Forget deprivation — eating well is about balancing a variety of nutrient-dense foods so you never have to give up the treats you love. This month, we partnered with Mark Bittman for the upcoming release of his new book The VB6 Cookbook: More than 350 Recipes for Healthy Vegan Meals All Day and Delicious Flexitarian Dinners at Night. Here’s the idea: eat completely vegan until 6 p.m. — that means breakfast, lunch and snacks — and then at dinner, eat what you want. Here, we asked Mark for his top pantry staples to keep on hand for cooking healthy meals. Read on for his tips below!
The most important element of cooking my way is the VB6 pantry, which includes both perishable and long-storage ingredients. These foods are grouped according to the VB6 principles: Unlimited, Flexible, and Treats.
Unlimited Foods are the backbone of VB6, the fruits and vegetables you can and should eat freely throughout the day. Flexible Foods include all plant-based oils and the fruits and vegetables that tend to have more protein and calories and less water by weight, the satisfying foods you eat in moderation. Treats are what you eat after 6:00 p.m., the meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy ingredients you might cook every day, as well as limited amounts of the junk you’ll find yourself craving less and less.
Don’t feel like you have to buy everything on this list right away; many items are interchangeable with others in their group. (For instance, if you don’t have quinoa, you can always substitute brown rice.) But aim to stock at least one ingredient from each group to start. As your repertoire and interests expand, you’ll find new ingredients— grains, legumes, fruits, whatever—that will become favorites and you’ll begin to substitute those you like best for those you like less. This is especially true with vegetables, where virtually everything in the same group is interchangeable.
Generally, try to buy items from bulk bins so you can get as much or as little as you need. (And: store grains, when you can, in the freezer or fridge; they’ll keep much longer that way.) There are some packaged, canned, and jarred ingredients on this list, too; but always pay attention to the labels so you have some idea what you’re getting.
Finally, the if-you’ve-got-it-you’ll-eat-it theory works both ways: Keep junk within arm’s reach and you’ll likely grab it. Getting rid of that stuff makes eating it a nonissue. Many parents say they stock chips, cookies, microwaveable snacks, packaged pudding, and frozen pizzas for the kids, but then everyone ends up eating them. Instead of raising your kids on the SAD diet, think about getting them excited about the way you’ll be eating, and allowing them to learn by the example you’re setting. End of lecture. On to the specifics:
The Unlimited Pantry: These start with aromatics, the staples that make everything else taste better (and are sometimes good on their own): onions, garlic, ginger, shallots, carrots, and celery, for example. Then there are vegetables that last for weeks in the fridge: most cabbages (including Brussels sprouts) and root vegetables. Sweet potatoes and winter squash are also keepers, best stored in a cool, dry, dark place like a cabinet—or in the fridge if there’s room. Many other vegetables, like zucchini, radishes, broccoli, and cauliflower, will last a week in the fridge. Frozen vegetables complete the picture, and make prep a snap. (Some beans—like lima, fava, and black-eyed peas—are sold frozen, too.) And for fruit: All citrus lasts for weeks in the fridge, as do apples and pears. Buy more perishable items—like lettuce—as needed.
- Fresh herbs
- Spices, chiles, and dried herbs
- Non-sugary condiments
- Canned tomatoes
- Other preserved foods
The Flexible Pantry: This is where the handful of starchy or fatty fruits and vegetables live, along with beans, whole grains, rice, whole-grain pastas, oils, nuts and seeds, and minimally processed sources of vegetable protein like nondairy milks and tofu. Dried beans are good for a year or more in your pantry. They tend to lose moisture as they sit, which means older beans take longer to cook. Frozen beans keep for a few months; fresh must be cooked within a week or so. Store brown rice and whole grains in tightly sealed containers in the pantry or, if you’re slow to use them, keep in the fridge or freezer to prolong their freshness. Store oils you use most often at room temperature in an airtight bottle or jar in small quantities, ideally in a dark, cool place. Keep the ones you don’t use much (or any large quantities you might have) in the fridge. Store all nuts and seeds in the fridge or freezer to prolong their freshness, and take out small quantities as you need them.
- Brown rice and whole grains
- The handful of flexible vegetables (including avocados, corn and potatoes)
- Olive oil and other oils
- Nuts and seeds
- Pastas and noodles
- Tofu or silken tofu
- Coconut, almond, oat, soy, or other non-dairy milk
- Baking ingredients
The Treat Pantry: The arrival of dusk isn’t a license to go crazy and concoct a meal of junk. A VB6 dinner is based on ingredients from the Unlimited Foods group, augmented with moderate amounts of those from the Flexible Foods group, and enhanced with a little something from the lists that follow. Eggs should be kept in a cold part of the fridge (not the door); they should keep for as long as four to five weeks beyond the pack date or at least a week past their sell-by date. Store cheeses in parchment or wax paper and then in a plastic or airtight container; as long as they’re kept free from moisture and air, they can last for weeks if not months in the fridge. Keep dairy products, as well as fish, shellfish, poultry, and meat, in the coldest part of the fridge. Store starches and dried fruits in airtight containers in the pantry.
- Meat, eggs, dairy, and fish
- “White” flour, pasta, rice, and noodles
- Dried fruit
- Sweetened condiments