30 Essential Plant-Based Groceries
If you had to stock an empty kitchen (excluding coffee/tea, oils, herbs, spices, salt, and sugar), and you could only fill your cart with 30 items, what would make the cut? What would you have to sacrifice?
My boyfriend and I created a simple game aimed at answering that exact question. But when we were done, we realized we had a fantastic cheatsheet to use as we travel from around South America from one Airbnb to another.
How the Game Works
Imagine you just arrived at a new apartment and you need groceries for a couple weeks. Now make a quick list of everything you think you might purchase. You’ll need at least 30 items, but if you have more, the next step will be more fun.
Note: Be as specific as you can; writing “fruit” will make this way too easy.
Now for the fun part. In order of importance, start numbering items on your list from 1 to 30. Taking turns with a partner who has his or her own list will make this a lot more challenging because half the items will be out of your control — but no list sharing beforehand and no peeking!
What made your top 10? What was left on the shelf? When we finished our list, I was shocked to realize that dark chocolate was nowhere to be found. Hopefully the chocolate gods will still let me into chocolate heaven when I die?
I just want to point out that our list isn’t “The Top 30 Healthiest Superfoods”, or a definitive list for budding vegans. It is simply a glimpse into the dietary choices of two pretty darn healthy whole-foods, plant-based digital nomads.
I’ve also added a short explanation for each choice, as well as similar alternatives I would buy if that item was out of season or simply not available (which is often the case outside the USA).
And if you keep reading, you’ll also find a few of my favorite tips to use when you arrive at a new Airbnb, as well as some killer plant-based meal ideas. Plus, a screen-shot-able version of this list! Okay, let’s go!
The Big 30
Cool beans, lentils took the top stop!
Lentils are an incredible source of protein and iron, and they make a great substitute for animal protein. They’re also inexpensive, quick cooking, and they absorb the flavor like you wouldn’t believe.
I often cook up a giant batch and store it in the fridge to add to pasta sauces, curries, and salads at a moments notice.
Can’t find lentils? A few awesome alternatives are black beans, chickpeas, canary beans, pinto beans and green peas.
We’re absolutely obsessed with oats. Preferably soaked overnight with a dash of cinnamon, a sprinkle of chia seeds, and plenty of plant-based shmilk. Top them in the morning with anything and everything you can find in the cupboard — bananas, berries, granola, nuts, cacao nibs — and you’ve got a foolproof recipe for breakfast bliss.
I also recommend adding them to pancakes, smoothies, and baked goods of all kinds — they’re super nutritious and delicious.
Do you even oat? In my eyes there is no perfect oat substitute, but since it’s one of the most ubiquitous foodstuffs on the planet, you probably won’t ever have to do without. All hail the mighty oat!
There’s a reason that rice is an indispensable part of so many diets around the globe. It’s dirt cheap (without tasting like dirt) and pairs well with nearly any savory dish (and some sweet ones too!).
When available, I’ll buy a rice fortified with vitamins and minerals, such as Iron and B vitamins, just for that extra bit of nutrition that can sometimes be hard to get from plant-based foods. I also enjoy kicking up the flavor during the cooking process with additions like turmeric, anise seeds, cilantro, or tomato.
Rice doesn’t sound nice? Pick up some quinoa (SPOILER: It’s already on our list), wheat berries, or farro.
While you’ll likely find a gang of different plant-based shmilks bullying the other food in our fridge, oat milk is the undisputed ringleader. It’s dangerously creamy with a slightly toasty aroma and it easily replaces dairy milk in traditional recipes.
Oat milk also happens to have the smallest environmental footprint out of all the plan-based milks — but ANY other plant-based option is better for the planet than dairy milk.
All out of oat milk? Start with soy, almond, or coconut. But be sure to pick one that matches your preferred level of sweetness.
Congrats to spinach for breaking into our top five — you’re tasty, versatile, and fantastically nutrient dense!
Because spinach is as well-suited to salads as it is curries, pastas, or a smoothies, you might find yourself having a bit of spinach at every meal.
Need a spinach break? Try mixing it up with arugula, kale, cabbage, or watercress.
Tomatoes: The fruit/vegetable that’s so good, it made our list twice (see #18)!
Salsas, salads, sauces, sautéed, stewed, roasted or raw — tomatoes are remarkably versatile (Are we sensing a theme here?) and no kitchen feels complete without them. Cherry tomatoes are my absolute favorite, and not just because they are the most adorable.
Can’t find tomatoes? I would suggest alternatives if the idea wasn’t so upsetting.
Broccoli is a favorite among physical fitness fanatics who fondly fling free weights frantically, my friend. That’s because it’s easily one the healthiest vegetables on the planet.
My suggestion is to cut up and roast a giant batch with a few other veggies like cauliflower and carrots for a simple ready-to-go meal addition that never fails to satisfy.
Broccoli killing your gains? Try Brussels sprouts, asparagus, or cauliflower.
Because onions add a savory sweetness when cooked, a spicy bitterness when raw, and a tangy punch when pickled, they always find their way into our favorite dishes. As a matter of fact, if this list was reordered by volume consumed, onions would probably make the top three.
Alternatives to make you cry: Although we specifically chose red onions due to their pungent appeal, any ol’ onion will do.
Bell pepper has a crisp, earthy flavor when eaten raw but turns wonderfully sweet and aromatic when cooked. We roast them, stuff them, sauté them, toss them in salads, and sometimes juggle them.
Did Peter Piper pick all the peppers? A few things that usually work in recipes calling for bell peppers are squash, zucchini, cabbage, bok choy, and radish.
Sweet potatoes are another uber-versatile vegetable since they are great with savory meals but sweet enough that they can also be added to desserts. Honestly I’m a bit surprised they barely made our top 10 since I probably eat one per day on average!
Easiest preparation? Simply scrub the dirt off the outside and pop them in a 400°F oven for an hour — no need to preheat the oven or even poke holes in the skins. Viola! Potato perfection.
Want to mix it up? Try just about any other variety of starchy potato, yucca root, or even a kabocha squash.
Blueberries aren’t just my favorite berry, they are my all-time favorite fruit. And if you don’t like them, good. More for me!
The best thing about blueberries is their perfect balance of sweetness, tartness, and… cuteness? And like all berries, they’re just bursting with antioxidants.
Add some to your cereals, smoothies, and oatmeal bowls — or if you’re anything like me, just shove a handful directly in your mouth like the blueberry monster you are.
Berry good alternatives: Raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and gooseberries.
Whole Wheat Flour
I probably don’t even have to mention this, but if you have a bag of flour, a world of possibilities is at your fingertips. Sourdough loaves, pita bread, pizza dough, homemade pasta, pancakes, banana bread — the list goes on and on.
Although I do use white flour sometimes, I prefer to stick with whole wheat when I can because, well, it’s just better for you in every conceivable way.
Can’t wheat any longer? There are so many other flours to experiment with if you’re a budding baker. But be warned that other flours like almond, coconut, or quinoa can dramatically change the outcome of a recipe — so getting it right can take a bit of experimentation.
Creamy, dreamy avocado… it can take a dish you thought was already great and elevate it to something otherworldly.
Guacamole is a no-brainer but we also use avocado in our burritos and wraps, on salads, in soups and dressings — we’ve even used it in desserts!
Avoca-no? If you’re tired of avocado but you’re still looking for something creamy, why not try hummus, cashew cream, nut butter, or vegan sour cream?
There are so many great nut butter options out there, but peanut is still the king of the Nut Butter Kingdom in my heart.
I recommend it with oatmeal, smoothies, sauces, salad dressings — or just eat it right out of the jar when your boyfriend isn’t looking.
Nut your favorite? We also love almond butter and tahini.
What makes oyster mushrooms different from the more common cremini (which can get a bit slimy when cooked) is the way they turn golden brown and crispy when sautéed. That adds a wonderfully meaty (is there a better term for this now that I’m vegan?) texture and umami flavor to any plant-based recipe.
Fungi fact: Mushrooms aren’t really even vegetables! They exist in their own separate taxonomic kingdom — which seems weird at first, but honestly that makes me love them even more.
Room for more shrooms? When I have options I’ll also consider oyster, trumpet, enoki, or even the humble portobello.
When people call me Hana Banana, they don’t even realize how accurate they are. That’s because it’s a rare day when at least one banana doesn’t find it’s way into my belly.
Usually they top my morning breakfast or are blended up in a smoothie, but I also have come to appreciate some of the savory versions, like plantains or the Colombian patacon.
Going Bananas? Living in South America has opened my eyes to the surprising variety of bananas in all shapes, sizes, and colors. If you ever see the miniature “apple bananas” give them a try! They’re my favorite.
If you don’t know how to cook, there’s a chance you think tofu is a flavorless monstrosity from the pits of hades. But if you have some skill in the kitchen, you know that tofu is more than worthy of a spot in your top 30.
It’s mild flavor and texture options, from extra firm to silky smooth, make it any easy addition to any meal — be it sweet, salty, savory, or my favorite, swaltavory. And don’t let the meat industry propaganda fool you, tofu is completely safe to consume and is one of the best plant-based proteins available.
Tofu not FoYou? If we can’t find tofu (it’s not popular in many countries), other killer plant-based proteins include tempeh, TVP (textured vegetable protein), seitan, and when all else fails, beans!
A can of stewed tomatoes is my secret weapon when making vegetable soups. It helps add a round, full-bodied flavor, even when you can’t get your hands on veggie broth (I’m looking at you Peru!).
And forget expensive, pre-made pasta and pizza sauces, a simple can of tomatoes will get you 85% of the way there — and you’ll have total control over all the flavors. Oh, and if you’ve never made homemade ketchup, you need to… catch.. up… ‘cause it’s an awesome sauce…
Can’t find canned? Stew your own!
Whole Wheat Pasta
If you love things that come in dozens of shapes and sizes for no apparent reason but taste more or less the same, then pasta is probably your best friend. Also, shoutout to those crispy bits on oven-baked pasta that get a little burnt. Mmm.
Are you in a pasta spiral? Try cooking one of your favorite pasta recipes but swap out pasta for ramen noodles, vermicelli, or zucchini spirals.
I’m on the fence as to whether choosing “mixed nuts” is a cheat, but considering that they often seem more common than the non-mixed variety, I’ll let myself slide.
Nuts are great eaten as a snack but they are also perfect for adding that well-deserved crunch to sweet or savory dishes. They can also be used to make DIY nut butters, creams for sauces, and nutty pestos.
Here is my official nut ranking: Walnuts, cashews, pistachios, almonds, pine nuts, sunflower, pumpkin, pecans, peanuts. You’re welcome.
It’s hard to think of anything tastier than a tasty tasty mango that’s just super super tasty — it’s unbelievable how tasty they can be!
When they’re in season, you’ll find them on my breakfasts, in my smoothies, and in my salads.
Out of season? A few other fruits that almost made this list are: Pineapple, chirimoya, persimmon, starfruit, orange, and pear.
If vinegar was rebranded, my suggestion would be ThatZing!® because it brings that zing every time.
The main reason plain ol’ white vinegar made our top 30 is our obsession with pickled onions, but it’s also a key ingredient in many salad dressings or sauces that need ThatZing!®. Catchy right?
White doesn’t feel right? Apple cider vinegar, balsamic, white wine vinegar, red white vinegar, and rice vinegar have their place in a well-stocked kitchen.
Sometimes I can’t resist indulging my inner child with a giant bowl of cereal. But since we are adulting now, I skip the Froot Loops and opt for something a bit more sophisticated.
I look for a cereal with lots of fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and just a dose of sweetness. This help to avoid those sugar highs without settling for something that tastes like the cereal box it came in.
Inner child all grown up? Granola is grown-up cereal in disguise and attracts an awful lot less judgmental stares when you eat it straight out of the box by the fistful.
If you cook a lot of asian dishes, you’re already familiar with this salty flavor powerhouse. We use it for marinades, soups, and sauces of all kinds because it adds that “ooh mommy!” umami flavor that so many vegan dishes demand.
Still feeling saucey? Other great options to try are tamari, liquid aminos, or vegan Worcestershire sauce.
Carrots are great as a healthy snack, baked into breads, or shredded over salads — but the real reason they made this list is the role they play in mirepoix, aka the Holy Trinity of soup and sauce bases.
While mirepoix may sound fancy, but really it’s just onion, celery, and carrots, finely diced and sauteed until golden brown. This simple yet rich combination makes a fabulous foundation for many soups and sauces.
Carrots not 24 karat? Alternatives to carrot really depends on what you’re cooking. But a few things I’ll consider when there are no carrots in sight are beets, radishes, leeks, and turnips.
What do I add garlic to? Honestly it would take less time to list the things I don’t add garlic to.
Here are a few ways I cook with it: Baked whole until it’s sweet and sticky, diced and added to oven-roasted veggies, fried into crispy garlic chips, minced and added raw to pasta salad, mixed in dressings, baked on bread until toasty, and of course, sautéed in savory dishes for that extra oomph!
Too much garlic breath? No perfect substitutes here, but onions, chives, toasted seeds, or citrus zest can help elevate a recipe in garlic’s absence.
Cauliflower is basically broccoli’s long lost albino cousin. A little milder, a bit more tender, and a lot less stinky.
Our favorite cooking method is oven-roasted until golden brown at the edges. But it’s also stunning in soups, stir fries, pastas, and curries.
Cauliflower not in bloom? Try broccoli, cabbage, zucchini, or asparagus.
When you’re abroad, a quality mustard can sometimes be hard to find — so if you see a delectable dijon or a spicy brown, snatch it up while you’re in town!
Employ this sacred substance liberally to dress up your dressings, slather on your sandwiches, bathe your burgers, and fix up your fries.
Dijon all gone? Here are a few other condiments I like to keep on hand: Horseradish, wasabi, sriracha, harissa, and hummus.
I have three words for and they are all “CRUNCH!”.
As stated previously, celery plays a starring role in mirepoix, but it also makes an appearance in many dishes, and if I’m being totally honestly, I also use it as a thinly veiled excuse to eat more peanut butter.
Feeling the crunch? Besides celery there are lots of great ways to add some crunch — cucumber, water chestnuts, radish, toasted garbanzo beans, toasted seeds, nuts, pita crisps, and cooked tofu, just to name a few.
Why not give the rice a rest and whip up some quinoa instead? It’s fluffy with a slightly nutty bite, and it’s absolutely jam-packed with nutrition.
Not keen on KEEN·waa? The dried grains & beans section at your local market is just begging to be explored — so be brave and snag a couple options you’re not familiar with and give them a go!
Instant Spice Cabinet
It would be impossible to make a solid top 30 if we had to include herbs and spices — so here is a spicy travel tip: Pack your own spices when you travel!
It may sound silly to some, but if you cook as much as we do, this could save you a lot of time and effort. Plus, you’re bound to be surprised at how difficult it can be to get your hands on certain seasonings when you’re abroad. In some more remote areas, you’ll be lucky to find whole peppercorns let alone like exotic spices like saffron, cumin seeds, or your mom’s super secret spice blend.
So if you have the extra space in your checked luggage, pack a double-ziplock plastic bag with your most prized flavorings.
What We Do With Our Groceries on Day One
This next section is a little insight into what we like to do once we arrive at a new apartment with our first batch of groceries.
Start Soaking the Beans
If you bought dried beans, especially tougher ones like garbanzo, get them soaking as soon as you can so they’ll be ready to cook that evening or early the next morning.
A batch of pickled onions (and optional peppers) take less than 15 minutes to make and it’s one of my secret weapons in the kitchen. Here’s a simple recipe but feel free to make it your own with additions like bay leaves or dried peppercorns.
Roast Those Veggies!
Even if you don’t plan on eating them right away, a tray of oven roasted veggies is a great meal prep and only takes five minutes to prepare. 20 minutes in the oven and they’ll be ready to be snacked on or stored for later.
Fix Up Some Overnight Oats
Oats + shmilk + salt + cinnamon + sweetener = perfection. So get a batch going now so they’ll be ready in the morning.
Pro-tip: They also make a solid midnight snack.
Make a Sourdough Starter
A new sourdough starter typically takes 3-4 days to fully mature so don’t waste another minute. Feed that yeast and in a few days you’ll be making tasty homemade breads! Here’s my simple guide.
A Few of Our Favorite Dishes
Here are some of my favorite dishes that use the ingredients from the shopping list.
- Overnight oats (have I mentioned this enough?)
- Banana pancakes topped with berries and peanut butter
- Garlic naan bread and yellow curry
- Hearty vegetable bean soup
- Spicy tomato pasta with meaty mushrooms
- Tofu rice bowls with stir fried veggies
- Tofu scramble
- Crunchy salad with peanut lime sauce
- Cheeseless flatbread pizza
- Bean burgers & sweet potato fries
Let the Game Begin
As promised, above is the final list! Feel free to screenshot it for your next grocery trip if you need any ideas.
Did you try the pick 30 game? If you did, let me know below if anything surprised you.