11 Foods To Add to Your Shopping Cart to Make Any Meal Healthier

We strive to provide the healthiest food for ourselves and our families, but sometimes we fall a bit short of our expectations. Almost every dish we put on the table can get a boost in nutritional value—and taste—by adding one or two ingredients from our pantry shelves.

Once you make them a part of your pantry, you just need to know how to use them. Many of the ingredients below are herbs and spices, which are typically irradiated and sterilized with hazardous chemicals. Therefore, it's important to choose organic herbs and spices to avoid exposure to these potentially unhealthy substances.  

Cilantro. Traces of cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) have been found from around 6,000 BC, and the herb is still popular today. In the United States, the leaves are known as cilantro while the seeds are called coriander. Cilantro is high in vitamin K, which is important for blood clotting and bone strength, and contains a compound called dodecanal, which has antibacterial effects against Salmonella. 

Cilantro is best when used fresh and can be raw or added near the end of cooking. Use only the leaves and resist bruising them, which will cause them to lose flavor. Cilantro is easily grown on sunny windowsills and goes well with beans, vegetables, salads, and in Mexican and Thai dishes. 

Cinnamon. Numerous articles proclaim the health benefits of cinnamon, ranging from lowering blood sugar levels in individuals with type 2 diabetes to reducing cholesterol and helping with weight loss. In fact, in a review of 26 common spice extracts, cinnamon ranked number one in protective antioxidant levels. As little as one-half teaspoon of cinnamon can lower blood glucose and boost immunity. 

Because cinnamon has a naturally sweet taste but no sugar and virtually no calories, it can be used to sweeten foods without adding calories. Add a cinnamon stick to coffee or tea or add cinnamon to baked goods, fruit, soups (like this cinnamon carrot soup recipe), or even vegetables (e.g., glazed carrots, using cinnamon instead of sugar). 

Coconut oil. This oil is high in natural saturated fats and is composed of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are known for their health benefits. Coconut oil increases levels of good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein) and helps transform bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein) into beneficial cholesterols. Among the many studies of coconut oil benefits are those pointing to how the MCTs in coconut oil can improve memory problems among older adults, boost energy and endurance, and boost immune function. 

Coconut oil has a very high smoke point and remains stable at high temperatures, so it can be used for sautéing. It is also good as a butter substitute on bread, vegetables, and grains, or stirred into smoothies. Drizzle coconut oil on air-popped popcorn for added nutrition. 

Read about 27 uses for coconut oil

Cumin. Keep cumin (Cuminum cyminum) on your shelf not only because it’s super in curries and soups but also for its ability to aid in digestion, fight germs, boost circulation (which can help with cognitive function), and help with insomnia and respiratory conditions. Cumin is also rich in iron and is a good source of manganese, magnesium, and calcium.

Cumin can be used as the whole seed or ground, and if you toast the seeds you will experience a more potent nutty flavor. Include cumin in dishes such as soups, stews, chili, and vegetables or try some other recipes that use cumin

Flax seed. Both whole and ground flax seed have unique features that make them a must-have for healthier meals. One, they add omega-3 fatty acids (in the form of alpha-linolenic acid), which are beneficial for cardiovascular health. Two, they are the richest source of lignans, which are fiber-related polyphenols that have fiber-like and antioxidant properties. Each ounce of flax seed provides 8 grams of fiber. Three, they provide mucilage (gum), which support and promote intestinal health. 

Ground flax seed can be added to baked goods and smoothies, while whole or ground seeds can be used in salads, soups, stews, chili, vegetables, and grain dishes. Try a variety of flax seed recipes.

Garlic. This pungent herb is guaranteed to wake up any dish. Garlic’s health benefits derive from a sulfur compound (allicin) that is formed when garlic cloves are crushed, chopped, or chewed. Use of garlic has been associated with fighting the common cold, lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, improved bone health, possible reduced risk of dementia, and better athletic performance. 

The best ways to reap the health benefits of garlic are to eat it raw or to cut it and let it sit for about 15 to 20 minutes before you add it to your recipes. One easy and delicious way to use garlic is to make an olive oil, balsamic vinegar, thyme, and fresh garlic dressing for salads and vegetables. For a real treat, try black garlic

Mushrooms. You don’t need to look for fancy mushrooms to make your dinner healthier…although you are welcome to seek out reishi, maitake, and shiitake, all of which are known for their health benefits. The simple button mushroom—and its adult version, Portobello—are more than adequate to boost your meal’s nutritional value. These fungi are a great source of antioxidants, selenium, vitamin D, folate, and fiber. 

The selenium in mushrooms, for example, can help detoxify cancer-causing substances in the body as well as stimulate production of killer T-cells. Mushrooms have beta-glucan fibers in their cell walls, which prompt the immune system to prevent tumor formation and fight cancer cells. 

Raw sliced mushrooms are a welcome addition to any salad, and sautéed mushrooms in olive oil with several other healthy items in this list—such as garlic, cilantro, oregano, or tomatoes—would make a delicious topping for pasta, grains, vegetables, and fish. Grilled Portobello mushrooms stuffed with grains and veggies are another super way to enjoy these fungi.

Read about 6 reasons to love Portobello mushrooms

Olive oil.
Extra virgin olive oil is a great source of a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid, which can help reduce inflammation and may also assist in fighting cancer. The oil also is a haven for potent antioxidants, can help lower blood pressure, improves the function of blood vessels, and protects bad cholesterol from oxidation, all of which provide cardiovascular protection.  

Enjoy olive oil drizzled over fresh salads, cooked veggies, and grains, or added to chili, stews, and soups. Everyone should make this super simple olive oil and balsamic dressing and you’ll never buy bottled dressing again.

Oregano. The delectable herb typically used on pizza and in pasta sauces is also known for its antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties. It gets its antioxidant potency from rosmarinic acid, while two phytochemicals called carvacol and thymol are associated with antimicrobial activity

Although oregano is a staple of Italian dishes, it goes well with many other dishes. Vegetables, salads, fish, dressings, and more come alive with oregano. This herb also mixes well with chili powder and cumin.

Tomatoes. Both raw and cooked tomatoes are a nutritious addition to your meals, but men in particular can benefit by including more cooked or prepared tomatoes in their diet. That’s because stewed tomatoes, tomato juice, tomato soup, and tomato sauces are excellent sources of the antioxidant lycopene, which has been associated with a lower risk of prostate cancer and better prostate health. Choose organic tomatoes and tomato products, and steer clear of canned tomato foods because of the possibility of BPA in the can lining.

An easy way to include lycopene-rich tomatoes in your meals is to start with freshly made tomato juice or a tomato-based soup. For starters, try this tomato soup recipe with lemongrass.

Turmeric.  Dr. Josh Axe has called turmeric “the most powerful herb on the planet at fighting and potentially reversing disease.” Therefore, it seems like turmeric and its bioactive ingredient, curcumin, should be on everyone’s dinner menu. Turmeric has been shown to be as effective as Prozac at tackling depression, more effective than aspirin and ibuprofen at fighting inflammation, better than diclofenac sodium at treating rheumatoid arthritis, and 400 times more potent than metformin in activating a factor that improves insulin sensitivity in type 2 diabetes. 

 Enjoy turmeric by adding a dash to scrambled tofu or eggs, steamed or roasted vegetables, rice or grain dishes, wilted greens, soups, or in smoothies. A cup of turmeric tea can be a delightful way to finish off your evening meal. 

Dr. Axe. Health benefits of cinnamon and nutrition facts
Dr. Axe. 10 turmeric benefits: superior to medications?
Dr. Axe. 20 coconut oil benefits and side effects
Leech J. 11 proven benefits of olive oil. Authority Nutrition
MedicalNewsToday. Cilantro
Mercola.com. What are the health benefits of oregano? 
Organic Facts. Health benefits of cumin
Shan B et al. Antioxidant capacity of 26 spice extracts and characterization of their phenolic constituents. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2005 Oct 5; 53(20): 7749-59
The World’s Healthiest Foods. Flaxseed
Webb D. Betting on beta-glucans. Today’s Dietitian 2014 May; 16(5): 16

By Deborah Mitchell| January 06, 2017
Categories:  Eat

About the Author

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently she lives in Tucson, Arizona. Visit her at deborahmitchellbooks.com.

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