Beth Schatz Kaylor

The spring season is just around the corner. The songbirds will return, green buds will appear in gardens. We will relish the simple pleasures of throwing open a window, going outdoors without a heavy coat, exposing calves and arms, maybe even shoulders, to sunlight after six -- no, seven -- months of darkness. If you end up in the backyard on those first warm, sunny spring days, twirling like Maria on "The Sound of Music," I think the neighbors will understand.

After the gray, cold winter, we suddenly fill with energy and optimism. We fill the propane tank on the grill and get ready to stock up on the freshest local produce at the farmers markets. We plan for bigger, better gardens and kick our spring cleaning project into high gear, selecting paint swatches and considering new patio furniture. "Yes," we assure ourselves, "this is going to be the best year EVER."

But then, reality check: I'm not ambitious enough to tackle any major spring house remodel projects. I don't love the idea of spending a sunny spring day indoors painting, and surely that our patio furniture will last one more year. However, 10 easy ways to make this year the tastiest one yet? THAT I can handle. Pick one, pick eight, but let's all agree to do what we can to celebrate spring in delicious style.

1. Clean out the spice cabinet. This one is so hard for the thrifty, practical-minded "hey, there's still some left" Midwesterner, but that curry powder you bought in 2008 and that jar of basil you inherited from your grandmother are doing nothing to enhance the flavor of your cooking. Time to toss it.

2. Make your own vanilla. If you are still buying imitation vanilla because you can't bear the price of real vanilla extract, I feel your pain, but making your own vanilla is cheap and easy. Just invest in some vanilla beans (they can be found online at a reasonable price) and a jug of vodka. Split open the vanilla beans vertically, place them in a mason jar, and cover with vodka letting them soak for two months. Ta-da! Vanilla extract.

3. Know your salts. Instead of table salt, keep a jar of kosher salt by your stove for general cooking. Kosher salt is generally less processed than table salt, and its larger size and shape sticks better to meat and other foods. For finishing dishes, invest in a soft, flaky sea salt.

4. Get rid of "partially hydrogenated" and "high fructose." Check the ingredient label -- see these words? They are signs of highly processed food-like products that do nothing good for you and generally don't taste all that great either, at least when compared to real food. As with anything, though, moderation is key -- an occasional Oreo won't kill you. 5. Give up fat-free yogurt. I know, you rely on that daily cup of 0% Chobani as a decently healthy afternoon snack, but if you find enjoyment in the chemically Nutrasweetened or weirdly chalky fat-free Greek yogurts, you will discover yogurt nirvana in a good, natural, full-fat yogurt. Studies are showing that people who eat full-fat dairy are leaner, too. Look for brands like Noosa, Greek Gods and the local favorite Bessy's Best.

6. Upgrade your fats. We already know butter is better than margarine, but what about your other oils? Refined oils like soybean oil (often sold as "vegetable oil") and canola oil can withstand more heat but aren't really good for you when compared to minimally processed oils. For everyday sautéing, find a good extra virgin olive or grapeseed oil. Start exploring other oils too, like walnut oil on salad and sesame oil on stir-fry.

7. Toast your nuts. Whenever you are reaching for the hazelnuts to mix into your biscotti batter or grabbing the walnuts to top your salad, turn on the oven to 350 degrees and toast those babies until they are fragrant and, well, toasted, usually 6-8 minutes. This small step will dramatically improve your final dish.

8. Try something new (often). The other day in the produce department of a local grocery store, I stocked up on kale as a child next to me asked her mom to buy kohlrabi, apparently having tried it at school. "It's good," the kid encouraged her parent, who looked at the odd vegetable with some mild trepidation. She didn't buy it. Don't be that mom. If you have the means, buy the kohlrabi with gusto.

9. Cook a book. Not literally -- I mean find a cookbook that interests you and start cooking the recipes, one by one, page by page, even the ones that don't immediately appeal to you. You won't love them all, but you'll find some pleasant surprises and expand your kitchen know-how by trying out new ingredients, flavors and techniques.

10. Grow something (or at least buy from others who grow it). A pot of basil. A few tomato plants. If you have a windowsill or a patio deck, you have space to grow something of your own. Meanwhile, support your local farmers, CSAs, ranchers and others working to provide you with the freshest food possible, grown right there near your own community. It doesn't get better than that.

Beth Schatz Kaylor is a communications professional and freelance writer. She blogs about her North Dakota kitchen at