In my nutrition workshops I rather go on about how the quality of the food we eat is important for not only its taste but also its capacity to optimise health. For many ingredients that means the finest fresh and raw ingredients available to us. However, fresh and raw isn’t always available, or even desirable. For example, in the winter I’d rather use a tin of ruby red Italian tomatoes for a sauce than fresh but utterly insipid tomatoes, chosen from a chilly supermarket pyramid. And, do you forgo a last-minute lip-tingling curry for lack of fresh lime leaves and lemongrass? Of course not. So, without apology I give you my store-cupboard staples, ostensibly for those undergoing treatment for cancer, but really it’s for anyone.
Use this list to give you ideas of what to keep in your store-cupboard, fridge and freezer, not as a list to follow slavishly. What I’ve written here is certainly not exhaustive. As soon as I’ve published this I will undoubtedly come across something else in the dark recesses of my pantry that I deem ‘must-have’. Maybe add items onto this list that you think you should keep around but don’t appear here. It might be an idea to write up your own roster of foods and stick it on your fridge for consulting as you cook and shop.
When looking for likely nutritious foodstuffs to keep handy, or stock up on regularly, try and get things as close to how nature made them – ingredients you would use if you were making the product yourself, or at least ingredients that you recognise as proper food. Also, if you are buying an ingredient for the first time try and get packs with directions and a recipe. A simple thing to do, but oh so useful and reassuring.
I think this is a rather good list but I know that some of you may want a bit more embellishment. Once I get my thinking cap on I will put together a descriptive list of ‘favourite things’, covering best oils, flours, spices and the like, as well as great kitchen paraphernalia to keep you inspired in the kitchen.
Beans and pulses: dried, tinned and ‘pouch’ legumes and pulses, such as chickpeas, borlotti beans, black beans, aduki beans, flageolet beans, red lentils, brown lentils, Puy lentils. Pressure cookers are fantastic at speeding up the cooking process of dried beans. It’s a good idea to do a larger batch of beans than you need as they freeze really well. With tinned beans drain and rinse thoroughly before using.
Breads: rye, pumpernickel, spelt, sourdough (it naturally contains probiotics which help the gut and it’s kinder to blood sugar levels than many other breads), mixed grain wholemeal breads. Try a different type of bread every once in awhile. Some people feel they eat too many products with wheat so one could buy a wheat-based bread and a non-wheat one and use half through the week and put the rest in the freezer. Wholemeal pitta bread and chapatti bread are great to keep in the pantry. If your digestion is iffy due to treatment be kind to yourself and stick with the refined white stuff.
Snacks: wholegrain crackers/biscuits, unpopped popcorn (the microwave stuff is too fatty and salty), oatcakes made with olive oil (e.g. Patterson’s brand), oat biscuits (plain, berry, ginger, e.g. Nairns), multi-grain Ryvita, ‘Dr Karg’s’ cracker breads, rice cakes (dark chocolate covered ones from Kallo are scrummy), good quality muesli-type bars (check the ingredient’s list for fat and sugar), nut butters (like pumpkin seed and almond), no-added sugar jams, olives, unsalted nuts and seeds (mixed seed packs are great – dry-toast in a fry pan for extra taste), quality dried fruits (preferably ‘unsulphured’), good quality dark chocolate (can be used for baking or nibbling). If you are losing weight keep some good quality energy bars to hand (see Help With Gaining Weight).
Grains: Wholemeal and white pasta, brown rice, brown and white basmati rice, Arborio rice (for risottos and rice puddings), quinoa, millet, pot barley, couscous, whole oats, barley and rye flakes (the latter two you use as you would oats but with a longer cooking time), brown rice noodles and buckwheat (soba) noodles (the last two for Asian meals and salads). For ultra quick meals I keep a pack of ‘straight to wok’ noodles. If you like to bake keep organic unbleached white flour (plain and self-raising), wholemeal plain and self-raising flours (a mix of half white and half wholemeal is sometimes more easily eaten by children and those with iffy digestion). Other flours to keep, depending on your fondness for baking, are spelt, rye, chickpea (gram) and buckwheat flours, cornmeal/maizemeal (great for gluten-free breads and cakes), ‘strong’ breadflours of various types. I use polenta and semolina in baking to add texture although they are more commonly used as you would other grains.
Oils: Quality olive oil (not extra virgin) and rapeseed oil for general cooking; other nut and seed oils for drizzling and moistening food – sesame, walnut, argan and pumpkin seed are delicious (keep all oils in a dark cool place). Extra virgin olive oil is considered the healthiest oil but should not be used for high-temperature frying; use for sautéing (medium flame), roasting, dressings and to ‘dress’ cooked dishes. Quality oils are an easy and unchallenging way to add calories and fat into a ‘build-up’ diet.
Other dry goods: unrefined sugar, muscovado sugar, cornflour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, low-sodium soy sauce or dark soy sauce (less salty than light kind), sesame seed paste (tahini), quality vanilla extract, mustards, Marmite, curry paste, low-sodium salt and/or sea salt, regular and sun-dried tomato paste, cider vinegar, quality balsamic vinegar, Marigold Reduced-salt Vegetable Bouillon powder, dried mushrooms, miso paste, silken tofu. Agave syrup and Xylitol are low-GI table sugar alternatives that are safe to use. All-fruit jam and fruit compotes are good to add to yogurt, meringues and with small pieces of cake (instead of cream). If you are having trouble keeping weight on keep some dried milk powder to enrich milky drinks, soups, mashed potatoes and sauces (see Help With Gaining Weight). Breakfast cereals are fortified with calcium and Vitamin D so are useful if you are at risk of osteoporosis.
Dried herbs and spices: herbs de Provence/mixed herbs, oregano, thyme, rosemary, turmeric, chilli powder, chilli flakes, cayenne pepper, paprika, coriander, nutmeg, dill, fennel seeds, mint, cumin, allspice, cinnamon and cardamom. I keep an embarrassing amount of spices and herbs, but these are the basics.
Tinned foods: chopped tomatoes, passatta, sweetcorn, sardines and anchovies in olive oil, organic baked beans and other tins of beans, quality tuna in brine or olive oil, antipasti (peppers, artichokes, mushrooms, tomatoes – great to add to quick dishes), tomato sauce, a couple of quality organic cooking sauces (e.g. tomato sauce, korma sauce), dried mushrooms, pomegranate molasses (great for sweet-sour taste in dips, salad dressings, marinades and even goes in soda water as a palate-cleansing cordial!).
Drinks: tap and occasional glass bottled water, loose leaf green tea and black tea (more antioxidants than bags), herbal and redbush/Rooibosh teas, quality coffee, herbal cordial syrups for diluting with tap or sparkling, calcium-fortified long-life soy milk, oat, nut and rice milk (whatever is your preference). Ginger-infused hot water, with a touch of honey, makes a tummy-soothing drink.
Purchase organic versions of milk, milk products such as butter, kefir, yogurt and crème fraiche, eggs, red and ‘white’ meats and soya products whenever possible.
Eggs are a must for any non-vegan fridge – nutritious, versatile, easy to digest.
Dairy: skimmed or whole milk products (depending on your weight status), or dairy-free alternatives, e.g. low-fat soft cheese/cottage cheese, ‘live’ yogurt or kefir (if you are on chemo you have probably been advised to avoid live and bio products); good quality butter.
Tofu: plain, marinated, smoked and as tempeh. Watch the fat and salt in soya products such as burgers, sausages and the like: just because it’s soya doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Not by a long shot. Those with oestrogen positive cancer should limit the use of soya products, unless advised otherwise by your doctor.
Fresh fish: all fish but especially mackerel, trout, salmon, whitebait, sardines, herring. If you like fish, have it two or three times a week, with at least one being oily. Limit smoked fish to an occasional treat.
Meat: make it lean and best-quality. Wild game, when in season, is a low-saturated fat, low-cholesterol, high-protein choice. Choose free range or organic chicken and turkey whenever possible.
Ready meals: keep a couple on hand when you are going through treatment or any time you are low in energy. Get the best quality and the most like you would make yourself. Try and have something fresh or unprocessed with your ready meal, such as peas, a small salad, fruit afterwards. Ready meals are good for tasty calories but not for nutrients or fibre. If you are in the UK, New Covent Garden Soups are a must-have standby during treatment – as close to homemade as I’ve found.
Fruits, vegetables and fresh herbs: Best quality, largely in season, organic if a good choice (and good price) is available. Variety and quality are more important than whether or not produce is organic. Apples, potatoes, tomatoes, bagged salads and carrots are among the most heavily sprayed produce. Aim for a variety of colours and tastes but not so much that it will end up in the bin. Choose red, blue/purple, orange, green, yellow and brown/white (like onions and swedes) every day, or over the course of two days. Although not colourful, garlic and ginger should be used as often as you like, digestion and taste buds permitting. Try and eat green veg every day, whether raw, lightly cooked, in soup or as a juice. If you are eating poorly while on treatment, make a fresh juice in a juicer, or smoothie in a blender, to easily get the nutrients you may be lacking.
Frozen vegetable/fruits: individually and as mixed packs. The most useful are peas, sweetcorn, chopped onions, onions, beans (Tesco and Waitrose have a good selection of frozen beans/legumes),‘medley’ vegetable packs (the Birds’ Eye packs are excellent), leaf spinach, herb packs, root vegetable packs such as swede and parsnip, butternut squash; all berries except strawberries. Most large shops have a decent selection of natural (i.e. not battered or sauced) fruits and vegetables to choose from.
Natural fish fillets: mackerel, salmon, trout, cod, coley, hake, etc. I always try and have a bag of prawns too.
Meals: frozen ready meals are handy for those undergoing treatment. There are some good quality meals in most large supermarkets, and because they are cold-preserved no artificial additives are needed. Many people find that during treatment their tastes and appetite change from day to day; freezer meals can help provide quick and plentiful choice. You might have gone off meat for now so it’s good to know that vegetarian and ‘healthy’ meals have gone mainstream so there is a plethora of choice. But do mind the fat and additives: vegetarian does not always equal good for you. It is also great to make double recipes of meals and soups yourself and freeze some for other meals. Seasonal vegetables that you have prepared (blanched) yourself are useful – and cheap – out of season.
Other: phyllo pastry dough, wholemeal and all-butter ‘white’ pastry (check for hydrogenated fat) – if you make homemade, do a double batch and freeze some. Crushed, natural pineapple kept in the freezer is helpful if you are having taste changes. Nuts, gingerroot, cheese and breadcrumbs also keep very well in the freezer, as does mashed potato (useful when a bland or low-fibre diet is needed). Smoothie bars and fresh fruit juice bars are incredibly refreshing to off-kilter tastebuds.