Welcome to the second installment of Low Carb Cooking Class, a.k.a. LC3.
As I explained in the intro post, we’re starting things off with what is probably the most important lesson: how to stock your kitchen so that you can have delicious low carb meals ready quickly and with no need for advance planning. I realize that, as a single and childless individual, my notions of how simple it is to prepare food is approximately seventeen million lightyears away from what moms and/or dads of large families experience. That being said, I still have never understood some people’s certainty that they are incapable of sticking to a certain type of diet—be it Paleo, low-carb, keto, or anything else—without a “meal plan.” Even the phrase “meal plan” makes me cringe. It’s as bad as nails on a chalkboard for me.
I refuse to do meal plans for clients. I’m sorry, but you are a grown adult and I am not going to tell you what to have for lunch three Tuesdays from now. What I will do, and love to do, is show people how easy it is to stay low carb without a meal plan. (As they say, instead of cooking a fish for someone, I prefer to teach them to fish.) When you have a basic understanding of what to cook and how to cook it, you don’t need an instruction manual. (I did say this isn’t rocket science, yes?)
BUT: The thing is, even if you know what to cook and how to cook it, you can’t cook it if you don’t have it. So that’s what today’s post is about: what to keep on hand in your kitchen so that, when it’s mealtime and the house (or your life in general) is in chaos, the one thing you won’t have to stress over is what to make for dinner. (Or breakfast or lunch.)
Think of your kitchen—and the food in it—like a wardrobe.
Ladies: whatever your size or shape, you likely have a “go-to” dress for special occasions that is flattering and always makes you feel good. You also have a wide variety of shirts, pants, skirts, shoes, and accessories to choose from, so that no matter what your day holds, you can put together an appropriate outfit in minutes.
Gents: you probably have at least one or two good black, dark blue, or gray suits hanging in the closet ready to go at a moment’s notice. (Or maybe with one or two days’ notice to run to the dry cleaners, hehheh.) You also have athletic shoes, dress shoes, sandals, and maybe a sports watch, dress watch, nice pair of cufflinks, etc. You’ve got some dress shirts, jackets, ties, casual weekend wear, and the old, ratty T-shirt you wear to fix the car or clean the gutters. Because you have articles of clothing that “cover all the bases,” creating a look suitable for any occasion is a snap.
Having this variety of clothing on hand makes it very easy to find an appropriate outfit for any occasion that comes up. You don’t have to go shopping for something new every time life throws you a curveball, because these things are already in your closet. Start thinking about your fridge, freezer, and pantry the same way.
Let’s talk staples:
Staples—whether we’re talking about clothing or food—are the things you go to over and over, frequently, and pretty much couldn’t live without. For clothing, maybe it’s the pair of jeans you’ve had for four years and still wear three times a week, or the flattering black skirt you can pair with just about anything, so you do, about six times a month. Fellas, it’s the selection of khaki pants and dress shirts you have as your “work wardrobe.” Ladies, it’s the pumps you own that are actually comfortable, so you wear them all the time. This kind of stuff makes up the bulk of your clothing.
For food, staples are your go-to items. The tried-and-true. The things you can serve again and again, spiced and seasoned a hundred different ways so it seems like a completely different meal each time and no one gets bored.
Now, let’s talk add-ons:
In addition to the staples, there’s the extra stuff. For clothing, beyond your everyday go-to items, you’ve got dressier clothes and accessories for when an occasion calls for those, and you’ve got some old, worn out, stained stuff that you keep around for performing chores that are particularly heinous and likely to have you getting filthy and/or sweaty. So there’s some stuff you want to have on hand because you use it all the time, and there’s also some stuff you use much less frequently, but which is still good to have tucked away somewhere so that when the opportunity or necessity to wear it comes up, you already have it.
It’s exactly the same with food.
The foods that make up your staples and add-ons should be determined, obviously, by your and/or your family’s taste preferences and food allergies/sensitivities. All I can do is share the things that happen to be my staples and special add-ons. Don’t like sardines? Don’t buy sardines. Like I keep saying: not rocket science. (Man, I wish that domain hadn’t been taken!) As for why these particular items are permanent residents of my freezer, fridge, and pantry, that will be revealed over time, once we start talking about constructing meals. You’ll see all of these things make an appearance at some point.
Don’t like the staples & add-ons analogy? I’ve got another one, but I’m afraid it’s also clothing related. How about “foundations” and “extras?” This probably applies more to women than men, but bear with me: when you’re getting dressed, there are certain things that are pretty non-negotiable: shirt, pants (or skirt), shoes. Socks are nice most of the time, unless it’s summer and you’re wearing sandals. (Men: STOP WEARING SOCKS WITH SANDALS. Just stop. Now.) Underwear and a bra are usually a pretty good idea, too, although they’re not required. (Eek!) Foundation pieces are the things that do the majority of the work: shirt, pants, dress, skirt, shorts. Once you’ve got those foundational pieces covering your top and bottom within general social convention or your workplace dress code, you use the extras to jazz things up a little: a chunky bracelet, a “statement” necklace, a nice pair of earrings. For the men, maybe it’s a class ring, a nice tie, or some snazzy suspenders or cufflinks. (Or maybe earrings, a necklace, and a bracelet…it’s all good! I’m just saying it’s more common for these to apply to women.)
My point: your outfit starts with the foundations. If you wore nothing else but those, you’d be able to go out in public and look just fine. But if you want to stand out a little, you add the extras. Same with cooking. To use the example from the tweet that inspired this series: Foundations: ground beef, onions, zucchini. Extras: salt, pepper, tikka masala powder, and additional turmeric. I could have cooked the beef and vegetables with nothing else—no seasoning at all—and it would have been okay. Definitely edible, if a little bland. But with the addition of the spices, it was delicious. It took something that someone else might have found boring and uninspired, and elevated it to something that looked, smelled, and tasted exotic, and like I knew what I was doing. Making low carb meals that you and your friends/family will love is really that simple.
Here’s a look at what I generally have on hand in my kitchen. As I’ve said, I’m single and have no kids. Since I usually only cook for one, I don’t have all of these things on hand all the time. (Plus, with multiple housemates, there’s only so much room in the fridge and pantry anyway.) But if you were to sneak into my house and take a look around, you would find several of the following at any given time:
- Ground beef
- Ground pork (and/or loose sausage)
- Ground turkey
- Sausage grillers (the thick sausages – like a Bratwurst, chorizo, or Andouille, as opposed to the smaller and thinner breakfast links; I prefer pork, but use whatever you like—beef, chicken, etc. – Trader Joe’s has some great turkey & chicken sausages that are low in carbs.)
- Steaks (whatever cut you like)
- Pork chops
- Salmon, tuna, other finfish
- Ground lamb or lamb sausage (when I feel spendy)
- Vegetables (plain, no sauce or breading) – I almost always prefer fresh vegetables, but sometimes I have frozen Brussels sprouts, broccoli, or spinach on hand
- Lard; tallow
- Bacon fat (reserved from cooking bacon; use for sautéing greens, frying eggs, etc.)
- Cheese (an assortment)
- Eggs – consider keeping 2-3 dozen on hand; you will go through them quickly, so save yourself the trouble of having to run to the store so often. Ignore the dates on the cartons. They are basically meaningless. Eggs keep for a long time. (If you get them from a farm, you might even be able to get unwashed eggs, which don’t have to be refrigerated at all!)
- Heavy cream or half and half
- Non-starchy vegetables: my staple selections differ depending on the season. During summer, I tend to stick to zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant (I prefer the common “globe” variety but also get more interesting ones from the farmers’ market), bell peppers (all colors: red, green, yellow, orange), cucumber, lettuce (different varieties), spinach. And then there are some veg that don’t need to be kept in the fridge, but it’s just easier to list them here with the other veg anyway: onions (red, white, and yellow), tomatoes (lots of different colors & varieties – tomatoes are actually best not refrigerated.) Depending on what’s on sale, I also love broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
- Low-sugar lunch meat (cold cuts), such as turkey and roast beef, plus “fancier” ones, like prosciutto
- Condiments: mustard (I’m a bit of a mustard freak and usually have several on hand: Dijon, horseradish, spicy brown), homemade ketchup (or sometimes this one from Heinz or this one from Westbrae, available at Whole Foods), blue cheese dressing, homemade or store-bought vinaigrettes. If you are not a mayonnaise addict like I am and can keep some in the house without eating ridiculous amounts of it in one sitting, mayo is good to have in stock.
- Canned fish: tuna, salmon, sardines, mackerel. Stock up when they’re on sale; they won’t go bad, and they’re an excellent snack or part of a meal. (If you want to shell out for the best quality stuff, feel free to use my affiliate link for Vital Choice seafood, but I promise I’ll still love ya if you just get whatever’s on sale at the supermarket.)
- Nuts & seeds: all nuts & seeds are fine, but go easy on peanuts and cashews, as these are technically legumes and are slightly higher in carbs than tree nuts. They also seem to be much easier to overdo than stuff like almonds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, and pecans, at least for me. (Consider keeping nuts & seeds in the fridge if you don’t think you’ll get through them in a timely manner. [The oils can turn rancid if they sit around for a while, but this takes a long time. I have the magical power of making nuts disappear quickly, so I never have this problem.])
- Coconut oil
- Coconut milk
- Canned tomatoes: I always keep a variety on hand—crushed, whole, diced, stewed, plain, fire-roasted, with green chilies, etc.
- Canned curry pastes (I like this brand; some have sugar in the ingredients, but the amount that you end up with in one serving of whatever dish you make is very small.)
- Olive oil
(or avocado oil, if you prefer)Haha!Just kidding…
- Toasted sesame oil (for occasional stir-frying or finishing…*gasp!*…She uses sesame oil?! With all those PUFAs? Yes. Yes, I do.)
- Tomato sauce (read labels for carb content; some are around 8g per serving, but a serving is half a cup, and you’re unlikely to eat that much for one meal)
- Assortment of vinegars: apple cider, red wine, balsamic (check out how awesome vinegar is)
- Salt & pepper (I prefer my pepper freshly ground, so I’ve got a grinder with whole peppercorns in it. I’m not a food snob by any means; it really does make that big a difference and if you’re using the powdered stuff in the white tin, you might as well not even bother.)
- Dried and/or powdered spices & herbs: I’ll have more info on what to do with these in an upcoming installment, but here are the ones I always have on hand: cinnamon, cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes, cumin, sage, thyme, chili powder, basil, oregano, curry powder (yes, in addition to the curry pastes mentioned above), turmeric, cocoa powder. There are some blends I like, too: McCormick’s Montreal Chicken is great, as is Roasted Garlic & Bell Pepper. There are a ton of other varieties; find ones you like, but be careful with their dry rubs and other blends; some are high in sugar. (There are some ingredients I prefer to always use fresh—specifically, garlic and rosemary—but there’s no shame in using garlic powder and dried rosemary if that’s easier for you)
- Artificial sweeteners, if desired (I mostly use stevia in my coffee but have no problem using Splenda or Sweet & Low if necessary. *Gasp!* She uses artificial sweeteners?! Yes. Yes, I do. [Also see here.])
- Pork rinds (a great snack on their own or with homemade dip from sour cream, cream cheese, or guacamole; can also be used as “breading” for chicken breasts, pork chops, and more) – yes, I feel like Al Bundy from Married…With Children, when I eat these. ;D
- Dark chocolate (85% or higher)
- Canned pumpkin: 100% pumpkin – not sweetened pumpkin pie mix
Whew! That’s a long list!
I don’t eat all these things every day. Like I said: these are the things I like to have on hand most of the time so that a delicious and easy low carb meal is only minutes away. Fine-tune things as appropriate for your palate. The point is, you can’t make quick meals if you don’t have the basic raw materials on hand to do so.
As for what to do with these ingredients, we’ve got two more posts to establish some basics, and then it’s on to THE FOOD.
P.S. Did I miss anything glaring? Is there something you consider a low carb staple that you’re shocked I didn’t mention? Tell me in the comments. I’m always on the lookout for good ideas.
Disclaimer: Amy Berger, MS, CNS, NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition and is not to be used as a substitute for the care and guidance of a physician. Links in this post and all others may direct you to amazon.com, where I will receive a small amount of the purchase price of any items you buy through my affiliate links.