In almost every culture around the world, the kitchen is the heart of the home and the hub of family activity. It’s the place where food is cooked, stories are shared, families are nurtured. So it only makes sense that the best kitchens are both pleasing and practical spaces – rooms that are inviting, accessible, safe, and natural.

Making the kitchen a place of joy is easier than ever, thanks to well-stocked natural foods stores, housewares shops and mail-order catalogs. Buying quality tools and appliances, for example, can help to make short work of meal preparation. Carefully chosen cleaning products keep the kitchen germ-free without endangering the health of its occupants or of the planet. Multicolored beans, several kinds of pasta, a world of different grains, all kept in clear, tightly closed, easy-to-reach containers, make the kitchen a pleasurable place full of promise. And a variety of herbs and spices can deliver a taste of almost any culture in the world.

SETTING UP THE HEALTHY KITCHEN

Ideally, the kitchen will be an inviting and comfortable space – big enough to allow you to move around easily and efficiently, but not so large that you’re tired out from running from one end to the other. According to Nancilee Wydra, an expert in feng shut, the Chinese art of space and design, and author of Feng Shui: The Book of Cures, the size of the kitchen is key to making it a quality workspace and a favorite part of the house.

The kitchen should be sized to hold the people who use it. Thus, if you would like company – or better yet, helpers – in the kitchen, make sure there is enough room for everybody. (If you’re stuck with a kitchen built for one, consider setting up a small area in a nearby room for specific tasks.) “Overcrowding creates agitation and disrupts the peace and tranquillity that you should feel while preparing food,” Wydra says.

You should also consider lighting. Kitchens need area lighting, which illuminates the entire space, and task lighting, which hits specific works areas (like a sink or countertop). Natural lighting is, of course, more desirable – for several reasons Sunlight is essential for the synthesis of vitamin D, which in turn is necessary for the body to absorb calcium. It’s also been linked, in study after study, to feelings of peace, happiness, and optimism.

If you can manage, set up the kitchen so that you’ll get all (or most) of the area lighting you’ll need during the daylight hours from windows or skylights, suggests David Goldbeck author of The Smart Kitchen. For the rest of your area lighting, consider full-spectrum bulbs, which mimic natural sunlight, or high-efficiency bulbs, which can save energy. For task lighting, look for fixtures that allow for flexibility, Goldbeck says. For example, consider installing several small fluorescent fires (instead of one large fixture), track lighting, or swivel or gooseneck fixtures.

If you’re installing or replacing cabinets and countertops, a big concern will be the materials you’ll use. In cabinets, the natural choice would be solid wood (not wood with a plastic veneer), finished with a nontoxic paint or varnish. When choosing countertops, consider natural hardwoods like maple, oak, or cherry. When treated with a natural oil finish – Goldbeck recommends tuna oil, a natural tree oil that leaves a silky, residue-free finish – hardwood counters are durable, practical, and beautiful.

In high-use areas – around the sink for example, or near the stove – consider stainless steel countertops. They’re more expensive than plastic or wood, but can stand up to hot pots and continued exposure to water. Backing the steel with hardwood will help minimize dents and muffle sound.

Finally, you should consider installing a water filter at your kitchen sink to remove impurities and bacteria from your drinking and cooking water. According to David Steinman, author of The Safe Shoppers Bible, public drinking water supplies are often contaminated with chemicals (including arsenic and lead) and microorganisms. Federal and state laws allow for many contaminants, so the tap water in your house may meet all standards and still be dangerous To determine your risk, Steinman suggests you contact your local water supplier or have your tap water tested by an independent third party Water filters available today include screen filters, which remove bacteria, and depth filters, which remove suspended solids. To remove chemical contaminants, you might buy an activated car bon filter, a distillation system, or a reverse osmosis (RO) filter – or a system that uses a combination of these methods.

As far as stocking your kitchen, here are some suggestions:

EQUIPMENT AND UTENSILS: SIMPLE BUT ESSENTIAL

The proper equipment can make the difference between loving to cook and dreading it Sharp knives in useful sizes, measuring cups, and other gadgets make it easy to turn out healthful, delicious meals.

Chef’s knife: No tool in the kitchen is more useful than a chef’s knife, and a good all-purpose model has an eight-inch blade. Try the knife in your hand before you buy it; make sure it’S easy for you to grip.

Paring knife: A paring knife does small tasks like peeling and mincing garlic, cutting up fruit, trimming vegetables, pitting olives, and so on.

Serrated knife: Because it doesn’t tear, a serrated knife is best for slicing bread or bagels. It is also great for slicing the top off a cake and peeling citrus fruit.

Oriental knife or cleaver: Great for chopping vegetables.

Cutting board: Using your knives on unforgiving surfaces (such as marble or metal) dulls them quickly. Look for natural cutting boards made of wood, and be sure to take care of them: Wash the cutting surface thoroughly with vegetable-based soap after every use to prevent the growth of microorganisms. Don’t soak the board in water; most wooden cutting boards are made from several pieces of wood that have been glued together, and, over time, soaking the board will cause the glue to dissolve.

Pepper grinder: For the fastest and easiest flavor enhancer, keep a pepper grinder on hand. The best grinders are made of natural materials wood or metal (such as pewter or stainless steel) instead of plastic.

Grater: For grating citrus rind to use as a flavoring, and for vegetables for salads or bread crumbs for stuffing vegetables and topping casseroles. It is also good for slicing garlic cloves.

Scissors: You’ll want a pair of sturdy kitchen shears to cut herbs, lasagne noodles that are too long for the pan, or for making slashes in bread dough.

Slotted spoon: For fishing out foods that are poaching, cooking, or soaking in liquid or oil. A good substitute is a Chinese wire-mesh strainer ladle.

Colander or strainer: For draining spaghetti and other noodles and washing vegetables.

Pastry brush: For brushing grilled vegetables with marinades, painting phyllo dough with oil, and dampening the edges of wontons and other dumpling skins. Good if you’re watching your fat intake – a brush allows you to dab on a tiny bit of oil instead of pouring it. If you do a lot of grilling, consider getting a brush with a long handle.

Tongs Spring: Tongs (the kind that pop open after you squeeze and let go) give you the most dexterity. Measuring cups and spoons A basic set of measuring cups would be in one-quarter-, one-third-, one-half-, and one-cup increments. Spoons would come in one-quarter, one-half, one teaspoon, and one tablespoon sets. Look for stainless steel, not plastic.

Natural coffee filter: Try a reusable filter made of fine copper mesh and save the cost and environmental damage of disposable coffee filters. Or buy unbleached paper coffee filters.

SMALL APPLIANCES: TIME AND FAT SAVINGS

Small appliances help you make natural, delicious meals quickly and efficiently. The best ones also save on energy (toaster ovens versus regular ovens, for instance) and reduce fat (rice steamers and oven racks that allow you to cook foods without oil).

Immersion blender: A portable handheld wand with a rotating blade that you use to puree vegetables for soups, sauces, and side dishes, it also can make dressings and fruit drinks and chop garlic, shallots, and other vegetables to use as flavoring and thickening agents.

Toaster oven: It will toast bagels, rolls, and other odd-shaped breads, it will also recrisp your homemade pizza, heat a sandwich, toast sesame seeds and nuts, and bake potatoes.

Crockpot: Perfect for cooking dried beans while you’re asleep or away from home (leftover beans can be frozen). Choose one that heats all the way up the sides for even cooking and energy efficiency. It should also have a crockery insert that slides in and out for cleaning.

Rice cooker: For steaming brown and white rice; the best models feature a “keep warm” setting as well as automatic shutoff.

Pressure cooker: Makes short work of cooking beans and grains. A cooker with a spring-valve pressure gauge is easiest to read. Stainless steel cookers that have aluminum sandwiched in the bottom will cook more evenly than all-aluminum pressure cookers, which can have hot spots.

Coffee grinder: Use it for coffee and spices. Clean it with your pastry brush.

COOKWARE: HEALTHY AND PRACTICAL

Good cookware comes in a variety of materials, including aluminum, stainless steel, copper; and glass; each has its own advantages and disadvantages. My choice for general cookware are pans that sandwich aluminum between stainless steel They conduct heat well and are fairly easy to clean.

Pots: Buy a four-quart, three-quart, one-and-one-half-quart, and a two- to four-cup pot. These sizes, along with a skillet or two (see next column), give you all the flexibility you need in the kitchen. Big pots should be heavy-duty and have long, insulated handles. Be sure they have tight-fitting tops. If you cook lots of pasta or are feeding a big family, you also may want a larger eight-quart stockpot, which can boil enough water for several portions of spaghetti.

Ten-inch skillet: The best ones are heavy, as they hold heat more evenly (dine better for browning pot-stickers and sauteing mushrooms). If you buy a skillet with straight (not sloping) sides, your food wont spatter and you’ll be able to use the pan for more things, including simmering marinara sauce or getting a good start on casseroles.

Wok: The wide surface area and sloping sides of a wok make it ideal for moving food quickly and for holding water for steaming and boiling or oil for frying. Look for an iron wok with a ring that stabilizes it on a burner or a wok with a flat bottom; avoid electric woks, which don’t cook efficiently.

Dutch oven: This large, covered pot is invaluable for long-simmering stews, soups, and casseroles that require long, even cooking. You can buy a cast-iron one at a hardware or antique store or an enameled cast-iron pot at a cookware store.

BAKEWARE

Baking isn’t always about overrich desserts. Many a vegetable has been made into a beautiful gratin – try white beans and greens with a sawry bread crumb topping a deep-dish potato gratin with wild mushrooms, or a ten-vegetable enchilada.

Nine-by-thirteen-inch baking pan Invaluable for everything from lasagne to brownies, this is THE all-purpose casserole dish.

A “jelly roll” pan: That’s the old-fashioned name for a flat pan with one-inch sides chat comes in various sizes. If roasted vegetables are the basis of your vegetarian diet (and if they aren’t, you should try them), you’ll need a flat, wide roasting pan (or two) with shallow sides.

Piza equipment: Using a natural, unglazed pizza stone will give you a crisp crust with a soft interior. The stone absorbs moisture so that the crust is uniformly crisp. Be sure to buy a pizza peel – a flat wooden paddle chat chefs use to slide dough into and out of the oven. (A pizza stone is also useful for baking crusty homemade breads.)

PANTRY STAPLES/DRY GOODS: HOW TO STOCK YOUR SHELVES

Well-stocked kitchen cabinets are an absolute necessity – unless you’ve got time to do an the shopping for every meal, every day.

Pasta: Buy regular semolina noodles or look for pasta made from almost any grain or vegetable you can imagine: whole wheat, spelt, Jerusalem artichokes, rice, buckwheat, corn, quinoa, mung beans, soy.

Couscous: It makes a great base for vegetable stews, holds well as a pasta salad (thicker pastas can get starchy when they’re chilled), and is great for stuffing vegetables.

Bulgur: Made from whole wheat berries, bulgur has been cracked and precooked so it rehydrates quickly and still has the good nutrition of a whole grain. It remains firm after being cooked, so it makes a good stand-in for ground beef in chili. Bulgur is the base for tabbouleh and can serve in other vegetable salads and dishes.

Barley: Chewy and nutty-tasting, barley makes a great base for stews and casseroles (mix it with sauteed cabbage, green peppers, and tomatoes, season with oregano and thyme, and sprinkle with chopped imported black olives). Cooked barley can also be used in salads.

Brown rice: Brown rice has a little bit more fiber and vitamins (including vitamin E) than white rice. Keep it in the refrigerator or freezer.

White rice: Serve the medium-grain variety with black beans or stir white arborio rice into creamy risotto.

Quinoa: A quick-cooking and nourishing grain – high in protein, iron, calcium, and phosphorus – with a distinctive nutty flavor. Mold it into timbales and surround it with vegetables strewn with sesame seeds.

Flour: Whole wheat flour contains the original components of the wheat berry. If you want to use white flour, unbleached and unbromated flour is the most healthful for you and the environment.

Beans: Canned beans offer the quickest route to dinner, but you should be careful of canned varieties with added salt. Garbanzo beans perform best from a can; white beans (navy, Great Northern) can get mushy. Keep canned black beans for burritos and soups, pintos for refried beans and tacos, red beans for bulgur-based chili, and gar banzo beans for vegetable soups, hummus, and curried dishes. Dried beans are valued because of their superior texture. The most convenient way to rehydrate beans is to soak them overnight, then drain them in the morning, fill the pot again with water, and cook on low heat for several hours. Can you can rehydrate them quickly in a pressure cooker.

Canned tomato products: Stock up on crushed tomatoes, which are nearly instant pasta sauces and vegetable gravies, and diced tomatoes, which can quickly become salsa, part of soup (with onion, garlic, black beans, and cumin), or a topping for pasta (mix with white beans, fresh sage, and garlic).

Vegetable broth: Essential for soups, stir-fry sauces, and other dishes. To give it a fresh flavor, simmer canned broth with some carrot, celery, onion, and perhaps a teaspoon of tomato paste.

Fruit juice: For drinking and using as the liquid in baked goods. The concentrate can also be used to replace sugar in Asian dishes and dressings.

Vinegar Classic: Asian rice vinegar (look for brands made from organic brown rice), hearty aged balsamic, and mild apple cider vinegar give you loads of flavoring possibilities.

Cooking oil: Buy a good neutral oil (like a quality vegetable oil) for cooking food when you don’t want to add flavor. Look for unrefined organic oils, which are more nutritious and have been produced by mechanical, not chemical extraction. Note: Avoid prepared oils or other foods that contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil; these are unnatural fats that have been linked to heart disease and cancer.

Flavoring oil: Buy good-quality olive oil to add as a seasoning to minestrone, hummus, and other Mediterranean dishes. For Asian dishes, golden sesame oil provides a mild, nutty flavor. Darker toasted sesame oil is more intensely flavored; use it to add strong, last-minute flavor (it burns easily at high temperatures, so you should add it to cooked dishes just before serving).

Natural thickeners: Look for powdered arrowroot and kodzu, two natural alternatives to cornstarch. Be sure to dissolve in cold water before adding to a hot dish, to prevent clumping.

Natural sweeteners: Buy dehydrated cane juice and use it in place of granulated sugar, teaspoon for teaspoon. It’s made from organic sugarcane, tastes great, and provides trace minerals lacking in white sugar. Other healthy alternatives to refined sugar are blackstrap molasses, which provides several micronutrients, barley malt syrup, brown rice syrup, and natural, organic honey

HERBS AND SPICES: KEEPING THINGS LIVELY

For intense and delicious flavor, nothing beats fresh herbs. When you’re shopping for fresh herbs, look for leaves that are crisp, not limp, and exhibit vivid color and aroma. When you add them to dishes, cut them with scissors or tear them into pieces.

When buying dried herbs and spices, look for organic, nonirradiated products. It’s best to buy spices in bulk, in quantities based on how often you use them. When you’re buying dried herbs, look for them in their biggest pieces (stems and leaves, for example, instead of ground into powders) so they’ll retain the most flavor; in particular, try to avoid powdered oregano and thyme. Date the bottles when you buy them, and throw out ground herbs and spices (or dried herbs) if they’ve been in your cupboard for more than a year. Whole seeds tend to last longer than ground ones, although you should toss them after two years.

Curry powder: This is a blend of several spices, typically including turmeric, coriander, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, white pepper, black pepper, cardamom, and clove.

Chinese five-spice powder: This blend of cinnamon, clove, fennel seeds, star anise, and Szechuan peppercorns is a staple of Asian cooking.

Fresh garlic: This is a must for every natural kitchen. It tastes great and has real health benefits (garlic appears to lower cholesterol and may reduce the chances of breast, colon, and rectal cancers). Whole garlic heads will keep for about three weeks; for best results, store them, unpeeled, in a cool, dark place.

Fresh and dried chiles: These add lots of flavor to food without many calories and with no fat (in fact, it’s thought that spicy foods like chiles can raise the metabolism enough that we actually burn more calories by eating them). And substances in hot peppers also may help prevent cancer and respiratory ailments. Look for organically grown jalapenos, chipotles (smoked, dried jalapenos), habaneros (very hot!), and Thai chiles. Generally speaking, the smaller the pepper, the hotter it will be.

Sea salt: Made by evaporating seawater, sea salt contains trace minerals that are missing from refined table salt. (Table salt contains undesirable and unhealthy chemical additives as well.) Sea salt gives you more salty flavor too, so you can use it sparingly. Look for it in both fine and coarse grains.

Black peppercorns: The most essential spice. Whole peppercorns will keep for about a year.

Thyme, oregano, and basil: The most basic herbs in a vegetarian pantry, these are used in European and Mexican dishes. They are especially helpful in bringing out the flavor in beans. Rub the leaves through your fingers as you add them to the pot to bring out their essential oils.

Nutmeg: It’s more versatile than you think. You can use it in vegetable dishes, particularly those that contain spinach. Buy it whole and it will keep longer and taste better in food. Use your cheese grater (or a special nutmeg grater) to grate it.

Cumin: Used for seasoning Mexican and Indian dishes, cumin is one of the primary spices in chili powder and curry powder. It is great when used with sauteed garlic to season virtually any vegetable. Buy the whole seed to save money.

Coriander: Another spice that’s critical to Indian cuisine and used often in curries. Buy it whole and grind it.

Cinnamon sticks: Cinnamon is essential in both Middle Eastern and Indian dishes. Use the sticks as stirrers for hot herb tea, and add them to simmering liquid for compotes made of dried fruit or for poaching apples. Or grind them along with cumin and coriander to flavor lentils and beans.

Red pepper flakes: Virtually all cuisines improve when a hint of red pepper is added. Potatoes cooked in a little olive oil and seasoned with diced tomatoes, parsley, and black olives get a delightful kick from red pepper flakes. Greens cooked with green olives and garlic are great with shell pasta, but better when you add a shake of red pepper flakes.

Vanilla Vanilla is nearly always called for in dessert recipes, but it’s also helpful in bringing up the flavor in fresh-fruit dishes. Look for natural, alcohol-free extracts or use whole vanilla beans (soak them first and scrape out the seeds, or add them whole to recipes).

CONDIMENTS: YOUR SECRET FLAVOR WEAPONS

Condiments add flavor blasts. As nuggets (olives, raisins, capers, etc.) and as coatings (hoisin, mustard), they add intense tastes to the more neutral flavors of vegetables, beans, and grains.

Miso: This salty, flavorful paste is made from fermented soybeans and makes an instant soup base and flavoring for sauces, dips, and spreads. You can buy white, yellow, and dark miso: The darker one is aged longer and is more intensely flavored, making it a good addition to soups. Lighter misos are sweeter and less salty and are often used in sauces and salad dressings. Look for organic, nonpasteurized miso products, which have natural enzymes and live lactobacillus cultures, in the refrigerated case of your natural foods store; keep them in the refrigerator at home.

Mirin: A syrupy, low-alcohol wine used in Japanese dishes; it adds wonderful flavor to sauces and stir-fries. Look for brands with no added corn syrup or sugar.

Soy sauce: A staple in any kitchen. Look for natural soy sauce made from soy beans, salt, and water (and perhaps wheat). Avoid commercial brands that use hydrolyzed vegetable protein, caramel coloring, and corn syrup. Shoyu is the traditional name for Japanese soy sauce, which includes wheat. Tamari is soy sauce that’s generally made without wheat.

Chili paste, hot sauce: Add instant zing to any dish. My favorites are Thai chili pastes and Chinese hot pepper and garlic sauces.

Dijon or other European mustard: Spicier than American styles, European-style mustards add lots of no-fat flavor. Some are aged, which adds even more flavor.

Hoisin sauce: You could call it Chinese ketchup. A dollop of this dark, viscous paste gives a sweet-salty flavor to stirfried vegetables and lo mein. Watch out for added dyes.

Peanut butter: A teaspoon or two of this pantry staple added to an Asian stir-fry (with ginger and garlic) will contribute a rich flavor. Look for natural, organic peanut butter that’s free of sugar and hydrogenated oils.

Tahini and nut butters: Tahini is a paste made of toasted sesame seeds that adds its characteristic flavor to hummus and a Chinese spicy cold noodle salad. It seems to resist rancidity, but it’s a good idea to refrigerate it if you’re not planning to use it all within about three months. Turn it upside down occasionally, as the oil and solids separate and will prove difficult to stir back together. Nut butters that make vegetables more delicious include cashew, roasted soy, and walnut butters. Again, buy natural, organic nut butters to avoid unhealthy hydrogenated oils.

Marinated olives: All varieties of imported black olives (the ones with the pits still in them) and even the common stuffed green ones contribute intense salty flavor to pasta dishes, bean soups, and other foods commonly made with meat or cheese. Buy them fresh in the refrigerated section.

Seeds and nuts: Try sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds, brazil nuts, pine nuts, pecans, walnuts, cashews.

Dried fruit: Currants, raisins, apricots, and peaches add interest to Mediterranean and North African dishes. Look for unsulphured, organic fruits; buying organic is especially important when you’re looking for dried fruits, as the dehydration process makes any chemical additives more concentrated.

CLEANING PRODUCTS: HEALTHY FOR YOU AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Keeping your kitchen clean doesn’t require using harsh and potentially hazardous chemicals. The following are a few easy-to-find staples:

Baking soda: To clean grease and eliminate odors. You can use it as a gentle scouring powder by sprinkling it on a damp (natural) sponge to clean countertops, sinks, bathtubs, even ovens. Or use it to eliminate odors from dish towels and other cleaning cloths by adding a cup of it to your laundry

Natural soaps and detergents: Supermarket dish soaps are loaded with patreleum – based cleansers, artificial dyes, and synthetic fragrances. Natural detergents utilize the cleaning power of natural cleansers like olive oil, the fragrance and grease-cutting power of essential oils (such as lemon and tea tree), and natural skin soothers like aloe.

Cellulose sponges: For keeping countertops clean. Toss them into your dishwasher once a week to keep them germ-free. Replace every two months.

Untreated copper scouring pads or natural-bristle brushes: For scrubbing dishes, pots, and pans-plus sinks and countertops.

Paper towels: Check your health foods store for Earth-friendly paper towels or consider buying an extra half dozen cloth towels (organic!) to wash and reuse. Or put those ratty old T-shirts to use.