What’s In Your Pantry, Helene Abiola?

What’s in Your Pantry? is a recurring feature where I ask women to tell us more about their food and eating habits by opening up their kitchen pantries to us. This week I’m featuring Helene Abiola. Helene is a New Yorker and a mother to one very active toddler named Harvey. She holds a masters degree in Community Health Education and currently creates Worksite Wellness programs for a large governmental organization in NYC.

Let’s get to know Helene and learn from her.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I grew up in an inner city suburb in New York City. The only grocery store in the neighborhood we had closed down before I was 10 years old and so, the neighborhood became a food desert – you couldn’t get fresh food anywhere- it was all bodegas with processed, packaged foods. The bulk of my community was riddled with obesity, diabetes and other chronic preventable diseases that have to do with diet and lifestyle. When I was in my 20s I lost my mom to cancer and my dad to a heart attack. People who don’t know me well often assume my food preferences and lifestyle are a result of some sort of elitism or desire to look a certain way, but the reality is that I believe food and fitness are a lifeline. If you have a genetic propensity towards certain health problems, eating an unhealthy diet and leading a sedentary lifestyle is increasing the odds that these unfavorable genes will be expressed. For this reason, I will always lead an active life and buy the best food I can afford for both myself and my family. My experiences growing up inspired me to study public health in graduate school and they continue to inspire my work daily – food justice and health equity are my guiding forces.

When I want to relax, I love to go to nature – parks, long runs, yoga classes, bike rides. I also love to travel and escape the city because a change of scenery often helps me feel reconnected. I rarely do alcohol these days; I tend to drink a bottle of kombucha the same way people drink a glass of wine or beer to unwind.

My favorite meal is actually a bowl! By bowl I don’t mean the glass dish you put your food in, but rather a meal where you just throw everything in. I love to make bowls with my favorite ingredients: greens like kale, chard, collards or cabbage, quinoa, almost any kind of beans, avocado, tomatoes, roasted veggies, hummus, black sesame seeds, kimchi, sweet potatoes, seaweed, tempeh. Writing this is making me want one now.

How do you typically feel, emotionally, when you open your kitchen pantry?

When I open my kitchen pantry I feel emotionally in tune with myself. I stock my pantry with healthy food so I can nourish myself because I know that food and mood are connected. Junk food is reserved for an occasional treat or outside.

What’s your process for organizing your food pantry?

I took a training in food safety years ago and I still abide by the first in, first out process so that food doesn’t go bad. I also try to make the unhealthiest stuff as inaccessible as I possible can so junk food is always on a high shelf, out of eye level and easy reach.

I have an IKEA raskog utility cart where I keep foods that shouldn’t be refrigerated: potatoes, onions, bananas (my toddler’s favorite food), avocados and tomatoes

What’s inside your pantry right now?

La Tourangelle avocado oil

Nutiva chia seeds

Barney Butter bare smooth almond butter. This almond butter doesn’t have any added sugar or salt which a lot of these brands tend to have.

Braggs nutritional yeast – i love putting this on any savory dish.

Banza chickpea pasta –  gluten free and high protein pasta that I love.

What’s the healthiest item that you keep in stock?  

Turmeric powder that I buy in bulk.

What about your guilty pleasure that you always have on hand?  

Chocolate is something I can’t live without. I usually would have some 70 percent or more dark chocolate bars in my pantry, but a couple of weeks ago I decided to cut out eating products with added sugar. So now when I have a chocolate craving, I have to make something. I have this cacao powder from Red Tractor Farms that I just bought – I  blended it with a couple of bananas and avocado and I had this yummy chocolate pudding that had no added sugar and I didn’t feel like I was missing anything.

Compared to your mother, how is your pantry the same or different than what you grew up with?

My mother battled cancer 4 times in her life. After getting sick the first time, she tried to revamp her own and our whole family’s eating habits. She focused a lot on the Japanese practice of Macrobiotics. As a result, she was ahead of her time in eating certain foods. My mom’s pantry was stocked with millet, dried beans, seaweed, kukicha tea, barley malt syrup, medium grain brown rice (this was before the conveniences of online shopping so she traveled to a different borough to buy it). Whereas my friend’s parent were making cupcakes for their kids, my mom made us millet cake – today I can appreciate it, but at the time I thought it detestable along with so many of these other foods.  I don’t remember my mother really keeping any treats in the house. Treats were mostly reserved for when we were outside the house. We never had sugar in the house growing up and I don’t purchase sugar either. I do sometimes buy really good quality local honey for its medicinal properties and I always keep agave in case I want a little sweetness in my tea. My mother drank kukicha tea and green tea. She also kept shelf stable rice milk in her pantry and I remember it tasting like water- fortunately dairy alternative milks have evolved so much and are so widely available these days. My pantry has a lot of these same products today, but better quality non-dairy milk and a few more superfoods!   

If you could change anything about how your pantry is now, what would it be?

More space! I live in a NYC apartment

Thank you, Helene for sharing. I will remember Helene’s story about growing up in a food desert and all of the terrific foods in her pantry. Some of my favorites too.

Your turn:  Tell us in the comments what you remember from Helene’s interview?