Ever wonder what healthy kitchen staples your doctor keeps in their refrigerator and pantry? Health Matters spoke with Dr. Alka Gupta, co-founder and medical director of Integrative Health and Wellbeing at NewYork-Presbyterian, in collaboration with Weill Cornell Medicine, to find out what food items she keeps in her kitchen on a daily basis.
“When it comes to my kitchen, I focus on keeping plenty of whole foods around, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats,” says Dr. Gupta, an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Nutrition plays a large role in many of the health problems we see today, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and even some types of cancer.”
Because people eat and drink many times in a day, Dr. Gupta says, it’s important to keep in mind how these choices can affect our health. “Inflammation has been linked to many illnesses. We know that foods can be pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory — so, by optimizing what we eat and drink every day, we have the opportunity to improve our health both in the short term and in the long term.”
Read on for her go-to kitchen items and helpful hints for how to stock your kitchen to encourage healthy eating habits.
What food staples are always in your kitchen?
Oils: Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and grapeseed oil — the former for drizzling and lighter cooking, the latter for higher-heat cooking. Different oils have different smoke points, so despite the great benefits of olive oil, it’s not a good one to use for high-heat cooking. I use EVOO for drizzling on salads and steamed vegetables, and I use grapeseed oil or another oil with a high smoke point to sauté.
Spices: Salt, pepper, cumin, coriander, cayenne, and pre-minced garlic are my go-tos.
Foods: A variety of fibrous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and fresh greens, eggs, oat milk, almond/peanut butter (with the only ingredient being the nut), beans, lentils, quinoa, lemon juice, and sparkling water.
When you visit the grocery store, what items are always on your list?
My grocery list consists of:
Pre-minced garlic — I love bold flavors, and this adds flavor to any quick sauté, without the prep work.
Vegetables — asparagus, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts are almost always in my fridge. If I know it’s going to be a busy week, I’ll get some of these pre-cut so I can just toss them in a steamer basket or a pan.
Canned chickpeas or black beans
Wild salmon — I usually cook this a couple of times a month, and I’ll try to buy the salmon the same day I plan to prepare it.
If we were to take a peek right now inside your fridge and pantry, what would we find?
In my fridge right now, I have:
Simple syrup and mint leaves, for cocktails when we have friends over!
Let’s face it, if it’s a Monday, there are probably leftovers from a weekend takeout/food delivery order, likely Thai food or Indian kati rolls!
By the stove, I keep:
The spices I use on a daily basis: cayenne, turmeric, cumin seeds, coriander, salt, pepper
In my pantry:
Dried beans and green lentils, red kidney beans
Chickpeas, either dry or canned
Brown basmati rice
Lots of different teas: ginger, peppermint, green teas
Even more spices, the ones I don’t use as frequently, such as cinnamon, cloves, star anise, and parsley
What are some appliances you use to make food preparation quick and healthy?
I use these all the time:
Steamer basket — this can be put into almost any pot with a lid to quickly steam vegetables. My No. 1 suggestion!
Instant Pot — to quickly pressure cook things that usually take a long time, like dried beans, lentils, and brown rice
Bottom line: You don’t need all of these, but if you find the time and effort the most limiting parts of cooking (as I do), these appliances can be game-changing.
What healthy foods do you keep on hand to satisfy a craving for something sweet and salty?
Personally, I favor salty foods. Here’s what I snack on when I need to satisfy a craving:
Veggies and hummus
Multigrain chips and salsa
Cheese and crackers (I have to pay attention to portion size on this one!)
If you favor sweet foods, here are some healthy options:
Yogurt and berries
Apple or celery (or another vegetable or fruit) with almond butter or peanut butter
If someone was trying to do a “food re-haul” of their kitchen, what foods would you advise to always have on hand?
During any re-haul — whether it’s your closet or your fridge — the first step is removal. Remove anything expired and anything with unwanted or unnecessary ingredients. For example, breads or other foods with many grams of added sugars, nut butters with added sugars, and packaged or frozen foods with lots of preservatives. Make sure there’s a system to how your pantry and fridge are organized and that you can see everything in your pantry.
Here’s what I advise to have on hand: Anything that will make it easier for you to eat healthy. For instance, for those who don’t cook very often, keep frozen vegetables and fruit on hand. Frozen food retains its high nutritional value, allowing you to cook less frequently while still benefiting from healthy ingredients.
For those who are vegetarian or vegan or don’t go to the grocery store that often (like me), you may want to stock your pantry with proteins that are nutrient-rich and last a really long time, like dried beans, lentils, and chickpeas. If you’re using canned beans, just rinse them a few times with water before adding them to your dish. This gets rid of most of the preservatives.
I always suggest having one or two healthy snacks on hand that you actually enjoy. It’s difficult to make good food and drink choices if you’re famished. So, if you’re waiting on your spouse or partner to get home before cooking or waiting to go out to eat, I suggest a small snack to avoid that situation. Have a handful of almonds or a piece of fruit with a nut butter to hold you over.
What advice do you have for those trying to eat healthier in general?
We develop our relationship with food at a very young age, and it’s a huge part of our culture. This makes it hard to change! For that reason, I suggest making slow changes in a deliberate and sustainable way, rather than drastic changes that won’t last. You don’t have to overhaul everything at once. I usually work with my patients to identify what those one or two highest-impact changes will be, to make realistic goals, and guide them to long-lasting change.
Alka Gupta, M.D., is the co-founder and medical director of the Integrative Health and Wellbeing at NewYork-Presbyterian, in collaboration with Weill Cornell Medicine, and an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. Her interest in integrative and internal medicine began at a young age and is rooted in the concept of food as medicine. She believes that prevention and a healthy lifestyle should be at the forefront of healthcare, and she works to bring these principles into practice.