Healthy Pantry Essentials for Family-Friendly, Low-Sugar Cooking
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Healthy Pantry Essentials for Family-Friendly, Low-Sugar Cooking

Hidden sugar, be gone! With just six staples, you’ll be on your way to healthier breakfasts, snacks, dinners, and desserts.

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When it comes to stocking our kitchen cabinets with packaged granola bars, dried pasta, canned tuna, and boxes of convenient cereal and baking mixes, we’ve had a lot of practice in the art of off-the-cuff meals in the last few months. But Jennifer Tyler Lee, mother of two and co-author of the cookbook Half the Sugar, All the Love, says with a little bit of creativity, it’s possible to take our pantry-planning a step further. By focusing on just six easy-to-find pantry staples, we can cook healthy, low-sugar meals without sacrificing flavor.

Informed by years of developing recipes for her award-winning cookbooks, Tyler Lee shares her must-have healthy pantry items: canned and frozen fruits and veggies, nuts and seed butters, dark chocolate, Medjool dates, spices, and nuts and seeds.

“These ingredients are really the keys to cooking with less sugar,” says Tyler Lee, who showcases their versatility in recipes throughout her cookbook and teaches virtual cooking classes. “And the key to improving our health is through cooking,” she says. “You don’t have to cook something complex to make a healthy difference. Everyone can make just one small change.”

Inspired by Tyler Lee’s shopping list of healthy pantry essentials, we’ve compiled a collection of low-sugar, family-friendly recipes for every meal to round out your rotation of (is-it-over-yet?) quarantine cooking.

1. Canned and frozen fruits and veggies

"The secret to cooking with less sugar is using fiber-rich fruits and veggies," says Tyler Lee, a nutrition expert with a certificate from Cornell University. She especially recommends stashing bananas, strawberries, and pineapples in the freezer, plus canned goods such as pumpkin or sweet potatoes in the pantry. “I use pureed sweet potatoes and pumpkin to develop natural sweetness and flavor without added sugar,” she says. Bonus: Strawberries are especially high in vitamin C, and sweet potatoes and pumpkins are great sources of fiber and vitamin A.

Pineapple Smoothie

Jumpstart your morning with this tropical pineapple smoothie bursting with bananas and mango. Whipped together in minutes, this healthy, creamy concoction is easy enough for older kids to make on their own. As the star ingredient, pineapple packs a nutritious punch, loaded with vitamin C and manganese. Vitamin C is essential for supporting a healthy immune system, while manganese helps maintain metabolism and has antioxidant properties. In lieu of mangoes, you could substitute frozen strawberries for a refreshing twist and an extra dose of vitamin C. 

Healthy Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins

For a quick, tasty breakfast you can prepare ahead, cozy up to a chilly morning with these pumpkin chocolate chip muffins made from whole wheat flour, rolled oats, and canned pumpkin puree. Pumpkin is a low-calorie superstar with lots of antioxidant-rich beta-carotene (hence its brilliant orange color). For an even healthier option, use quality dark chocolate chips rather than mini milk chocolate chips to reap the benefits of added fiber and minerals. 

2. Nut and seed butters

“Nut butters are a great way to add natural sweetness and flavor to everything from smoothies to cookies and granolas,” says Tyler Lee, who includes unsweetened nut butters in her pantry staples. The truth is, we often consume more added sugar on a daily basis than we should. “Added sugar shows up in all kinds of places,” she says, listing juice, packaged crackers and cookies, and even salad dressings and soups as examples. If nut allergies are an issue, she suggests sunflower seed butter or tahini as alternatives. 

Thai Chicken Lettuce Wraps

Similar in concept to tacos, these colorful lettuce wraps burst with fresh fruit and veggies. But the nutritious almond butter and cashews are what elevates this Instagram-worthy main dish to crowd-pleaser. Sugar often hides in sauces like store-bought ketchup or dips. Here, nut butter and nuts, rather than sugar, help create a protein-rich meal full of flavor. Adjust the level of chili sauce for kids — or omit it completely. The recipe calls for coconut aminos, a seasoning made from coconut palm, but you can also use soy sauce. Easily swap almond butter for peanut butter, if you prefer.

Tofu and Peanut Butter Curry

Everyone can use a 20-minute dinner, and this Asian-inspired dish comes together without any packaged sauces, which often contain added sugar. Filled with protein-rich tofu and flavored with curry, tomato sauce, ginger, garlic, and peanut butter, this homemade, healthy meal pairs nicely with rice noodles or a bowl of whole grains such as quinoa or brown rice. To trim even more prep time, you could opt for packaged broccoli and cauliflower florets.

3. Dark chocolate

"Healthy dark chocolate is such an easy swap," says Tyler Lee. “Going from milk chocolate chips to semi-sweet chocolate chips when baking — that’s something that most kids are not going to notice,” she adds. A milk chocolate bar may contain as little as 10 percent cacao, while a dark chocolate bar may contain as much as 70 percent or higher. Simply put, more cacao means more health benefits. Read on to learn more.

Double Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Granola Bars

If packaged granola snacks are your family’s go-to pantry staple, try these homemade crunchy dark chocolate granola bars made with natural peanut butter, coconut oil, high-fiber oats, and flaxseed. Convenient and kid-friendly, these treats are packed with dark chocolate, which is high in antioxidant-boosting flavonoids. Plus, the bars have less sugar than bars drenched in milk chocolate. 

Super Smoothie for Kids

One of the easiest ways for kids to eat healthy is to drink a nutritious smoothie. This simple breakfast treat mixes an irresistible combo of pantry items: frozen banana, peanut butter, and dark chocolate. Creamy and rich, this protein-packed drink is sure to become an instant family favorite. If lactose intolerance is a concern, switch to almond, soy, or coconut milk as alternatives.

4. Medjool dates

Medjool dates, Tyler Lee explains, are “caramel-y little fruits” packed with natural sweetness with the benefit of fiber. Plus, these pantry staples are great sources of potassium and vitamin B and can be stored in the freezer to extend their shelf life. “I use Medjool dates to build sweetness in a lot of my recipes, including chocolate chip cookies,” she says. “Each date contains 1.6 grams of fiber, and that fiber helps slow down sugar absorption and helps you feel full.”

Peanut Butter Oatmeal Energy Bites

With just 5 simple ingredients, you can create a quick and nourishing afternoon pick-me-up snack. Packed with pitted Medjool dates, the no-bake, gluten-free treats are loaded with fiber and antioxidants. Peanut butter provides a good source of protein and healthy fats. For the healthiest option, stick to an all-natural nut butter without added oils or sugar.

Dark Chocolate Brownies with Medjool Dates and Almond Butter

Satisfy your family’s sweet tooth with simple dark chocolate brownies made with delicious Medjool dates as a substitute for sugar. Known as a heart-healthy fruit, Medjool dates provide potassium and calcium, good for regulating blood pressure as well as building strong bones. Gluten-free thanks to almond flour, these kid-friendly brownies sprinkled with sea salt give butter-and-sugar-laden treats a run for their money.

5. Spices

"Keep spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and pumpkin spice on your healthy pantry list," suggests Tyler Lee. These help build flavor in your favorite healthy recipes, especially in place of added sugar. Cinnamon may help control blood sugar, and cardamom may help improve inflammation, while pumpkin spice contains vitamin B and beneficial minerals such as iron and zinc.

Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal Bake

High in fiber, this classic family-friendly breakfast is full of wholesome ingredients: old-fashioned oats, apples, raisins, pecans, and ground cinnamon. The scent of vanilla-flavored baked apples alone is tempting, but try this make-ahead meal and benefit from the generous tablespoon of cinnamon. It’s prized for its powerful antioxidants and for anti-inflammation and wellness properties. 

Pumpkin Spice Roasted Chickpeas

Pull 6 simple pantry ingredients together to make a family-friendly chickpea snack. Seasoned with pumpkin pie spice, vanilla extract, and just a touch of light brown sugar, this gluten-free snack features canned beans. No pumpkin pie spice? Create your own with a dash each of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and ginger.

6. Nuts and seeds

Naturally sweet nuts and seeds are loaded with fiber and heart-healthy fats. Best bets for a stocked pantry include peanuts, almonds, walnuts, cashews, and pecans, as well as pumpkin and sunflower seeds. "Toasting nuts and seeds is a small step that pays off to amplify flavor," Tyler Lee says. Plus, nuts and seeds add texture to any dish. Once you’ve opened a package of nuts, be sure to store them in the fridge or freezer to extend their shelf life.

Nut Clusters

These no-bake chocolatey nut clusters are easy to make with just four simple ingredients, three of which are nuts! Toasted almonds, peanuts, and cashews are full of heart-healthy fats. Cashews alone are high in zinc, copper, and magnesium, all of which support a healthy immune system. The fiber in nuts helps crush pangs of hunger, too. Reach for these dark chocolate bites as a midday snack or after-dinner treat.

Balsamic Berry Vinaigrette Winter Salad

Topped with crunchy walnuts, pomegranate seeds, and apple, this colorful salad is well worth the 20 minutes it takes to toss together. Packed with omega-3s and antioxidants, walnuts may improve brain health and prevent heart disease. The salad dressing beats anything you’d find prepared at the grocery store, bringing together Greek yogurt, sugar-free strawberry preserves, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil. While picky kids may balk at eating greens, tangy feta cheese and naturally sweet fruit may be a persuasive draw.

More pantry cooking

Need more ideas for incorporating healthy pantry staples into your family-friendly meals? Just turn to Yummly for delicious inspiration and healthy eating! From the cupboard, legumes like lentils and black beans, canned diced tomatoes, and whole grains will take you far. The fridge and freezer can be part of your healthy food pantry, too, when you freeze proteins like boneless, skinless chicken breasts and refrigerate long-lasting produce such as cabbage. 

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