Keeping a kitchen pantry well stocked used to mean hoarding shortening and macaroni and cheese mix. These days, the shelves of some homes are more likely to contain olive oil and spinach fettuccine.
That's good news, because the pantry is the heart of any kitchen, and one that is thoughtfully stocked can provide the base for any number of meals. With the right staples on hand, you can fashion a healthy dinner in a hurry or flesh it out with a few fresh ingredients such as fruits, vegetables, chicken, lean beef or fish.
In its 1989 Diet and Health Report, the National Academy of Sciences recommended that Americans get 30% or less of their calories from fat (no more than 10% of it saturated), 15% or less from protein and 55% or more from carbohydrates.
But the current American diet is a lopsided mix: too high in fat and too low in carbohydrates and fiber, according to the Agriculture Department.
The way to rectify this is simple: When stocking a pantry, add more grains, beans and cereals to increase carbohydrates and fiber, and replace fat--in the form of shortening, lard and butter--with sauces, condiments, herbs and spices. Here are some suggestions:
--Grains, pasta and flour. Broaden horizons beyond white rice with barley, bulgur wheat, wild rice, kasha, couscous, millet and whole-grain basmati rice; most of these are available in supermarkets. Remember that grains don't have to be a side dish. Reverse the proportion; make the meat the side dish and the grain the centerpiece.
When it comes to pasta, plain spaghetti is low in fat and high in carbohydrates; it's what you put on it that adds the fat. To increase fiber, remember that an ounce of some whole-wheat spaghetti has 3.5 grams of dietary fiber, as do many spinach fettuccine. By contrast, the same amount of regular spaghetti has about 0.5 grams of dietary fiber.
Don't forget about buckwheat and other whole-grain pancake and waffle mixes. When making pancake or waffle batter, combine a number of pantry ingredients, such as whole-wheat flour, oat bran and cornmeal.
--Beans. Keep a stock of quick-cooking dried beans such as lentils and split peas on hand; these do not require overnight soaking and can be cooked in less than 45 minutes. Beans that require overnight soaking and more than an hour to cook can be frozen in one-cup portions and later added to salads or soups.
Concerned about salt intake? Canned beans contain more salt than dried ones, but they can be rinsed under water to eliminate at least some of the sodium. Mix beans and grains. Combine couscous with lentils and a splash of raspberry vinegar, whole-wheat spaghetti with pinto beans and tomato sauce, white cannellini beans with spinach fettuccine and a thin coating of olive oil or pesto.
--Sauces and condiments. These are invaluable for adding flavor without fat. Doctor a commercially purchased tomato or chile sauce with fresh or dried herbs. Do the same with salsa, which makes a great topping for chicken breasts or steamed vegetables. Combine two or three types of mustard for a coating for fish; spike it with horseradish. For sauteing without fat, use dry Sherry or dry vermouth. Add a dash of flavored vinegar, low-sodium soy sauce or hot-pepper sauce to steamed vegetables just before serving.
--Vegetable oils. Regardless of the debate over the merits of olive oil, when it comes to stocking a pantry, many nutritionists recommend keeping a variety of oils on hand. The point is not what kind of oil you use but the amount.
In cooking, the main reason to use olive oil--high in monounsaturated fats--is the taste it gives foods such as salad dressings. Other oils, such as canola, safflower, corn and soybean oils, are all low in saturated fat and are best suited for preparations where flavor is not as important. Also stock a non-stick cooking spray.