How to Go Vegetarian: 12 Must-Have Pantry Essentials

Want to go vegetarian or vegan? One of the first things you should do to get started is to build a pantry full of flavorful and nutritious ingredients that will make sticking to a plant-based diet easy and totally delicious. The following non-perishable pantry essentials should be combined with lots of fresh produce, tofu, tempeh, dairy products for ovo-lacto vegetarians and a moderate amount of refrigerated or frozen convenience foods as desired. Keep these items stocked and you’ll always have the basis of a fantastic meat-free meal.

Oils and Vinegars

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Good quality extra virgin olive oil can take a salad from tasty to sublime, and supplies many of the healthy fats our bodies need. Coconut oil is delicious in baked goods, and light olive oil, canola oil and peanut oil are great choices for high-heat cooking. Store oils in a cool, dark place to keep them from going rancid. White, apple cider, red wine and balsamic vinegars brighten and deepen flavors in all sorts of dishes like greens and stews, and make simple low-calorie dressings.

Pasta and Grains

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Grains make up a significant portion of a vegetarian’s daily meals. Be sure to keep staples like pasta, brown rice, white rice, oats and cornmeal stocked in your pantry, and also consider lesser-known grains like bulgur, barley, amaranth, millet and extremely nutritious quinoa. When combined in the same meal with beans, pulses, nuts or seeds, whole grains create a complete vegetarian protein containing all of the amino acids and enzymes needed for a healthy body.

Vegetable Stock or Bullion

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While homemade stock simmered from leftover veggies like onions, carrots and celery is undeniably best, packaged stock – or vegetarian bullion cubes – is a great way to add a whole lot of flavor to a wide variety of dishes like soups, stews and sauces. You can also kick up the flavor of rice or pasta by using stock in place of cooking water (or adding a bullion cube).

Nutritional Yeast

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Yeast as flavoring? If you’ve never tried it, run to the store this instant and get yourself some nutritional yeast, which is sold in shaker canisters and also in bulk bins. Standing in for cheese in many vegan recipes, nutritional yeast is also fantastic as a popcorn topper, in scrambled tofu and as a star ingredient in many vegetarian gravies. It’s packed with B vitamins and amino acids that can be difficult to get from vegetarian sources.

Dried Beans and Lentils

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Dried beans are hard to beat as a pantry staple because they’re super cheap, easy to prepare and nutritionally dense. Most vegetarians and vegans find that beans like pintos, great northern, kidney and black beans as well as lentils are an integral part of their daily diet. Pick through dried beans to remove any stones (especially if purchased from bulk bins) and soak overnight before cooking. Pour out the soak water and give them a rinse to cut back on bowel-bending after-effects. Canned beans are also a great pantry supplement for those last-minute meals that need to cook quickly.

Healthy Sweeteners

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Raw honey is an antibacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal substance that happens to taste absolutely amazing in tea, on toast and substituted for sugar in breads, cakes and cookies. Agave nectar is another popular natural sweetener, best purchased in the most raw, unaltered state possible, which is a suitable vegan substitute for honey. Other options include zero-calorie stevia, made from the leaves of a naturally sweet plant, as well as raw sugar, which is processed without the use of animal bones.

Nuts, Seeds and Nut Butters

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Peanuts, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and walnuts are just a few examples of the healthy nuts and seeds that can be added to a vegetarian diet for protein, minerals, vitamins, fiber and essential fatty acids. A quarter-cup of almonds contains more protein than an egg, and flaxseeds have the omega-3 fatty acids normally found mostly in meat sources. Nuts do tend to be high in fat, but that doesn’t make them unhealthy – just eat them in moderation. Roasted or raw nuts and seeds can be added to all kinds of foods like granola, cereal, oatmeal, salads and baked goods.

Tamari and Miso

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Among the basic tastes registered by our tongues – in addition to sweet, sour, bitter and salty – is ‘umami’, a rich flavor most often associated with meat. This flavor is what many new vegetarians miss most about their old diet, not realizing that they can still achieve that highly desirable depth of flavor with vegetarian ingredients like soy sauce and miso, a traditional fermented Japanese flavoring. Seaweed and the popular Bragg’s Liquid Aminos (a liquid protein concentrate) are additional ways to work this flavor into practically any savory dish.

Canned Vegetables and Jarred Sauces

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As a vegetarian or vegan, nearly half of your daily food intake should be comprised of fresh fruits and vegetables. However, there will occasionally be times when fresh produce isn’t convenient, like the heart of winter when good-tasting fresh tomatoes are difficult to come by. Keep some canned tomatoes, pureed pumpkin or winter squash, pasta sauce and artichoke hearts in the pantry and add any other veggies that appeal.

Dried Fruit

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Dried fruit makes a great snack and adds a pop of bright sweetness to savory dishes. It’s also an excellent source of iron, which many vegetarians lack in sufficient quantities. Raisins, cranberries, cherries, pineapple, apple slices and banana chips are commonly available as well as more exotic offerings like papaya and kiwi.

Baking Supplies

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Becoming vegetarian doesn’t necessarily mean you suddenly have to be a whiz at baking, but if you’re already an experienced cook, making your own bread, muffins, pizza crust and other baked goods is a natural step. If you’re vegan, however, knowing how to bake can be a crucial skill that will enable you to avoid sneaky dairy products like eggs, milk and butter. Flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and yeast are a few basic items that you’ll need to get started. Vegan bakers will also find that applesauce and egg replacer are common ingredients in many recipes.

A Range of Spices

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Spices are truly the trick to any memorable meal, whether meat-based or entirely vegan.  Experiment to find the varieties and combinations that you like best, but some staples include dried herbs like parsley, sage, thyme, tarragon and basil as well as spicy cayenne pepper, paprika, turmeric, garlic powder and chili powder.

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