Spring Clean Your Pantry

March 2023

By Sarah Nelson, Chef, Health Coach & Founder at Sarah Nelson Wellness


When I lived in Sicily, I went to the “supermercato” only once a month. I would stock up on dry goods to provide the foundation for delicious meals for weeks. Vegetables and fruit were obtained by frequent visits to the local vendors, or hand-picked from the gardens where I lived. The butcher and the island fisherman, with their daily offerings, would fill in the rest. In the fertile areas of Italy, you’ll often see people stopping on the side of the road to gather wild greens. With a trained eye, you can even find wild asparagus growing in the meadows. Food heaven…

These days, I go to the grocery store way more often, but I still maintain a pantry full of delicious and healthy ingredients that can be the building blocks of quick and easy, satisfying meals. I was a foodie long before I became a health coach, so no bland, cardboardy, yucky, so-called “healthy” foods for me! When we have fresh, real ingredients to combine with foundational pantry items, satisfying and tasty meals come together in minutes.

Let’s begin with a few basic principles:

  • Quality matters – buy small batch, non-GMO, local, organic when possible.
  • Focus on nutrients, not calories. We are not test tubes. The calorie model does not allow for the complexity and individuality of our digestive systems. Eat nutrient-dense, fiber-rich foods.
  • Eat real food. If you aren’t sure what it is, can’t pronounce it or it didn’t exist when your grandparents were born, you probably shouldn’t be eating it. Chemical additives are altering our hormone production and wreaking havoc on our bodies. Steer clear of artificial colors, flavors and dyes.
  • Look for fewer ingredients and minimal processing.
  • Reduce sugar intake by consistently reaching for whole foods and avoiding added sugar, which will have an enormous impact on both you and your family’s health. Read ingredient labels and pay attention – it all matters.
  • Place healthy appetizing foods where they are easy to see and grab. Spring is a great time to organize, weed out and restock.


This may sound extreme… but you can go ahead and throw out your vegetable and seed oils – corn, cottonseed, canola, soybean, safflower, sunflower, etc. These oils are highly processed, have an undesirable omega fatty acid profile and cause inflammation that contributes to chronic disease.

The two oils that live in my pantry are high quality extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil. When it comes to extra virgin olive oil, quality is essential to ensure that you are getting all the benefits this superfood offers. The best is cold-pressed, labeled with a single source country and the year of production (this is harder to find); the yield from the latest autumn pressing is preferable. The oil should be green or yellowy green, smell and taste like olives, and may have a little spicy kick on the finish. Keep it somewhere dark and cool.

Extra virgin olive oil boasts beneficial fats, which will keep your skin glowing and your hair shiny. It’s anti-inflammatory, full of amazing antioxidants and polyphenols, and good for your heart, blood vessels, digestive system, brain, etc. It will also help lower your LDL (bad cholesterol) and raise your HDL (good cholesterol)! I highly recommend drizzling it on your meals for a nutritious and delicious finish. Making your own salad dressing is another effective way to cut out bad oils and integrate more extra virgin olive oil. It’s the one skill I learned in culinary school that I use all the time – and it takes literally three minutes. For times when you are cooking with high heat or baking and need a neutral oil, use avocado oil.

Healthier Snacks

While we’re on the topic of oils, let’s discuss the snack foods lurking in your pantry. Many of these contain damaging seed oils. Be sure to read ingredient labels and keep in mind the general principles laid out above. Snack foods are often engineered with a specific combination of salty/sweet/fat to keep us eating and craving more, while delivering harmful ingredients and no real nutrition. Children who eat large amounts of snack and ultra-processed foods can become simultaneously obese and malnourished. If you must buy potato chips, opt for those made with avocado or olive oil.

The best snacks resemble their natural state – raw nuts, seeds (sprouted pumpkin seeds are a delicious superfood), cut up vegetables like cucumber, carrot, jicama, radish, etc. sprinkled with some lime juice and chili salt, or fresh or frozen organic berries. Hungry kids? Assemble a colorful crudité platter, set it on the counter, and watch it disappear. If you like crackers, there are seed crackers on the market that have lots of fiber and whole-food real ingredients. Nut butters are a filling, protein-rich and healthy fat addition to a snack of fruit, vegetables, or seed crackers. Choose nut butters without added sugar or oils.

Tips for Baker

If you are a baker, there are lots of options to healthify your baked goods. In most recipes, you can cut the sugar in half and still have a sweet treat. The average American consumes 17 teaspoons of sugar a day! By the time they are 10 years old, our children have eaten more sugar than a person a 100 years ago did in their entire lifetime. We evolved eating small amounts of fruit in season. That is the sugar load level for which our organs developed. Over consumption of sugar is causing an epidemic of metabolic disease.

Once you reduce your sugar intake, your tastebuds will recalibrate, and you will need less to satisfy. Substitute coconut sugar; it doesn’t spike your blood sugar like conventional sugar. Dates or bananas can also be used as a sweetener. Try less refined flour types with more protein, fiber, and nutrients, such as whole wheat or almond flour.

Here’s some good news – organic dark chocolate is a superfood boasting beneficial compounds called flavonoids. Over 70% cocoa is best. Cocoa is one of the most antioxidant-rich foods. Dark chocolate is also high in minerals that your body needs – iron, magnesium, zinc, copper, and phosphorus, contributing to a strong immune system and bone health. Try using it in your baking in place of traditional chocolate chips or snack on a few pieces as an after dinner sweet treat.

Grains and Pasta

When it comes to grains, select whole grains (those that haven’t been stripped of their fiber). Over time, humans have eliminated much of the fiber from our diets which is a major contributing factor to obesity, diabetes, bloating, constipation, and a multitude of gastrointestinal and metabolic problems. We evolved eating mostly plant foods that were full of fiber. Most people will feel their best if they have at least one bowel movement a day, and fiber is a big component.

If you love pasta, imports from Italy are generally better quality. Their varieties of wheat are different, as well as their farming practices. Many people who are “gluten sensitive” in the US, eat bread and pasta on vacation in Italy and feel great. There are also lots of alternatives to traditional pasta these days – zucchini noodles, spaghetti squash noodles, konjac noodles, palm noodles, etc. My current favorite is yellow pea pasta, which is similar in texture to traditional pasta, but full of fiber and protein.

Beans & Legumes

Speaking of fiber and protein – beans and legumes! There are many types to try, and canned beans or steamed lentils make for a quick and easy meal. If you plan ahead, soak and cook dried beans – they will be easier to digest and even more economical. Mexican bowls are a tasty, quick family-friendly meal. Grab some beans, brown rice, good quality salsa, salsa verde or hot sauce from your pantry. Add some chopped lettuce, whatever vegetables you have in the refrigerator or freezer, some cheese, and voila!

Don’t Forget Fish

Canned, low-mercury, wild fish are convenient and provide an excellent source of protein and favorable omega 3 fatty acids. Lots of people think they don’t like sardines, but I encourage you to try them again. They can be a great substitute for tuna salad, without the mercury. Atlantic mackerel, anchovies and wild salmon are also healthy choices.

Better Breakfasts

Many traditional American breakfast foods are more like dessert. What’s a muffin, but a mini-cake? Simple carbohydrates and sugary breakfasts create a blood sugar spike, which will be followed by a crash, leaving us feeling sluggish and hungrier. Instead, breaking your fast with high-quality protein and healthy fat will keep you feeling energized and full. Swap processed cereals with low-sugar granola made from nuts and seeds. Use steel cut oats in place of quick cooking oats for better blood sugar impact, and load your bowl with nuts and organic berries. Choose pancake and waffle mixes with more fiber and fewer refined ingredients and make these items a weekend treat. Rotate in some savory breakfast options to help reduce sugar intake. When choosing bread, your best bet is sprouted organic wheat with minimal other ingredients. Bread is not meant to be shelf stable for weeks and not mold; artificial preservatives make this possible.

Just Say No to Soda

I’m not going to sugar coat it – sweet drinks are terrible for your health. Quit smoking, quit soda. Juice should be 100% juice and an occasional treat. If you need an electrolyte option after an intense workout, ditch the Gatorade and opt for something that contains beneficial minerals and no added sugar, like LNMT electrolyte drink packets (available online). I’m a big fan of herbal teas – they have medicinal benefits and keep you sipping throughout the day, especially when the weather is chilly. Coffee, black teas and green teas are full of antioxidants and polyphenols and can have lots of health benefits. That said, coffee is one of the most chemically treated crops, so buy organic and mycotoxin (mold) free. If you drink decaf, make sure it is decaffeinated with the Swiss Water Process rather than harsh chemicals. If you’re worried about the environment, ditch the pods and try a French press. Beware of over consuming caffeine, it can tax your adrenals and diminish your sleep quality.

Everything we consume is either making us more or less healthy. When we’re in our homes and cooking for ourselves, we have the opportunity to choose exactly what we’re putting in our bodies. A well-stocked pantry will set you up for success, with ingredients at the ready for fabulous healthy meals for you, your family and friends.



Sarah Nelson

Sarah is a certified health coach and a trained chef. She combines wellness knowledge with her culinary background to prepare meals that are delicious, provide essential nutrients and reduce inflammation. After earning a degree in finance from Boston College, and working in commodities at Goldman Sachs, Sarah pivoted from crude oil to olive oil. She moved to southern Italy and co-founded a company working with small, family-run, artisanal food producers. There, she learned to love simple, yet delicious, real food. Upon returning stateside, she trained at the French Culinary Institute and the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.

In addition to providing anti-inflammatory resets, where all meals are provided for three or five days, Sarah coaches clients one-on-one to help them feel and look their best. She offers food sensitivity testing and addresses habits, cravings, exercise, sleep and stress patterns to design a personal roadmap to achieve holistic wellness and truly thrive. Need a pantry audit? Sarah makes organizing your pantry fun, swapping out the harmful stuff, embracing the healthy stuff and setting you up for success with a curated grocery list and sources for some of her favorite ingredients and goodies. She also offers private and group cooking lessons, with and without organic wine pairings. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @sarahnelsonwellness and go to sarahnelsonwellness.com for more information. Catch her “Spring Reset” class at Taste & Technique in Fair Haven on March 21st.

Photo credit: Valeriy_G