Stocking the cupboard with these essentials can ensure a healthy meal any time you need one.
Healthy Staples You Should Always Have in Your House
This article is based on reporting that features expert sources.
How to stock the pantry
We’ve all been there, peering deep into the pantry or cupboard hoping meal inspiration will suddenly reveal itself on a busy weeknight. But what makes for a healthy, well-stocked pantry?
“A healthy, well-stocked pantry will look different for everyone based on their preferences, traditions, culture, budget and needs,” says Emily Rice, a registered dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
Nevertheless, there are some basics you should aim to always have on hand. “It’s a good idea to always have something from each food group on hand, items that can be prepared quickly, as well as some grab-and-go items for when you’re in a pinch,” she says.
Making meals magically appear
That time crunch for meal prep we all seem to be perpetually in is why making sure your kitchen is stocked with healthy options is so important, says Hollie Zammit, a registered dietitian with Orlando Health Cancer Institute in Orlando.
“It’s always smart to have a good variety of wholesome foods on hand,” she says. When you have good food at the ready, it makes it much easier to “just throw together a nice meal in a pinch.”
The slides that follow offer suggestions for the best foods to keep on hand to make meals seemingly magically appear at dinner time.
1. Whole grains
Brown rice, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta, oatmeal and bran flakes are just a few examples of the wide range of dried goods containing whole grains that are easy to stock in the pantry. These foods can offer a lot of healthy fiber and energy-supplying complex carbs.
- Oatmeal can serve as a hearty and quick breakfast that has the fiber to help keep you feeling full longer. Dress it up with nuts, raisins and a splash of milk to make a complete and delicious breakfast.
- Quinoa is actually a type of seed, and as such is high in both fiber and protein. It makes a great side dish for dinner, can be added to salads, or can be treated like oatmeal to make a delicious hot breakfast.
- Dried whole-grain pasta is a great option to keep on hand for those busy nights when you just don’t have time for something more elaborate than spaghetti. If you’ll be using a store-bought sauce to dress it up, stick with varieties that are low in sodium and have no added sugar.
When shopping for dried goods, such as pastas and grains, Rice says “it’s a great idea to look for whole grain or whole-wheat options because they’re full of fiber and can help create that feeling of fullness at meals. Other pasta alternatives made from lentils or beans are a great source of fiber and protein as well, especially for those on gluten-free diets.”
2. Canned fruits and vegetables
When it first became commercially available in the early 20th century, canning changed the way the world ate. Being able to safely preserve and store fresh foods like vegetables and fruits made access to nutritious foods much more convenient. And that fact remains true today.
Top options include:
- Canned tomatoes. Canned tomatoes make a great base for a hearty stew or can serve as the starter for your own pasta sauce.
- Canned peas or corn. Peas or corn also make a great addition to soups, stews or stir fries. Just drain and toss in to help add some nutrition and fiber to your meal.
- Fruit cocktail and applesauce. Zammit says she likes to keep unsweetened applesauce and fruit cocktail with no added sugar for those moments when a sweet treat is an imperative. You can also use applesauce in some baking recipes to replace butter or oil.
Look to keep canned fruits and vegetables at the ready for use whenever you need them. Canned goods can last on the shelf indefinitely, provided there’s no damage to the can. Check the label for “best by” dates and discard any cans that become distended or malformed, as that could be a sign that the contents have gone bad.
When choosing fruits and veggies to stock, opt for low-sodium and no added sugar varieties. Rice says that when you’re looking to buy canned fruit, “look for low-sugar or ‘packed in 100% fruit juice’ as opposed to a syrup.”
3. Canned beans
Zammit recommends stocking the cabinet with beans and lentils, as these all are high in protein and fiber. Canned beans are a quick source of plant-based proteins and can be a wonderful, healthful addition to many meals and dishes.
Most any kind of bean is a versatile option to toss into soups and stews, but some beans offer specific advantages:
- Navy beans. Also called pea beans, navy beans are small oval legumes that cook quickly. You can mash them to make dips or to thicken a ragout or stew. Their mild flavor makes them a good choice for chowders and Boston baked bean dishes. They also have 19 grams of fiber per cup, making them very high in fiber.
- Great northern beans. These medium-sized white beans have a mild flavor that can blend well into smoothies and add a silky texture to soups and stews. Where navy beans tend to break down when cooked, great northern beans are more able to keep their shape, so they’re found in a lot of French cassoulets.
- Cannellini beans. Also called white kidney beans, these legumes are meatier than navy or great northern beans and have a nutty, earthy flavor. Add them to chili or Italian dishes such as minestrone or drain them and use them to top a salad.
- Chickpeas. If you keep a can of chickpeas on hand, you’re never far away from a tasty, homemade hummus – plus many other chickpea recipes.
4. Nut butters
Peanut butter is not just for kids’ lunches anymore. High in healthy fats and protein, nut butters are a great staple to keep on hand at all times.
- Smear a tablespoon of peanut butter on a banana to make a fast, healthy breakfast.
- Add a dollop of peanut butter to stir fries for a Thai spin.
- Or try adding almond butter instead of tahini for a new spin on hummus.
5. Canned meats
Canning can come to the rescue when it comes to animal proteins too. Keeping canned tuna fish, canned salmon and canned chicken on hand means you have ready access to healthy, lean proteins anytime you need them.
- Use canned tuna and whole-grain pasta along with chopped onion, bell peppers, celery and carrots and a dash of vinegar or a bit of mayonnaise to make a satisfying summer salad that makes a perfect lunch or light dinner. Or just drain the tuna and add it to a leafy green salad.
- Canned chicken makes putting together a tasty chicken salad sandwich a breeze.
- Salmon comes in cans too, but consider picking up smoked salmon in a gold oil pouch. It requires no refrigeration until it has been opened and is shelf-stable for about five years, meaning that you can always have access to the superior nutrition offered by this fatty cold water fish that’s full of heart-healthy omega-3s.
When shopping for canned fish and meat, Rice cautions you to “look for no salt added, low-sodium or packed in water” options.
6. Fresh vegetables
Though fresh veggies by their very nature need to be used up before they go bad, it’s best to always have a crisper drawer full of options. As much as possible, keep the following vegetables on hand as often as you can:
- Bright, leafy greens. Though greens such as spinach and kale are full of vitamins, minerals and fiber, they can wilt quickly in the fridge. Use them soon after purchasing and restock often.
- Colorful veggies. Veggies such as bell peppers can last a little longer in the refrigerator than greens and are great in salads or as a simple snack with some hummus or just on their own.
- Cruciferous veggies, including broccoli and cauliflower, provide a lot of fiber and can last longer than greens. They do well in stir fries, and cauliflower can serve as the starter base for everything from pizza to better-for-you mashed potatoes.
- Root vegetables such as carrots last for a long time in a cool, dark place. Carrots offer beta carotene, which is good for your eyes and skin, and they add a little bit of bright sweetness to salads, soups, stews and a wide range of other dishes.
- Aromatics such as onions and garlic can be stored in a cool, dry, dark place longer than other fresh veggies so may be more readily available when it’s time to get cooking.
7. Dried fruit
While dried fruit can be high in calories, Zammit says she always keeps some on hand to enjoy on its own or add to salads and cooked dishes. Again, opt for no sugar-added varieties.
“You’re basically just adding calories (when you choose dried fruits with added sugar), but the regular dried fruit on its own is totally nice and healthy and can take care of that sweet tooth. It can also make a nice trail mix” when mixed with nuts and seeds.
Consider keeping these dried fruits on hand:
- Raisins. These add a bit of sweetness and texture to everything from oatmeal to Brussels sprouts dishes.
- Dried banana chips. Crispy, crunchy banana chips make a great alternative to fried potato chips and other less healthy snack foods. They also work well with yogurt for a morning texture mashup.
- Dried apple rings. Lightly sweet, dried apple rings also make a great snack or can be added to salads to make them about more than just a pile of leaves.
8. Healthy oils
Zammit says having a stocked pantry means also stocking the ingredients you’ll need to properly prepare those foods, including heart-healthy oils like extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil and canola oil. Having some options for healthy oils means you can “make a last-minute marinade or salad dressing” if you need to dress up a salad or a meat dish.
She also recommends opting for the spray version of your favorite healthy oils if you’re looking to control calories or lose weight. “They’re really nice for portion control,” she says.
9. Low-sodium broth or stock
When time is tight, you can use some low-sodium chicken stock to whip up a hearty soup or stew by simply adding a whole grain, such as brown rice or quinoa, canned or fresh veggies and some beans and seasonings. If you’re looking to limit your use of animal products, opt for a vegetarian or vegan stock as a soup starter.
“You can also make a soup or stew in large batches and freeze what you’re not going to consume right away. Then just defrost as needed, so you’ll have these little meals ready to go,” Zammit says.
10. Spices and condiments
Some say variety is the spice of life, but when it comes to cooking, seasonings are the spice of dinner. Keeping a variety of spices and herbs, from cinnamon and sage to tarragon and curry powder, can help you build really tasty meals without adding calories or sugar. Spices and herbs “bring out the natural flavor of what you’re consuming,” Zammit says, and they’re healthier for you than just adding salt.
Consider keeping some low-sodium variants of your favorite sauces and condiments, such as ketchup, mustard and vinegar, on hand to help jazz up a meal in short order.
- Low-sodium soy sauce can turn a stir fry from ho-hum to delicious with just a few dashes.
- Turmeric adds a bit of Indian flair to a variety of dishes and has been linked with improved brain health.
- Cinnamon makes that morning oatmeal a fragrant delight and may also have health benefits by tamping down inflammation in the body. Try lightly sprinkling some on fresh apple slices to approximate the sensation of apple pie without all the fat, sugar and calories.
Read the labels.
Rice notes that it’s important to read the nutrition labels when shopping to make sure you’re getting the healthiest options. “Many items that are shelf-stable can be high in salt, sugar or other preservatives,” so buyer beware.
Lastly, when you’re creating a meal at home, Rice says “it’s important to incorporate a variety of food groups and colors. Each food group contains different vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals,” so you need a little of everything.
She adds that current dietary guidelines recommend:
- Filling half your plate with fruits and non-starchy vegetables.
- Incorporating several different proteins each week.
- Making half your grains whole grains.
- Choosing low-fat dairy products.
“By doing all this and limiting your added sugars, saturated fat and sodium, you’re on your way to happier and healthier future.”
These are the 10 food staples you should always have handy to ensure a quick and healthy meal:
- Whole grains like oatmeal and whole-grain pasta.
- Canned fruits and vegetables, like tomatoes.
- Canned beans.
- Nut butters.
- Canned meat, such as tuna and salmon.
- Fresh vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower and carrots.
- Dried fruit, such as apple rings and raisins.
- Healthy oils.
- Low-sodium broth or stock.
- All-purpose spices and condiments, such as low-sodium soy sauce and cinnamon.
Rice is a registered dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
Zammit is a registered dietitian with Orlando Health in Orlando, Florida.