Stock Your Pantry: 10 Flavourful Kitchen Essentials for Healthy Meals

Make room in your pantry for these spices, sauces, oils and flavourings that'll give your meals an added boost of nutrients 

Credit: Merlijn Hoek

Sesame seeds add crunch to salads as a healthy alternative to croutons

The key to healthy cooking is, of course, healthy ingredients. But how do you get the flavour you want without all the fat, sugar and salt contained in commercial condiments?

Here are 10 natural sources of flavour and nutrients that will maximize deliciousness and minimize post-meal regret.

Many of these items you can now get in your local organic healthfood or Asian/ethnic food section your neighbourhood grocery store.

1. Coconut Oil
Great for high temperature cooking or when you don’t want an olive oil taste to your meal (e.g. Asian and Indian recipes do not go well with olives!) This oil is comprised primarily of medium-chain triglycerides, which the body uses to produce energy instead of storing it as fat. It also contains anti-fungal caprylic acid and high amounts of lauric acid – an antiviral and antibacterial fatty acid.

2. Olive Oil
Not only is this Mediterranean staple abundant in antioxidants, it also contains the highest percentage of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat of any edible oil. Purchase high quality olive oil that is certified organic—it should have a slightly green grassy and peppery flavour, and you will come to know the difference in quality in your salad dressings and low to medium high heat cooking.

3. Miso
Made primarily from soybeans, miso also contains rice, barley or other grains. It’s fermented and has beneficial bacteria, so you don’t want to boil it. It’s a great source of low-calorie protein (2g of protein in a 30 cal (2 tsp) serving). Use as a soup base, or try a teaspoon in salad dressings and gravies.

4. Tamari
Like miso, tamari is a fermented soy food, and it shares many of miso’s nutritional properties, though it is available without wheat and has less salt than soy sauce. It has a high concentration antioxidants.

5. Rice Wine Vinegar
Another essential ingredient for Asian cooking and salads, sauces and marinades, this vinegar refreshes the palate, aids digestion and is a great food preservative (think tart and vibrant pickled ginger). Brown rice vinegar has a high concentration of essential amino acids.

6. Apple Cider Vinegar
Made from fermented apples, apple cider vinegar adds a lot of potassium to salad dressing and sauces. It contains malic acid, which aids in digestion, so it’s acidic but, upon digestion, becomes alkaline forming.

7. Agave or Maple Syrup
Agave nectar is an excellent source of trace minerals and slow-release carbohydrate (90% fructose), so it doesn’t spike insulin. Use in place of other sweeteners and honey or maple syrup in baking.

8. Hemp Seeds
Sprinkle these on salads and hot cereal for some added protein.

9. Sesame Seeds
Sprinkle on greens for a healthy alternative to croutons.

10. Ume Plum Vinegar
For sprinkling on greens after cooking (increases absorption of vitamins, minerals and is nice and salty!) This is also a fantastic flavour enhancer; it really kicks up a soup/stew/sauce if it is missing something.

The following two items aren’t essential but make really fun additions to your kitchen:

Pomegranate Molasses
Very nice in salad dressings, meat marinades (especially lamb and beef) and barbeque sauces.

This seaweed is great for sautÈing in a little coconut oil and munching on, but it’s also wonderful sprinkled on salads in place of bacon (as if anything can replace bacon!) and on top of soups as a crispy, healthy garnish.

Both a naturopathic physician and chef, Dr. Heidi Lescanec is passionate about good food, nutrition and the art of creating nourishing and beautiful meals. She has cooked for backcountry lodges, retreat centres, the movie industry and at Hollyhock Retreat Centre on Cortes Island. Heidi offers workshops in Vancouver and on Cortes Island through the Hollyhock Foundation. For more info, check her website or

She will be teaching a class on gluten-free baking in Vancouver on June 30.