Vegan cooking presents a number of interesting challenges and, in some cases, requires a new lexicon. It can call for unusual ingredients or for using common ingredients in an entirely new way. When I started down the “aspirationally vegan” path, I remember wishing I had a cheat sheet detailing some of the key items to have on hand. One of my proudest moments in recent history was coming across a vegan recipe I wanted to try and realizing I already had all the ingredients I needed. OK, so it’s not achieving world peace or solving global warming, but hey, a girl’s gotta have goals. Vegan preparedness is apparently one of mine. Aim high.

Nowadays, there are many vegan blogs and vega-lebrities (pretty sure I just made that term up) that have these sorts of starter shopping lists. I am no kind of ‘lebrity, but I do have a list of things that I like to always have in my kitchen. With the vegan challenge about to commence, I thought it might be helpful to share my go-to items:

  • Lemons. I use them to add flavor to pretty much anything, for salad dressing or just to have in my water. I always have tons on hand.
  • Avocados. I live by the mantra that avocados make everything taste better. A super simple meal – breakfast, lunch or dinner – is avocado toast sprinkled with a little sea salt. Side note – when did avocado toast become so trendy?
  • Greens. I love spinach, so I always have big bunches of it in my refrigerator. I often hear nutritionists encouraging people to eat a variety of different greens. Kale is, after all the new black (or is it out this year? I can’t keep track), so maybe grab some of that. There’s certainly no shortage of options.
  • Nuts. People always ask vegetarians how they get protein in their diet. Nuts are chock full of it and can be used in tons of different ways. Two words: cashew cheese. You’re welcome.
  • Nut butter. I have a rotation in my pantry at the moment that includes almond, cashew and good old fashioned peanut butter. I hear it’s good to use the versions with less sugar. But I like sugar. And that probably won’t be coming out of my diet until at least 2016. Or beyond.
  •  Tahini. Made from sesame seeds (you can make your own if you’re so inclined), this stuff is awesome to add a little pep to a recipe. It’s amazing for dips and has lots of protein and calcium. Gotta love these vegan recipes – they aren’t just kind to the planet and the animals; they haul off and smack you over the head with a nutritional whollup.
  • Brown rice and quinoa. One of my favorite dinners during the colder months is using one of these as a base, throwing in sautéed onions and mushrooms then adding in raw spinach, dried cherries and some sort of dressing. It’s kind of like Thanksgiving in a bowl.
  • Miso paste. If you would have asked me a while back what to do with this stuff, I would have given you a blank look. But now I always have some in my refrigerator. It lasts forever and can be used for dressings or marinades. And, of course, you can also always add a few scoops to boiling water and have some miso soup in seconds.
  • Nutritional yeast. Also known as “nooch,” believe it or not, this would be another item I’d never heard of until just a few years ago. It’s great for using in sauces or even sprinkled on popcorn. It has a cheese-esque taste and is fortified with B12 and other B vitamins which can be challenging for vegans to get into their diets.
  • Maple syrup. This is a great sweetener. Did I mention my love of cashew cheese already? Well, you can make it sweet as well as savory by adding in some maple syrup. It’s like cheesecake only better and, holy smokes, is it good!
  • Medjool dates. I’d never tried these bad boys before I was rolling deep in vegan food porn. You can add them to just about anything to which you’d normally add sugar. Sure, sugar isn’t an animal product and is therefore technically fair game in a vegan diet. But, let’s be honest, it is kind of the devil even though, as I said, I eat my fair share. In contrast, dates have a bunch of good stuff in them (fiber, minerals and phytonutrients, whatever those are) and taste like dessert. All in all, a good thing to have in your cupboard.

I just want to qualify – I have zero training in nutrition. This all stems from my own musings and what I’ve found works for me through trial and error (um, lots of error). And having all these items on hand is only a starting point; knowing what to do with them is another thing altogether. So, I’m thinking sometime soon I’ll highlight my favorite spots on the interwebs for recipes and advice on a plant-based living from people (perhaps even a few vega-lebrities?) who are far better informed on this topic than me.