A Valentine, From Your Pantry to Your Heart

Valentine’s Day is almost here! Sweethearts, Cinnamon Hearts, satin-lined heart-shaped boxes of premium chocolates! All those sugary treats for the tongue and the tummy, but what about our hearts? Diseases affecting the heart top the list of chronic diseases for adults the world over. More than half of all adults have a nutrition-related chronic disease. Unfortunately, one chronic disease often joins hands with another and another. Before you know it, there’s a whole bevy of noisy diseases sitting around your kitchen table, each one yelling louder than the other to get your attention.

What’s the best way to quiet down and make friends with a group of trouble-makers? Feed them! First, you have to get their attention, and that’s easy – just open your pantry door, open your fridge, open your freezer and start a treasure hunt to find as many colorful veggies and fruits as you can. Move things around, look to the back of the shelves. Did you find some canned pumpkin? How about some canned beets, maybe a handful of Brussels sprouts hiding in the crisper, carrots and green beans, some spinach and blueberries in the freezer, perhaps a can or two of peaches, and oh the lovely cans of crushed tomatoes! Don’t forget that white is a color too, so bring out your potatoes and onions and garlic and parsnips.

Next up on the treasure hunt are the grains. Not just oatmeal or rice or pasta. Are there any whole-grain crackers that got pushed to the side? Now look for any nuts and seeds that may have been overlooked when you were busy picking all of the cashews out of the mix. Last but not least, put out a search for the protein foods that are being overlooked – cans and packets of tuna and salmon, beans of every shape and color, perhaps some eggs in the fridge.

Look at all of these goodies that have been hiding in your Pantry! Filled with colors and vitamins and minerals and anti-oxidants and phytonutrients and fiber and, most importantly, flavor. Vitamins and minerals from food are the best forms for our bodies to use. Virtually all of them have multiple jobs to do, from turning our food into energy to helping our muscles contract and relax (the heart is a muscle, but our faces are also full of muscles that need vitamins and minerals, and energy so that we can smile and say “I love you!”). Veggies and fruits are a rich source of potassium that not only helps our muscles to contract, but it also helps to protect our blood vessels by keeping them smooth and flexible, so there is less damage from high blood pressure.

Those rich colors in our veggies, as well as the golden hues in our grains and nuts and seeds, are the visual representation of phytonutrients that keep all of our parts humming quietly and in harmony. Think about the lycopene in tomatoes and watermelon, luteins and carotenes in the deep orange and green veggies and fruits. Cancer-fighting glucosinolates are found in our crisp and colorful broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and Brussels sprouts.

Something all of these foods have in common is fiber! Some forms of fiber help to remove cholesterol from the body, some of it helps to keep blood sugar more stable, all of it makes the good bacteria in our intestines want to do the tango.

There are many online sites these days with great ideas for using up pantry staples as well as 2020 panic buys. But you can also use your imagination. Who says that Apple Crisp is the only kind of crisp we can eat in New England? Canned peaches are firm enough that they hold up well in a crisp, and if you add some frozen blueberries, well, it just tastes like summer! Canned pumpkin is a great base for a warming curry soup, works great in a smoothie, and it makes for a tasty side dish when you stir in some peanut butter and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Those whole-grain crackers can be crushed up and used as a casserole topping in place of breadcrumbs. Jarred marinated artichokes turn tuna salad into tuna spectacular. Oatmeal isn’t just for breakfast – look on-line for some of the delicious savory ways it is made in other countries. And who says that hummus has to be made with chick-peas? White beans, black beans, red beans all lend themselves to your own version of hummus.

Not only do our food choices affect our own health, but they also directly impact the health of our planet in the form of greenhouse gases from food waste going into our landfills. We can take charge of this with the food decisions we make every time we eat. As we are heading into February, why not start by loving our hearts and the planet by choosing some of the food we’ve got stocked in our pantries and freezers.

Here’s my favorite Valentine’s Day hot cocoa recipe made with things I’ll bet you have in your pantry:

  • 2 cups of milk – reconstituted powdered milk works well, or for a very rich beverage, you can use canned evaporated milk (NOT condensed milk)
  • 3 – 4 Tablespoons of baking cocoa powder*
  • Pinch of salt (the salt helps the cocoa powder to dissolve)
  • 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • Sweetener of your choice – brown sugar, maple syrup, molasses, or just plain table sugar

Mix all of the ingredients in a large measuring cup and whisk well to combine, making sure there are no lumps of cocoa powder.
Heat on high for 2 minutes, stir and then heat for an additional 2 minutes. It can also be made on the stovetop.

*Cocoa powder is rich in flavonoids, minerals, and fiber; cinnamon helps keep blood sugar stable.

Cynthia Knipe is a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist with What Nourishes You, LLC, based in Keene, NH. She looks forward to the day when we can gather again for Monadnock Food Co-op’s Wellness Workshops.

Photo by Bannon Morrissy on Unsplash