Whole Foods Healthy Cooking: Nutrient Dense Food

Yikes! You’re running late and traffic is moving at a snail’s pace. It’s almost dinnertime and you have no idea what you’ll serve your family. Your mind quickly runs through the options: pizza delivery, take out at one of the dozen chain restaurants you’ll pass by, a quick-to-fix option from the supermarket’s grocery aisle, assorted cold cuts and rolls from the deli for sandwiches or a healthy homemade meal packed with nutrition. Which option do you choose?

Having so many options can make eating healthy a challenge. And, monetary cost aside, the price for most of these options is quite high. Many of our choices include foods that contain more calories than our body needs and far too few nutrients necessary to keep us in good health. Bodies lacking essential nutrients don’t run efficiently and health problems begin to appear. Medical studies consistently show a number of chronic diseases directly related to diet.

Selecting foods high in nutrition is the best health insurance bargain around. It will go a long way in preventing health problems today and in the future. Basically, nutrient density is all about how many nutrients are in a food compared to the number of calories it has. In other words, how many calories will it cost you to get the nutrition your body needs? Based on what you choose, you’ll either get a great return on your calorie investment or you’ll come up short.

Foods that are nutrient dense have abundant vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, protein, fiber and healthy fats. Some of the most nutrient dense foods are green vegetables, other colorful vegetables, fresh fruits, whole grains, beans and legumes. The closer a food is to the way nature produced it (less processed), the more nutritious it’s likely to be. Processed foods lose nutrients.

If you have a big appetite, here’s some good news. The more nutrient dense a food is, the quicker and longer you’ll feel satisfied. You can fill your plate with great tasting food and you’ll keep hunger at bay for longer. Here are some of the best foods to keep on hand to ensure you get a good return on your calorie investment.

Nutrient Dense Must-Have Foods

This is by no means an all-inclusive list, but it’s a great start to setting up a healthy kitchen. Stock these items on a regular basis and a great, healthy meal that’s packed with nutrition will never be more than 30 minutes away.


  • Asparagus
  • Beets
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Greens (kale, collards, chard, mustard, spinach)
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Mushrooms (crimini, shiitake,etc.)
  • Onions
  • Sea vegetables (nori, kombu, dulse)
  • Squash
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Tomatoes (whole and salsa)


  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Berries (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries
  • Citrus fruit (lemons, limes, grapefruits, oranges)
  • Grapes
  • Kiwi
  • Pears
  • Pineapple
  • Watermelon


  • Barley
  • Brown rice
  • Buckwheat noodles
  • Corn (whole, cornmeal, polenta)
  • Millet
  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • Whole Wheat flour
  • Ezekiel tortillas, bread & English muffins (frozen)

Nuts & Seeds

  • Almonds (whole and almond butter)
  • Flaxseeds
  • Peanuts (whole & peanut butter)
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sesame seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Walnuts

Beans & Legumes

  • Black beans
  • Cannellini beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Kidney beans
  • Lentils
  • Pinto beans
  • Tempeh
  • Tofu

Other essentials:

  • Olive oil
  • Vinegar (apple cider, balsamic)
  • Miso
  • Basil
  • Cilantro
  • Cinnamon
  • Cumin
  • Ginger
  • Pepper
  • Sea salt
  • Turmeric

Make meal prep a snap by cooking some things ahead of time. I usually prep things with soaking like brown rice, lentils and beans on Sunday evening for an easy start to the week.

Breakfast Ideas

  • Ezekiel muffins topped with almond butter and sliced bananas
  • Porridge made from brown rice, oats or quinoa (add cinnamon for great flavor boost and top with berries) with freshly ground flaxseed sprinkled on top.
  • Smoothie made with whatever fruits you have on hand, soy, rice or almond milk (or try cold green tea as an alternative) and a handful of spinach.
  • Apple cut in half, cored and spread with almond butter.

Lunch Ideas

  • Salad of spinach topped with kidney beans, carrots, sliced mushrooms & brown rice w/ homemade dressing of olive oil/vinegar, salt & pepper.
  • Lentils with chopped leftover veggies from the night before tossed with a little vinaigrette dressing and sprinkled with some chopped nori.
  • Toss a handful each of kidney beans, black beans and cannellini beans into a bowl. Add a chopped tomato and a little chopped onion. Squeeze a little lemon juice into the bowl, add a splash of olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper for a tasty bean salad.
  • Place cooked beans in a food processor, add a clove or two of garlic, some cumin and salt and pepper. Process until smooth. Use as you would hummus, either in sandwiches or as a dip for veggies.

Dinner Ideas

  • Buckwheat noodles cooked and tossed with lentils. Chop broccoli and onions and sauté in a little olive oil. Grate a little fresh ginger over mixture just as veggies get tender and toss with noodle/lentil mixture.
  • Soup made with leftovers from the past few days. Saute an onion in a little olive oil. When the onion is tender, toss in handfuls of veggies, grains, legumes, etc., whatever is in the fridge. Add vegetable broth or water, a piece of kombu and simmer for 10 minutes. Add a tablespoon or two of miso and serve.
  • Burritos made with Ezekiel tortillas: sauté an onion in a little olive oil. Add in your favorite beans, a few handfuls of cooked brown rice, and any other leftover veggies you like. Heat for a few minutes and roll into tortillas. Top with salsa and cilantro.
  • Greens & tofu. Wash and cut kale and cut tofu into half inch cubes. Place tofu on paper towels to remove excess water. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet and toss in a clove or two of chopped garlic. Saute for a minute and add the chopped kale and tofu. Saute for five minutes and remove from heat. Squeeze a little lemon juice over the kale. Serve “as is” over brown rice, roll in a tortilla or toss with some whole grain pasta.

Michelle Hirsch lives in southern NH and teaches whole foods cooking throughout New England. She is a graduate of the world-renowned Kushi Institute where she also worked developing curriculum. Michelle is the author of Venturesome Vegetarian and can be contacted at mphirsch@yahoo.com