overeat when a craving hits).
Better-for-you snacks include roasted chickpeas, kale chips and seaweed snacks. Keep a bag of edamame (green soybeans in the pod) in your freezer.
JUST DITCH IT
One roadblock to clean eating: stocking your pantry with overly processed foods, shelf-stable foods high in sugar, sodium and/or trans fat, not to mention synthetic additives, and low in fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
The following foods (it's not a comprehensive list) don't deserve a regular spot in your pantry.
Keeping them around makes it harder to stick to healthier options.
Ditch fruit roll-ups, candy, sugary granola bars, store-bought pastries and cookies, sugary breakfast cereals, chips, pretzels, sugar-sweetened drinks (e.g. pop, fruit drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, lemonade, iced tea) and prefried, salty ramen noodles and noodle cups.
Artificially sweetened foods
Stay clear of diet soft drinks, diet yogurt and anything else sweetened with fake sugar. These intensely sweet foods only serve to drive your sweet tooth. Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose and saccharin may also alter the activity of beneficial gut bacteria.
Fat-free salad dressings
You need some fat to absorb fat-soluble vitamins and antioxidants from leafy greens. Choose commercial salad dressings that list a healthy oil (e.g. olive oil, canola oil) as the first ingredient (not water) and have little or no added sugar. Even better, make your own.
Concentrated in free sugars, fruit juice delivers a calorie-punch that eating an orange or an apple doesn't. Plus, it lacks the fibre found in whole fruits that helps you feel full.
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.