The #1 Way to Make All Your Food Taste Better

The answer lies in your pantry.

a woman chopping up vegetables in the kitchen while following a recipe on her laptop
Photo: Getty Images

Welcome to Thrifty. A weekly column where nutrition editor and registered dietitian Jessica Ball keeps it real on how to grocery shop on a budget, make healthy meals for one or two, and make Earth-friendly choices without overhauling your entire life.

I love to cook, and I do it a lot. Sometimes I'm even lucky enough to do it for work, whether it's a meal prep breakfast or special occasion cocktail. I've learned a lot along the way, but one of the tips I always give people is to use spices and herbs to help boost the flavor and nutrition of their meals. But there is one mistake you could be making that might be limiting how delicious your food can be, and that's using spices that are too old.

The number one way to make your food taste better is to make sure your spices are fresh and not expired. Yes, spices actually do expire and they don't last as long as most people think. Most ground and whole spices as well as dried herbs typically last for one to two years after they're opened, and taste their best for only about six months. Shelf life can differ from spice to spice, and the best-by dates are a good indicator of their most potent flavor and quality. Spices don't spoil the same way something like milk or fresh produce does, and eating spices past their prime is unlikely to cause you any harm. But they do lose their flavor and antioxidant potential over time as light and oxygen can break them down.

Fresh spices will add more flavor and nutrition to your meals, but replacing all of the jars in your spice drawer could be expensive. Luckily, there are a few ways to make replacing your spices more budget-friendly. Ideally, I rely on the bulk bins for spices when I can. It allows me to get a smaller quantity that I know I can use before it expires and is usually cheaper than larger pre-packaged options (bonus points if you bring your own refillable containers). You also don't need to buy specialty organic spice brands to add flavor to your food. For everyday cooking, I'll buy conventional and even store-brand spices and reserve my more expensive spices (usually from Burlap & Barrel or Diaspora Co.) for garnishes or special meals. Also, always shop the sales, in person or online.

If you notice you have a bunch of expired spices, you don't need to throw them away or waste them immediately. Instead, prioritize using them and spruce them up a bit by toasting them in a skillet before using them (this enhances their smell and flavor, expired or not). Also use your spices often and in quantities that taste good to you. Add cinnamon or turmeric to your next smoothie, add allspice and nutmeg to your oatmeal or sprinkle cayenne and chili powder on your scrambled eggs. If you get creative, you'll find you can use spices in almost anything you make. Try to find recipes that use larger quantities of spices you want to replace to help you get through what you have on hand, too. And if you have spices that are really old to the point where eating them doesn't sound enjoyable, use them to make something else like a simmer pot or in a broth where they'll be strained out.

Keeping tabs on your spice collection can help you make sure you're getting the most flavor in your meals. It can also boost the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of your food. For more budget- and beginner-friendly cooking tips and recipes, check out Thrifty.

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