If you’ve ever felt like your homecooked meals have become boring, it might be time to put one (or more!) of these 16 healthy ingredients on your next grocery list for adding flavor to food!
In this post, Adding Flavor to Food with 16 Healthy Ingredients, I’m going to share why it’s helpful to have a selection of ingredients that add flavor in your kitchen at all times.
I will also share the 16 healthy ingredients that I always have in my kitchen to add more flavor to my meals. I’ll share what each of them is and how I like to use each ingredient.
As a busy mom who knows the importance of cooking balanced, healthy meals that my family will actually eat (in other words, they can’t be boring or bland!), I have found that one of the simplest ways to make sure that happens without spending all day in the kitchen, is to keep some key flavor-making ingredients in the kitchen at all times.
That way, when it’s time to cook dinner, I never have to wonder whether there will be anything to make (as long as I’m not completely out of meat or veggies, that is!).
Keeping the ingredients from the list below in my kitchen all the time helps me…
- Toss together meals that I didn’t have a plan for. I don’t know about you, but some weeks, I don’t get to the grocery store on the day that I really should go, which means I have to cook with what I have in the house. As long as I have meat in the freezer (which is another smart cooking trick!) and vegetables to use (whether they are frozen or fresh), then I’m in business and can make dinner without having to fall back on a take-out.
- Boost the flavor (and sometimes the nutrition) of meals. Most of the ingredients on the list below are ingredients that you would use in smaller amounts but since they have such concentrated flavor, they can really elevate the overall flavor of your meals. Plus, some of them add health benefits that can really add up over time.
- Jazz up recipes I already like but want to play around with. Yeah, I know this isn’t something everyone is comfortable doing or even wants to do, but for me, having these ingredients in the kitchen allows me to add my own creative spin to recipes I already know work well.
- Substitute them for ingredients in other recipes that aren’t quite as healthy. One of my biggest recommendations when it comes to eating healthier is to focus on using whole foods rather than a bunch of packaged, processed foods. While most of the following ingredients are packaged, the brands that I recommend have an ingredient list that you can easily read and understand, which means they are based on whole food ingredients and have no added sugar. That’s ALWAYS what I look for in any packaged ingredient that I use in cooking.
- Keep fewer ingredients in the house so that my grocery list isn’t a mile long! I don’t know about you but going to the grocery store is not exactly a fun outing for me. Yes, I love looking at new foods, but most weeks, grocery shopping is a means to an end, and I want to get through the store as quickly as possible. By keeping fewer ingredients in the house that I can use in multiple ways, it keeps my grocery list shorter.
Not that I’ve shared a bit more about WHY I like to keep certain healthy ingredients in the house, let me share WHAT specific ingredients I like to have in my kitchen at all times and HOW I like to use them!
Adding Flavor to Food with 16 Healthy Ingredients
What I Use: Mustard can be tricky when it comes to finding brands that are based only on whole food ingredients. The brand I buy is Koop’s, and I find it at Whole Foods, or you can order it on Amazon.
How I Use: Mustard is such a useful ingredient in the kitchen! It’s not just for spreading on sandwiches! Here are a few ways I use mustard:
- In homemade salad dressings (which are easier to make than you might think!)
- In meat marinades
- In simple sauces to brush on meat or fish as it cooks (in the oven or on the grill)
- And, of course, as a spread on sandwiches, wraps or lettuce wraps
What I Use: There are many different types of olives available, and it’s up to you to choose which types of olives you want to use most often. They keep relatively well once you’ve opened a jar, so if you want to keep a few different types around, go for it! I keep pitted green olives (which is what I use most often) and pitted kalamata olives for specific recipes.
How I Use: As someone who eats dairy free, olives are an ingredient that can help replace the salty, tangy flavor of cheese. I’m not saying that olives taste exactly like cheese, but they can give the same flavor vibe, so I use them in a lot of places where I’d otherwise want to toss in or on some cheese. Here are some examples of how I use olives:
- In pasta salads
- In pasta dishes (they add so much flavor!)
- Tossed with roasted potatoes (add them after the potatoes are roasted)
- On pizza
- On sandwiches or in wraps
- On appetizer boards
What I Use: Similar to wine, balsamic vinegar has a very wide range of price and quality, based on how it’s made. You can pay over $100 for just a few ounces of top-quality vinegar, for example. If you are using balsamic vinegar to drizzle over strawberries for a dessert (which is SO GOOD, by the way!), you’d want to opt for a higher quality (and higher priced) vinegar because it will have a much smoother, pure flavor without any additives. Look for vinegar that has been aged at least 12 years and has the letters “DOP” on the label.
On the other end of the spectrum, you can find large bottles of balsamic vinegar for just a few dollars, which is likely condiment grade vinegar. But going for the cheapest bottle you can find might mean there are unhealthy additives or other ingredients, such as sugar, in the vinegar that you don’t want either.
So, how do you choose a good all-purpose balsamic vinegar? Choose one that has the distinction of “IGP” on the label, which is the standard set for vinegar that’s made from grapes traditionally used for balsamic vinegar and that’s made in the Modena region of Italy, which is where balsamic vinegar originates from.
How I Use: The sky is the limit when it comes to balsamic vinegar, which is why I love it so much! Here are some of my favorite uses:
- In salad dressings
- In meat marinades – when using vinegar of any kind in a marinade, it’s important to add the vinegar for only the last 15 minutes or so of marinating. Doing this will add flavor but will not cause the meat to get tough, which can happen if you marinate meat in vinegar for a longer period of time.
- Used as a glaze on grilled or roasted meats. You can cook balsamic vinegar down into a thick, syrupy glaze and simply brush it over meat for the last several minutes of cooking like you would barbecue sauce. It’s simple and delicious!
- In desserts – As I mentioned above, balsamic vinegar tastes wonderful paired with fruit. It’s also really delicious drizzled over cake for a less-sweet topping than traditional frosting. If you’re feeling adventurous, try it all together! Cake…berries…a drizzle of really good balsamic. Your taste buds will thank you!
Toasted Sesame Oil
What I Use: Toasted sesame oil is a real gem in the flavor department! It’s made from toasted sesame seeds rather than untoasted seeds (which is what “regular” sesame oil is made from). You can find toasted sesame oil in the same area that you would find more specialty type oils. Look for it near the coconut oil or avocado oil.
How I Use: I use toasted sesame oil in stir-fries because it tastes so good in Asian food. You can also use it to make salad dressing. Here is a recipe for my Asian Sesame Ginger Vinaigrette. Sometimes, if I don’t want to make the actual vinaigrette recipe, I just drizzle a little toasted sesame oil and a little coconut aminos (see more on what this is, below) on my salad for lunch. It’s really good and so simple!
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
What I Use: I’m sure you’ve heard of extra-virgin olive oil (or EVOO) before, right? It’s the type of olive oil that has the MOST flavor because it is processed the least. Because it is processed very minimally, it retains the most olive flavor. This is exactly why I wanted to include it in this list of ingredients for adding flavor to food!
How I Use: Extra-virgin olive oil is best reserved for recipes where you don’t have to heat the oil for very long or over a very high heat. A little heat won’t hurt the oil, but too high of heat or too long of heat exposure will cause this delicate oil to oxidize, which isn’t healthy. Here’s how I use extra-virgin olive oil:
- In salad dressings
- Drizzled over veggies that are already cooked
- I will cook vegetables very briefly in extra-virgin olive oil as long as I keep the heat at medium or lower
- Tossed with cooked pasta noodles for added flavor and to keep the noodles from sticking together
Jarred Pasta Sauce
What I Use: Jarred marinara (or any other tomato-based pasta sauce, for that matter) runs the gamut when it comes to the way it’s made. To choose the best quality, healthiest jarred pasta sauce, look at the list of ingredients on the label. Choose a brand that ONLY uses whole food ingredients and doesn’t have any sugar listed in the ingredient list. Hint: my favorite brands are Rao’s and Monte Bene.
How I Use: Besides the traditional pasta with sauce meal, I will use jarred pastas sauce in other ways, such as:
- Tossed with meatballs (pasta optional)
- Used in place of pizza sauce on pizza
- In lasagna (and yes, I have made a gluten and dairy free lasagna – it was delicious, and I need to post the recipe!)
- As an easy sauce for grilled or roasted chicken
- As a topper for meatloaf (if you want a change from the traditional ketchup/mustard/brown sugar sauce)
- Stirred into soups or stews to add a lot of flavor
What I Use: Yes, I know salsa is not hard to make, but the thing is, I don’t always have the ingredients I need to make it. I CAN, however, always have a jar of salsa in the house, and I usually do! Similar to the jarred pasta sauce, brands of salsa are all made very differently. Choose a brand that has no added sugar in the ingredient list and that uses ingredients you can easily understand. My favorite brand is Frontera.
How I Use: Salsa does not have to be reserved for Mexican foods and tacos but, of course, it’s a staple ingredient for any Mexican-style meal I make. Here are some other ways to use jarred salsa:
- As a topper for a burger (in place of ketchup)
- As a meatloaf topper
- Added to soups that you want to have a Mexican flare (it’s really good in chili!)
- Tossed with pasta and chopped, cooked chicken for an easy meal
What I Use: Coconut aminos are a new kid on the cooking block, but once you start using this flavorful ingredient, you won’t look back! Coconut aminos is made from coconut tree sap and it’s a really great gluten-free substitute for soy sauce. While soy sauce is very salty, coconut aminos is salty too, but it has a richer, more complex flavor that works really well in Asian cooking.
How I Use: As I mentioned, coconut aminos works really well in Asian cooking, and you can substitute it in any place you would use soy sauce. Here are a couple other ideas of how to use coconut aminos:
- Drizzled on a salad with a little toasted sesame oil
- Used in any type of Asian stir-fry
- Added to ground beef and then made into burgers (because it adds so much flavor)
- In meat marinades
- In soups
Canned Coconut Milk
What I Use: Because I cook dairy free, I need alternatives for regular dairy milk and cream! I love using canned full-fat coconut milk in many different recipes. It is thick and rich and creamy and adds a subtle coconut flavor that tastes great in a lot of dishes.
How I Use: Canned coconut milk will have a layer of solid coconut milk on the top when you open the can. Simply pour the contents (both the solid layer and the liquid underneath) into a larger bowl and use a whisk to stir the coconut milk until it is completely smooth.
Here are a few ways I like to use canned coconut milk:
- In soups and stews – it adds a rich, creamy consistency to soups and stews. As long as you don’t add too much, your soup won’t taste completely like coconut.
- Used in place of about 1/3 of the water (or other liquid) when making rice. It makes the rice taste really good.
- I substitute coconut cream for milk or cream in savory sauces and it tastes great.
- Casseroles – instead of cream of chicken soup, I either make my own dairy free version using this recipe, or I use a combination of low-sodium chicken broth and canned coconut milk in place of the cream of chicken soup and liquid called for in the casserole recipe.
- Noodle bowls as part of the liquid.
Low-Sodium Chicken Broth
What I Use: While I prefer to have homemade chicken broth in the kitchen, I usually have a back-up carton of low-sodium chicken broth around to use in a pinch. If you find the right brand, purchased low-sodium chicken broth can taste great and not ruin your health goals if you’re into eating mostly whole foods! I like Imagine brand low-sodium chicken broth.
How I Use: There are a lot of recipes that call for chicken broth and you can use low-sodium chicken broth anywhere you need chicken broth (even if the recipe doesn’t call for low-sodium broth). You may not even need to add additional salt but if you do, you can always add a little salt.
What I Use: Slivered almonds are a must in my kitchen! They are so crunchy, nutritious, and, if you toast them lightly, they add so much flavor.
How I Use: In almost all cases, I use toasted slivered almonds because toasting them adds so much flavor! Here are a few ways I use slivered almonds:
- Sprinkled on plain, unsweetened coconut milk yogurt with fresh berries and a light drizzle of honey.
- Tossed on top of salads.
- Added to granola (I do not toast the almonds first if I’m adding them to granola). Here’s one of my favorite granola recipes and you can simply use the slivered almonds without having to chop them!
- Sprinkled on top of stir-fries.
What I Use: Fresh ginger packs a flavor punch like no other! It is a classic ingredient in a lot of Asian recipes, and it can be used in both savory and sweet recipes! You can either peel and finely chop ginger using a chef’s knife, or you can use a very sharp fine shredder (such as a Microplane) to finely shred the ginger. Hint: if you wrap and freeze the ginger first, it is much easier to shred!
How I Use: Besides using fresh ginger in recipes that call for it, I will add a thin slice of fresh ginger along with a slice of lemon to hot water for a calming, hot drink.
What I Use: While fresh herbs can get expensive if you are constantly buying them from the grocery store, they are really easy to grow. So, if you have a large pot or even a small area of a flower bed, you can grow your own in the summer and have them at your fingertips whenever you need them. That’s what I do, and I love it!
Then, when summer comes to a close, I will make pesto with my basil and store it in the freezer to use throughout the winter. Grab my dairy free pesto recipe here!
How I Use: Fresh herbs taste great with so many different foods. Here are some ideas to get you thinking:
- Use fresh mint for cocktails or mocktails or add it to a cup of hot tea
- Use any fresh herbs in marinades and salad dressings
- Add fresh herbs to your fresh salads (this really boosts flavor!)
- Stir them into sauces, soups and stews at the end (because fresh herbs are more delicate than dried herbs, you want to avoid cooking them too long.
- Ever wonder what to do with extra parsley? Make one of my most popular recipes – this Lemon-Pepper Parsley Pesto
Selection of Dried Herbs/Spices
What I Use: Fresh herbs are great, but it also helps to have a good variety of dried herbs and spices in your kitchen. They are simple to use and as long as you buy single ingredient herbs and spices, then you’re good to go in the health department. It’s best to avoid pre-made spice mixes, as they often have additives (including sugar!) that aren’t as healthy.
How I Use: Dried herbs and spices can be used in so many different ways to add flavor to your foods. I use them most often to sprinkle on fresh meats, fish and seafood before cooking. I also use them to make spice blends, such as this Homemade Italian Seasoning or to make these Homemade Brat Burgers.
Fresh Garlic, Shallots and Onion
What I Use: While garlic, shallots and onion aren’t exactly the same, there’s never a time when I don’t have at least one of these ingredients in my kitchen. All of these options are simple to use and add so much flavor when cooking. While I prefer them all to be cooked (to mellow out the flavor so it doesn’t take over other flavors in whatever recipe I’m making), they can all be used either raw or cooked.
How I Use: I can hardly think of a savory recipe where it WOULDN’T be good to add one of these three ingredients. They are so versatile! One of my favorite ways to use fresh garlic is to roast it. It’s not hard to do, it just takes time for the garlic to roast long enough, but it really makes the flavor mellow and balanced. You can get the directions for that here!
What I Use: Lemons and limes are not just for cocktails, squeezing over fish or for garnishes in 1990’s food photography. 😉 They add a lot of fresh flavor to many different recipes and foods and they last quite a while in the refrigerator so it’s easier to keep them around to use when you need them.
How I Use: Besides squeezing over fish or using in cocktails like I mentioned above, here are some other ways I like to use lemons and limes:
- Squeeze over cooked chicken or use to make this Dairy Free Chicken Piccata Meatballs
- Add lemon or lime juice to broth-based soups (add it right at the end, after cooking). This adds a bright fresh flavor that tastes really good.
- Add the juice to homemade vinaigrette, such as this Citrus Vinaigrette.
- Use in marinades – it’s best to add the lemon or lime juice for no more than the last 15 minutes of marinating to make sure it doesn’t cause the meat to get tough.
- Finely shred the zest (the very outer part of the peel that doesn’t include the white pith) and sprinkle it over fish, chicken or cooked vegetables. Try this Grilled Rosemary Potato Packet
- Add finely shredded lemon or lime zest to cakes or sugar cookies.
- Add lemon or lime slices to cold or hot water to add extra flavor.
- Did I mention cocktails?
Conclusion to Adding Flavor to Food
Healthy cooking at home doesn’t have to take a long time or be a big chore. Having a few key ingredients in your cooking arsenal will help you get meals on the table quicker, easier and with more flavor! Adding flavor to foods with 16 healthy ingredients is the key!
Which of the ingredients I highlighted do you use regularly? Leave a comment to let me know how you love to use it!