A capsule kitchen—inspired by the minimalist idea of a limited “capsule” wardrobe—can help streamline your meal preparation, minimize waste, and reduce the time you spend at the grocery store, while helping you cook diverse, tasty meals on a regular basis. “The capsule kitchen is a great concept,” says Katzie Guy-Hamilton, Equinox’s New York City-based director of food and beverage and author of Clean Enough. “It’s how chefs create restaurant menus and it’s the basis for any healthy plate.”
The capsule wardrobe trend celebrates the idea of downsizing your wardrobe to a restricted amount of timeless, essential pieces that are complemented by rotating statement pieces purchased once a season.
The capsule kitchen method draws on this approach, keeping your pantry well-stocked with a few dozen long-lasting staple foods while maintaining variety by incorporating a short list of rotating, seasonal ingredients shopped for weekly. “For a performance-minded person that wants to have a standard weekly menu,” says Guy-Hamilton, “it’s good to focus on lean protein (plant-based or otherwise), healthy fats, low-starch vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.”
Your staple foods are versatile essentials that make up about 75 percent of your pantry. The list should include a few items in each of the following categories.
These should be foods you like eating regularly, and ideally, you should have at least a few different ways to prepare them.
Grains and carbohydrates: There are many common ingredients like rice, quinoa, oats, pasta, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. Be sure to add a variety of carbohydrates to the mix—soba, buckwheat, and whole-grain noodles are fiber-rich alternatives to refined-flour pasta. Guy-Hamilton likes to use organic rice, heirloom farro, and oats.
Protein: Lean chicken breasts and thighs are excellent options, as they can be frozen and defrosted when needed. Beans, whether canned or dry, are also nutritionally-rich and easily stored. Bone-in, wild-caught salmon (canned, fresh, or frozen) is a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids. Monica Auslander Moreno, MS, RDN of Essence Nutrition in Miami recommends keeping organic tempeh steaks on hand, which she explains are “chameleonic in adapting to any flavor,” so you can add them to just about any meal.
Produce: While fresh vegetables and fruit are always part of the rotation, they don’t exclusively have to be fresh. “[Frozen and canned] foods are picked and frozen right away at peak ripeness, locking in all the nutritious vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants they provide,” explains Alex Aldeborgh, Boston-based registered dietitian. Canned tomatoes, for example, are a versatile kitchen ingredient that can be used in a variety of sauces, stews, and soups.
Fats and flavoring agents: Finally, keeping an array of spices, condiments, and sauce bases around will bring your dishes to life. Chicken stock (or vegetable stock, if preferred) is an indispensable item and is easy to store or freeze in individual servings. Coconut milk is a multipurpose addition to the pantry, as it can be used in curries, smoothies, and as a plant-based creamer for coffee. Oils like coconut and olive are essentials for cooking and dressing, and should stay stocked. Bethany Snodgrass, certified health coach and operations manager of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute, also recommends avocado and grapeseed oils. Keep soy sauce, vinegar, and white wine available too, as they make excellent seasonings for a variety of meals. Guy-Hamilton often cooks with condiments like mustard, tahini, and harissa.
Embracing the seasonal offerings at the store will inspire you to create new dishes or learn new recipes, and expand cooking techniques. Alongside fresh vegetables and fruits, herbs are an excellent addition to your lineup, and provide flavor with minimal calories. Makenna Held, director of Courageous Cooking School at La Pitchoune, Julia Child's former summer home in Provence, argues that, “a sprig of fresh thyme will outperform heaps of dry any day.” She recommends keeping thyme, rosemary, parsley, and dill growing on your counter so you don’t have to go pick them up. If you find your leftover herbs starting to wilt before you can use them, preserve them by chopping them up and freezing them in an ice cube tray with olive oil. Garlic and citrus juices should also be fresh whenever possible.
Dairy, if you consume it, will almost always be on your rotating list due to its short shelf life, although plant-based dairy items usually don’t need to be refrigerated until opened. Don’t underestimate high-quality fermented dairy, says Guy-Hamilton, who keeps goat’s milk yogurt in her rotation. She often adds Manchego and Pecorino Romano cheeses to dishes as well, for even more richness and flavor. Snodgrass suggests ricotta and cottage cheese as other healthy alternatives.
Limiting yourself to weekly grocery store trips forces you to get creative with what you already have in your pantry and freezer, so improvisation is key to the capsule kitchen method.
According to guidelines set out by Precision Nutrition, your plate should be comprised of 1 palm-sized serving of protein, 1 fist-sized serving of vegetables, a cupped-hand-size serving of carbohydrates, and a thumb-sized serving of fat. Using these guidelines, create well-rounded dishes using both your staple ingredients and the fresh, seasonal items. “Remember to focus on plants and color and supplement with protein, fats, and healthy carbohydrates,” Guy-Hamilton recommends.
After all, if your kitchen is well-stocked with foods you like, you’re bound to enjoy the meals that come out of it.