I’ve always been interested in what other people keep in their kitchens. A person’s staples can reflect one’s tastes, values, heritage, cooking style and enjoyment, and many times, his or her level of health and well being. As a nutrition counselor a few years ago, I would make trips to people’s houses and help them to elevate their kitchens with simple kitchen-makeovers. On my first visit ever, I felt like one of those HGTV hosts rolling up my sleeves and parachuting into peoples’ pantries to coach them on how to whip their kitchens into healthful shape. But immediately into the experience, I realized that the kitchen-owners themselves owned the show. Without fail, every person I visited knew what they needed to do to create an atmosphere conducive to their new lifestyles of healthier cooking and eating: more whole, single-ingredient foods for easy, from-scratch meals, and fewer prepackaged, highly processed items (keeping some favorite healthy snacks and treats for those ravenous, need-it-now, healthy “fast food” moments). The equation is simple: if you’ve got stuff around, you can always make a meal. And if you’ve got certain staples around, you can always make a healthy meal. It would typically take less than an hour to go through the cupboards, freezer, fridge and pantry, reading labels and expiration dates, and compiling boxes labeled for donations, composts, or trash-bin-goers. Sometimes the zeal of “letting go” took folks over, and I had to step in to actually save some oldies that were indeed goodies—dates, 5-minute couscous, fruit preserves, and even whole grain breads, to name a few. So all this considered, it would seem fitting that one of my favorite projects that I worked on for our African Heritage & Health Program was creating a Guide To Setting Up Your African Heritage Kitchen  (which accompanies our other guide to Setting Up Your Mediterranean Kitchen). These are wonderful aides to elevating your own kitchen. After drawing from our Committee’s research notes and outlining what an ideal African Heritage Kitchen might look like, I decided to take an inventory of my own. Where have all my nutrition studies, taste buds, and food traditions taken me? Here is a bird-eye-view of the staples I always keep on the shelves, in the bins, and near the stove for healthy cooking. In My Pantry Beans of every kind (low-sodium canned or dried) Quinoa, Brown Rice, and Couscous Light Coconut Milk (canned) Canned Chunk Light Tuna Garlic & Onions Coffee & Tea (for iced or hot) Basil, Saffron, Vanilla, Cinnamon, Sea Salt and Pepper Low-Sodium Vegetable Broth Agave Nectar and Honey Extra-virgin Olive Oil Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes Spelt Pasta Tomatoes (canned, paste, sauce) On My Kitchen Table A Fresh Fruit Bowl (always including avocados) A Bundle of Pumpkins and Squashes: I love having this edible bouquet as our centerpiece! Fresh Whole Grain Bread Fresh Potted Herbs (dill, basil, and mint) on our kitchen window sills Filtered Water Pitcher In My Refrigerator Hot Sauce and Salsa Hummus and Other “Smears” An Over-filled Veggie Bin Corn tortillas Olives Pickled Beets and Sweet-Pepper-Jelly Almond Milk Flaxseed Oil Natural Peanut or Almond Butter Leftovers! In My Freezer Frozen Homemade Pesto or Soups Frozen Fruit Frozen Lima Beans Dark Chocolate Nuts: Walnuts, Almonds, Cashews and Brazil Nuts Veggie Burgers A stocked kitchen is a smart kitchen. Changing my staples, item-by-item, over the years has truly changed my life, and these healthy shelf-items always give me that little bit of inspiration to cook when I don’t know what on earth to make. 

The New Year is a great time of year to give yourself a kitchen-makeover. 
What do you want in your pantry? Happy Cooking and Happy New Year! —Sarah

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