Good health begins in the kitchen. Not only with what you’re cooking, but how you’re cooking!
This guide is designed to help you set up your kitchen for optimum health. We’ll cover why you should be using nontoxic cookware, the basics of healthy kitchen habits and, at the back of the guide, you’ll find a checklist to create a healthy kitchen for your own home.
As with our other healthy living guides, this is meant to inform and inspire, rather to scare you with the harmful chemicals we’ve been using and exposed to for so long. Don’t worry about overhauling your entire kitchen in one day—just start where you can and take one step at a time toward healthier choices.
Cook well, eat well, live well.
A healthy kitchen is in large part built around the materials in which we prepare, heat and store food. As you may know, heating kitchenware can release its materials into both our food and the air we breathe. So, we want to avoid cookware that releases toxic chemicals (we’re looking at you, non-stick coatings!) and use materials that are as non-reactive as possible (some materials, like plastic, react when exposed to acidic foods and end up leaching toxins into our food).
Fortunately, there are many safe cookware options that are comparably priced to their not-so-healthy counterparts. Here are our recommendations for healthy and affordable kitchenware:
A good cast iron skillet is naturally non-stick (if you keep it well seasoned and cared for properly—more notes on that below) and even adds small amounts of iron to food as it’s heated. Supplemental iron is a welcome addition for many people, especially menstruating women, who tend to have lower levels. You can use cast iron on the stovetop, in the oven, or even over a campfire!
A cast iron grill pan is a good indoor alternative to outdoor grilling, and happens to be healthier too (more info on grilling below).
A quality enameled cast iron Dutch oven is a versatile kitchen staple, useful for soups and stews, stir fries, meat, pasta and rice dishes.
Stainless steel pots and pans can be a good option, but with a caveat: because stainless steel isn’t a good heat conductor, it’s often combined with nickel or chromium—heavy metals that can leach into food, especially through prolonged heating or exposure to acidic foods. The most common grades of stainless steel cookware are 18/8 or 18/10, which denotes the amount of chromium (18%) and nickel (8 or 10%) present. Though these grades are food-safe for most purposes, nickel is not something we want to ingest, so look for 18/0 grade if you can. Be careful cleaning these pots—don’t use scouring pads, which can damage the stainless steel coating, releasing nickel or exposing its aluminum interior.
Bamboo utensils are best for stovetop cooking and stirring, as they don’t scratch cookware. Silicone utensils are reasonably good options too, but don’t leave them sitting in a hot pot (even though they won’t melt, it’s still unclear how much they’ll leach when heated at high temps).
Honorable mention: ceramic cookware is among the healthiest out there, but it’s pricey, requires a bit of special care and getting used to, and it breaks easily, so tends to not be the most practical solution for many households.
We recommend staying entirely clear of non-stick coated pans, even those that are promoted as “nontoxic” or “green”—they still contain synthetic materials we don’t want leaching into food or creating fumes in our indoor air.
Glass baking dishes are safe for heating, and if they come with BPA-free lids, they double as food storage too.
Aluminum baking sheets are safe to heat and don’t release vapors as long as you don’t scratch or corrode them—so avoid using metal spatulas or baking acidic food on them (though you can do so safely if you line the pan with unbleached parchment paper).
A cast iron muffin pan is a durable and good-for-you option; or, of course, you can use an aluminum muffin pan (that’s not scratched) and line it with unbleached baking cups.
Glass cake pans are a good option if your recipe includes a glass baking option (or if you’re able to convert metal pan baking times to glass), or try this ceramic-coated metal pan.
Stoneware is an ancient baking material and one common modern-day use is a pizza stone. Be sure to choose lead-free stoneware and to care for and wash it properly (no soap!).
Unbleached parchment paper sheets are helpful to protect aluminum baking sheets from scratching or corrosion, and make clean up easier.
A note on silicone: though it’s non-stick and stain-resistant (double yay!) and is FDA-approved as a food-safe substance, silicone is still a relatively new baking material and there isn’t enough research yet to say if it’s healthy to cook with or not—existing research shows that it can be used safely at body temperature or cooler, but there is some concern about leaching at high temperatures. So, at this time, feel good using silicone ice cube trays, candy molds or spatulas, but avoid baking with silicone or heating it to high temperatures.
Glass storage containers (with BPA-free lids) are non-reactive and safe to use in the oven or microwave (without the lid, of course!).
Stainless steel water bottles and thermoses are good options for water, tea, coffee, smoothies, etc.
Plastic sandwich bags are not the safest or most eco-friendly option, so try unbleached paper snack/sandwich bags or BioBags (a biodegradable plastic-free bag made from GMO-free crops), both available at Whole Foods and other natural grocers.
APPLIANCES & GADGETS
The healthiest coffee maker options are made of glass or stainless steel. At the top of our list are: Chemex glass coffee maker with unbleached filters, Bodum glass pour over with a permanent stainless steel filter, or a glass/stainless French press. (Yup, you’ll notice pods didn’t make the list—they contain plastic and aluminum, go straight to the landfill, and the tubing and compartments of their machines are hard to clean and harbor mold spores.)
Grind your coffee beans fresh with a coffee grinder
Vitamix makes a powerful and long-lasting blender with BPA-free plastic.
Slow cookers are a good option for extended heating, as long as they’re made with lead-free enamel coating—many manufacturers test their products to ensure they contain no measurable amount of lead, but check specific model information for details. VitaClay slow cookers use a lead-free clay internal pot.
Instant Pot (the all-in-one pressure cooker/slow cooker/rice cooker/steamer/yogurt maker) is made of 18/8 stainless steel with no chemical coating, which makes it a good option for heating. As with all stainless steel, take care not to scratch it with abrasive or sharp materials, which will release toxic nickel.
For veggie noodles, a BPA-free plastic vegetable spiralizer works just fine, since it’s not being heated.
Whether you prefer a stand mixer or hand mixer, KitchenAid makes a nice one. Some of the attachments have a nylon coating (to make them dishwasher-friendly—the other option, burnished metal, needs to be washed by hand), so just be sure to replace these attachments if they start to chip.
You may know that grilling meat over high heat has some health concerns (we explain more below), but, in general, a gas grill is a healthier option than charcoal.
OTHER FOOD PREP
Bamboo cutting boards are sturdy, have natural antimicrobial properties, and they’re made from a sustainable natural resource.
Choose a high carbon stainless steel knife set (whichever style/variety works best for your cooking needs). As cute as they are, shy away from the colored sets, as the color tends to wear off the blade over time.
Stainless steel, glass or lead-free ceramic mixing bowls are all safe options.
Stainless steel measuring cups & spoons and stainless steel vegetable peelers are durable and safe.
BPA-free plastic or stainless steel salad spinners (large and small) are useful for quickly and easily cleaning greens and fresh herbs.
We like an 18/10 stainless steel colander or, if you’re not getting it too hot, a collapsible silicone strainer saves storage space.
A coated aluminum or 18/10 stainless steel lemon/lime juicer will hold up to the acidity of juicing citrus.
Mortar and pestles come in a variety of safe materials that have been used in different cuisines for centuries—granite, marble or olive wood are all good options.
To make homemade fermented foods, you’ll just need glass mason jars and a fermentation kit.
SERVING DISHES & UTENSILS
Sadly, dinnerware (especially vintage) can contain lead and/or cadmium in its glazes, clay and paint. These heavy metals leach from dishes into food (and more so if the food is acidic). Look for lead-free glass or ceramic products. AmazonBasics has affordable lead-free dinnerware sets.
Hot or acidic beverages (like soda and juice) encourage leaching from plastic, so your best bet for drinkware is glass or ceramic.
Metal utensils manufactured in China often contain aluminum, lead and other toxic heavy metals. Choose 18/0 stainless steel flatware (though 18/8 or 18/10 is okay too if you’re not sensitive to nickel), and don’t use any that has scratches or nicks, as that can release nickel into your food.
Bamboo is an uncommon option, but a good one, as it’s naturally safe, durable and antimicrobial. These bamboo utensils are handy to pack in lunchboxes, take camping, or they can be used at home.
HEALTHY COOKING TIPS
Our integrative nutrition coaching is so individual-specific that we hesitate to give general tips that are meant for everyone… but here are some basic healthy cooking tips that tend to apply regardless of what exactly you’re eating:
WASH FRESH PRODUCE
Fruits and veggies from the supermarket have been on quite a journey to get to you, and their skin likely contains wax, agricultural chemicals and “handling residue”—whatever was on the hands of the people who picked, packed, unpacked and touched them at the store before you. To remove these things, wash your store-bought produce in a vegetable wash like Veggie Wash, or use these homemade methods:
For most produce with a skin: soak for 15 minutes in a large bowl of purified water with *either* 1 cup distilled white vinegar, a few tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, or 1 teaspoon baking soda; scrub gently, rinse and dry.
For greens: fill a salad spinner with greens, purified water, a teaspoon of baking soda and mix well; soak for a few minutes, swish, dump, rinse, spin dry.
For berries: soak briefly in 2 cups purified water and ½ cup fresh lemon juice, then rinse in fresh purified water and dry.
For mushrooms: wipe with a damp cloth or mushroom brush.
(Note: exposure to soil microorganisms is great for your immune system, so produce from your own garden does not need to be washed thoroughly like this.)
PRACTICE SAFE FOOD HANDLING
Store foods at safe temperatures: cold foods 40 °F or below, hot foods 140 °F or above, and frozen foods 0 °F or below.
Perishable foods are in the “danger zone” between 40–140 °F. Don’t let them hang out there for more than two hours (one hour if the temp is above 90 °F).
Cook or freeze fresh poultry, fish and ground meats within two days; beef, lamb and pork within 3-5 days (or follow the advice of the meat/seafood counter you purchased from).
No double dipping! Bacteria from your mouth can grow in condiments like jelly and mayonnaise, so always use a clean utensil.
Use the stovetop fan when cooking to help filter gas and any fumes released from cookware.
Use bamboo or silicone utensils to avoid scratching and damaging cookware.
Cast iron should not be washed in soap or with abrasive scrubbies. Clean up easily by boiling water in the pan to loosen food particles and wiping it clean with a dishcloth. Keep your cast iron well oiled between uses.
Acidic cooking (like tomato-based foods) or longer cooking foods (like long-simmering bone broth) is best done in enameled cast iron.
Grilling meat (particularly charring or overcooking it) produces chemical compounds that are shown to increase risk of cancer. The hotter and longer meat is cooked, the more of these carcinogenic compounds are formed. However, keep in mind that these impacts are based on large, long-term doses—eating charred barbeque every day carries a much higher risk than enjoying it every now and then.
We love a charcoal grill cookout just as much as the next person, but grilling meat over charcoal creates more carcinogenic byproducts than gas grills. Lump charcoal, such as that from campfires, is less harmful than charcoal briquettes—so if you’re going to use charcoal, choose natural briquettes rather than those processed with additives and skip the chemical lighter fluid!
Marinating meat before grilling it helps to reduce the formation of carcinogenic compounds. Choose acid-based marinades like vinegar, lemon/lime, wine, beer or yogurt. There’s a similar effect when rubbing meat with herbs/spices such as rosemary, basil, thyme, sage, oregano, turmeric, onion powder or fresh garlic before grilling.
Microwaves aren’t your best bet for healthful eating or quality cuisine, but they’re a lovely convenience and occasional use isn’t harmful—if you use them properly. Here are our tips for practicing good microwave safety:
Don’t microwave plastic. (Or Styrofoam. Or metal, of course.) Even if a plastic container says “microwave safe,” that just means it won’t melt—but it still contains harmful compounds that can leach into your food. (Heating plastic releases endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which are linked to reproductive cancer, infertility, immune and neurological problems.)
The “no-microwaving-in-plastic” rule applies to pre-packaged microwavable single-serving meals.
Don’t overheat your food. Set the timer for less time than you think you’ll need, and add additional time if needed. (In general, the more you heat your food, the fewer nutrients remain.)
Don’t stand right next to the microwave while it’s cooking. Microwaves do emit radiation, which does the same to your cells as it does to your food—cooks them! Microwave radiation diminishes quickly over distance, so standing farther away reduces your exposure significantly.
WATER QUALITY & FILTRATION
Depending on where you live, your tap water likely contains more than just pure water—a wide range of agricultural and industrial chemicals contaminates local drinking water across the U.S. Some of these contaminants are linked to cancer, neurological problems and endocrine disruption. While many are at levels legal under federal and state regulations, that’s not necessarily good news, as the EPA’s contaminant list hasn’t been updated in 20 years, and the contaminants are often present at levels scientific studies have found to cause health effects.
FILTER YOUR TAP WATER:
Filter your drinking water with a water-purifying carafe, faucet attachment, under-counter, or whole-home filtration system. Choose a water filter certified by NSF International or the Water Quality Association, which independently test and certify filter effectiveness. Carbon filters are some of the most affordable and accessible.
Change water filters on schedule (old filters are less effective and can grow bacteria).
Use filtered water in cooking—like boiling water for pasta, filling ice cube trays, making coffee, etc.
Bye-bye, bottled water. Reports show it’s not necessarily safer than tap water (it can be contaminated with chemicals too), and over time plastic leaches from the bottle into the water. Here’s our favorite stainless steel reusable water bottle.
Be informed: Check your local water utility’s website for your local drinking water quality report.
HEALTHY CLEANING SUPPLIES
We have an entire guide on healthy cleaning supplies, which is especially important when using the cleaning products near your food, so check it out for our kitchen-specific recommendations.
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We’re health coaches, but we’re not your doctor. The information shared through our website, emails, products and services is for informational and educational purposes only. It may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as medical advice, nor as a replacement for professional medical advice, diagnosis and/or treatment.
© 2020 Diet Center of Grand Island Inc.