Cooking at home is one of the best ways to be sure that you are using ingredients you trust and building a nutritious meal, not to mention it is also easier on the budget. Having key items in your pantry makes it much easier to throw together a satisfying meal. In this blog, we will review a handful of pantry staples that have immune supporting properties as well as a few ideas for how to work these items into your meal plans.
Chickpeas are a good protein source and are also packed with immune supporting zinc. Protein is the backbone of the immune system and the amino acids found in protein help to synthesize and maintain the enzymes needed to keep our immune systems functioning properly. One of my favorite ways to use chickpeas is to incorporate them into healthy snack and dessert options such as chickpea cookie dough. Making homemade hummus, chickpea curry or roasting them for healthy snack are great uses as well. A staple in our house is Banza pasta noodles, a pasta made from chickpeas.
Another easy option for incorporating chickpeas into the diet is to buy a store-bought falafel mix. Falafel is a traditional Mediterranean flour mix of ground chickpeas, garlic and parsley. Falafel patties or balls can be easily made from a store-bought mix by just adding water or we like to use falafel mix as a breading for homemade chicken fingers to serve with hummus dip and other Mediterranean sides such as artichokes hearts and roasted red peppers.
Roasted Red Peppers:
Red bell peppers top the list of fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C. They contain almost double the vitamin C concentration of oranges. Vitamin C has been well studied for its ability to boost immune system defenses and can lower the risk of respiratory infections. Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin which means we need to consume vitamin C rich foods every day because we excrete what we don’t need. Jarred roasted red peppers have a long shelf life and can be a very versatile pantry staple. I add these to our family favorite pineapple fried rice, soups and into pasta dishes made with chickpea pasta. Some nights I serve “sugar peppers” (Trader Joes slightly sweetened roasted peppers) right out of the jar to have as a side with dinner. When grocery shopping for multiple weeks I would buy fresh organic bell peppers as well as jarred roasted peppers to enjoy in between grocery trips. My kids really like mini snacking bell peppers and for a fun meal I cut these up as a base for nachos.
Hot sauce is another way to boost your dietary intake of Vitamin C. Use liberally if well tolerated. I enjoy hot sauce in vegetable soups and if you like spicy food hot sauce is a great condiment to add personality to a head of cauliflower.
Butternut Squash/ Spaghetti Squash/ Pumpkin Puree and Sweet Potato:
All these healthy vegetables contain good doses of fiber as well as Vitamin C and the antioxidant beta-carotene which is responsible for the bright orange color of many of these foods. Beta carotene has been shown to support a healthy immune system by increasing immune cell numbers and activity. Squashes have a long shelf life and can be good for up to 3 months when stored in a cool dark place such as the floor of a pantry or a basement. Sweet potatoes can last up to 2-3 months when they are stored in the refrigerator or 3-5 weeks in the pantry.
Thinking ahead about how to minimize our grocery shopping trips I bought 3 of each kind of squash to put in the basement as well as a huge bag of organic sweet potatoes. I had some existing cans of organic pumpkin puree in the basement. My favorite uses for butternut squash are to use well-seasoned squash cubes in grain bowls or soups and squash puree to add nutrition to my kid’s macaroni and cheese or a family chili. Using any orange vegetable such as butternut squash or sweet potato is my secret to making a vegetable-based soup or chili more sweet, eye-catching and delicious. I may also add pumpkin or sweet potato puree to almond flour muffins, nut and seed-based energy balls or into a smoothie.
Spaghetti squash is one my favorite go-to meal-prep staples and is a great way to control carbohydrates when the kids are eating (more!) chickpea pasta. I will roast and entire spaghetti squash in the oven and serve it with a store bought box of frozen mussels in a white wine sauce for dinner, marinara sauce or pesto and I’m loving any version of olive-oil seasoned spaghetti squash with garlic sautéed spinach, jarred artichoke hearts and sundried tomatoes.
When I think about immune boosting foods I also think about garlic. Currently I am trying to cook with extra garlic because of its heavy concentration of sulfur containing compounds, which have been shown to fight off some infections and help patients recover faster when they do get an infection. Using a jar of salsa in a meal is a great way to get more garlic (and onions and more vegetables) into our diet. Sure, tacos and Tex-Mex recipes are easy no-brainer companions for salsa, but I also like mixing salsa into rice and beans, using it as a base for an easy sausage gumbo and using it for egg frittatas or egg dish.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds provide immune supporting zinc, iron and B vitamins in the diet. They are also good sources of Vitamin E, a fat-soluble vitamin that boosts the activity of immune cells to support the body from invading bacteria and viruses. From trail mixes to raw or dry roasted nuts and seeds, nut and seed butters and nut flours such as almond flour there are so many choices to get your daily servings of nuts and seeds. These nutrient dense powerhouses provide a healthy source of filling calories to think about for snacks and breakfast. With all the emotions we are feeling sheltering at home comfort food is on the menu. An almond flour banana bread baking party was inspired by a conversation with one of my patients about comfort food. Brownies made with mood boosting omega-3 rich hemp seeds? Yes please. I’m going to use hemp protein in these brownies because some people panic buy pasta and I panic buy chickpea pasta, squashes and hemp protein powder. Store nuts and seeds in the refrigerator or freezer to extend their shelf life.
Protein powder is another pantry staple at my house. I use it in baked goods and make easy smoothies for after nap snacks and interactive blender “activities.”
Hopefully this gives you some ideas of nutritionally supportive foods as we move into cold and flu season. If you want to learn more, you can work with one of AIM’s Registered Dietitians to optimize your diet with your own personal preferences and cooking styles.