After decades of eating mostly a plant-based diet, these are the basic staples I've learned to keep on hand for a variety of meals.
A lot of us grew up with meat and dairy center stage at the dining table – which can make reducing or removing animal products from one's diet somewhat challenging. But as we are learning more and more, the benefits of doing so are enormous, from significant human health benefits to not torching the mothership known as planet Earth. Plus, it's better for the animals, obviously.
Here's a game plan for stocking a plant-based kitchen in terms of major staples – obviously, fresh fruits and vegetables will be required as well ... and seasonings, and condiments, but you get the point.
1. Oat milkI have been looking for a non-dairy milk I like since I was 12 years old. Hemp milk came close, but oat milk stole my heart. It is healthy, doesn't have an awful environmental footprint, and it tastes great in everything, even coffee! No wonder it is taking the world by storm. You may prefer another type of alternative milk, but the idea is to find one you like to replace the cow milk in your refrigerator.
2. OatmealOatmeal is way more versatile than just morning hot porridge. It can be used for the world's easiest breakfast in overnight oats. And personally, a tiny bowl of oatmeal topped with blackstrap molasses has come to the rescue in fulfilling my afternoon-slump cookie needs. Oats can be used in making cookies, granola (here's how), muffins, et cetera, and can even be ground in a food processor into flour to supplement white flour when baking. As well, oats can be given a savory spin for breakfast, and are also a great binder when making bean/vegetable burgers.
3. Whole grainsWhole grains are one of our most important food items and should take the place of refined grains whenever possible. And that doesn't mean just brown rice. Think everything from stone-ground polenta and barley to less common grains like teff and amaranth. There are so many interesting and delicious grains out there – and they work wonderfully as a base for plant-based meals.
For a more comprehensive guide, see: 12 great whole grains to try.
4. Bean pastaIf you tried the first generation of whole wheat pastas and were scared away forever, I understand. They were not great; they were like the pasty grainy love children of cardboard and sawdust. But oh my goodness how far healthy pastas have come! There are some pretty great whole grain options, but chickpea pasta (Banza, in particular) is the one that has passed the test with my pasta-obsessed teenagers. It's packed with protein, fiber, iron and other nutrients – and it's totally palatable.
5. Nuts and nut buttersNuts and their butters are nutritional superstars and can be used in so many ways to add flavor, texture, and nutrients. Whole nuts can be eaten alone for a snack, and can be added to baked goods and pancakes, cereal, plant-based yogurt, salads, pilafs and grain dishes, and pasta dishes, to name just a few ways they can be used. Nut butters can similarly be added to baked goods and pancakes, cereal, and plant-based yogurt; as well as smoothies, salad dressings, and an entire world of sandwiches.
Bonus: seeds! 7 super seeds to add to your diet
6. Canned and dried beansHey, it wouldn't be a story on plant-based eating if we didn't invite beans to the party. Beans deserve a story on their own – and we've written a few of them:
- 20 things to do with chickpeas
- Everything to know about the amazing butter bean
- 8 reasons to eat a lot of beans
- When beans save dinner
- 4 ways to cook dried beans to perfection
- Chocolate hummus is shockingly good (recipe + nutrition facts)
7. Olive oilA diet without meat and dairy would be very sad without some other kinds of beautiful fats – enter olive oil. There are other lovely oils you can adopt too – avocado oil, coconut oil, nut oils – but olive oil is the queen in terms of flavor. A fragrant olive oil combined with Maldon sea salt makes butter obsolete; and dressing roasted and raw vegetables with it makes them even more satisfying than they already are.
8. Dried fruitsHaving a variety of unsweetened dried fruits around is great for a number of reasons. Like nuts, they can be added to all manner of things, from baked goods to yogurt and cereal. They add amazing flavor and texture to green salads, rice pilafs and grain salads, and peanut butter sandwiches. If you're avoiding white sugar, a small handful can satisfy a sweet tooth and sweeten a smoothie. We usually have raisins, dates, and mulberries on hand – but our local market has so many different kinds on the bulk section that we are always trying new ones too.
9. Umami bombsThis one's the money, people! If you're not cooking with meat, you will probably appreciate the secret weapons that deliver that elusive fifth taste of umami – the savory factor. These are more condiments than meal-builders, but they are essential. You don't need all of these, but here are some to try: Miso paste, soy sauce, dried shitake or other mushrooms, sea vegetables, sun-dried tomatoes, and nutritional yeast. For more on how to use them, most of them are described here:
- My favorite secret-weapon ingredients for plant-based cooking
- 6 ways to 'beef up' your vegetarian vegetable stock
10. Members of the allium familyTo say that one should have garlic and onions on hand may be a bit obvious, I know, I know. But I can't imagine a plant-based kitchen without them. They can be stored for a long time, so they are a pantry staple – and can turn very humble ingredients into something much more exciting. Like, pasta with olive oil ... eh. But spaghetti aglio e olio? YUM.
There is also more to the family than just mom and dad. There are leeks, scallions, chives, and shallots, which all can add wonderful layers of flavor to soups and other cooked meals. Shallots are one of my favorites because they are like subtle onions in a small package, meaning half an unused onion doesn't get lost in the back of my fridge. Leeks are heaven-sent and have a pretty good storage life in the refrigerator (up to two weeks). Green onions can be frozen; and chives are a great candidate for a pot on the windowsill (and if they bloom, please put the blossoms on top of a salad or pasta because they are edible and delicious).
For more ideas, see related stories below.