Give Your Pantry a Healthy Makeover

Spring Cleaning? Here's What to Toss and What to Buy

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on March 06, 2006
5 min read

A well-stocked pantry is a must for busy people; it will save you over and over again when you find yourself in a dinner pinch. And to stack the healthful-eating odds in your favor, it's essential to stock your pantry with great-tasting, healthy choices (the key phrase here is "great-tasting" -- healthy food won't do anyone any good if no one eats it).

Giving your pantry a nutritional makeover is as easy as 1-2-3! Follow our three simple steps to transform your pantry into one that will help you eat light and right.

Step 1: Minimize empty-calorie foods ­ the ones that deliver lots of calories without much nutrition (vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytochemicals, protein, etc.).

This doesn't necessarily mean eliminating them from your pantry entirely. This might make you want them even more, thus leading you to overeat. You know yourself best: whether "out of sight, out of mind" works for you, or whether you do better in the long run if you have a few token empty-calorie foods around. That way, you know they're there if you truly want them (and are truly hungry) but they're not mainstays of your pantry.

The two infamous types of empty-calorie culprits are:

  • Things with lots of sugar and other caloric sweeteners. Examples: soda and sweetened drinks, cakes, cookies, pastries, pies, candy and chocolate bars, frozen milk desserts, snack cakes, and cereal bars.
  • Things with lots of added fats and oil. Examples: mayonnaise, chips, microwave popping corn, crackers, cookies, pies and pastries, packaged muffins, snack cakes, and mixes.

When possible, switch to alternatives to your empty-calorie favorites that are, well, less "empty." Could you be happy with light mayonnaise instead of regular? Can you drink a diet soda a day instead of a regular, sugar-laden soft drink? Is there a higher-fiber, less-sugary breakfast cereal that suits you?

Step 2: Stock up on great-tasting, more-healthful alternatives for foods you know and love.

For example, there are some reduced-fat chip options that taste terrific. Some are truly low-fat, such as Baked Lays or Guiltless Gourmet brands. Others have a little less, like Reduced-Fat Ruffles. Cape Cod reduced-fat potato chips are less fat AND use canola oil.

Here are a few other healthy choices I tend to have in my pantry, some for snacking and others for preparing meals:

  • Canned, fat-free refried beans.
  • Canned diced tomatoes, tomato paste, and tomato sauce (lower-sodium versions are best).
  • Bottled marinara sauce (choose one made with canola or olive oil, and which contains no more than about 1 gram of fat and 400 milligrams of sodium per 1/2-cup serving).
  • Brown rice (it comes in regular or a quick version by Uncle Ben's).
  • Quick or old-fashioned oats. You can buy packets of microwave oatmeal -- Quaker Nutrition for Women -- that have added soy protein, calcium, and folic acid.
  • Whole-grain breakfast cereals. These should have a whole grain listed as the first ingredient, at least 4 grams of fiber per cup, and not too much fat or sugar. Raisin Bran is one of my favorites, with 7 grams of fiber, 1.5 grams fat, and 19 grams of sugar per cup (whole wheat is the first ingredient on the label; wheat bran is the third. Raisins are the second ingredient listed, sugar is fourth).
  • 94% fat-free microwave popcorn.
  • Canned soups with more fiber (5 grams or more per serving) and less fat and sodium than most, such as Campbell's Healthy Request Cream of Mushroom and Chicken Soup, and Wolfgang Puck's Minestrone.
  • Whole-wheat pastry flour. Substitute this for half the white flour in recipes to increase fiber and nutrients without a big difference in flavor or texture.
  • Splenda. This artificial sweetener can replace half of the sugar in most bakery recipes, to cut calories without a noticeable difference in flavor or texture.
  • Salt-free seasoning blends (and individual herbs and spices). These are a convenient way to add flavor fast when you're trying to cook without a lot of added sodium. Check out all the Mrs. Dash flavors! And keep all your spices and dried herbs in a cool, dry place to maintain freshness.
  • An extra can of canola-oil cooking spray.

Step 3: Eliminate or greatly reduce saturated and trans fats in your pantry.

Nothing good, healthwise, can come from eating trans fats. Some experts advise that trans and saturated fats together should make up no more than 10% of our total calories. Others say our trans fat intake should be as close to zero as possible.

But until food companies start changing the way they make certain products, wherever there are processed foods, there are bound to be trans fats and/or saturated fats. Trans fats hide in thousands of processed foods -- margarine, shortening, crackers, cookies, snack cakes, cereal bars, microwave popping corn, and frozen convenience foods and snacks.

Some people may be able to purge their pantries of these convenience foods, but having them around is part of life for many of us. The answer? Better choices abound out there in packaged-food land.

Food companies have until January 2006 to start listing how many grams of trans fats their products contain on labels. But in the meantime, here are some general rules to follow:

  • When a product label lists "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" vegetable oils or shortening among the first three ingredients, it contains saturated and trans fats.
  • If a product lists the grams of saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fat, you can figure out roughly how much trans fat is in a serving by adding up these three numbers and subtracting this amount from the total grams of fat listed on the label.
  • Even foods that claim to have no trans fats can contribute them to your diet. A food company can label a product as having "zero" trans fats if it has .5 grams or less per serving. And the trans fats can add up if you eat lot of these foods.
  • Choose processed foods with fewer total grams of fat. Reduced-fat options tend to have a lot less saturated fat and trans fat per serving than their regular counterparts.

Here are some examples of reduced-fat foods with lower trans fat counts than their regular twins:

  • Ritz Crackers: 160 calories, 8 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat (per 32-gram serving)
  • Reduced Fat Ritz: 140 calories, 4 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat (per 30-gram serving)
  • Orville Redenbacher's Movie Theatre Butter Microwave Popping Corn: 170 calories, 12 grams fat, 2.5 grams saturated fat (per 4 cups popped)
  • Orville Redenbacher's Smart Pop: 110 calories, 2 grams fat, and 0 grams saturated fat (per 7.5 cups popped)
  • Bisquick: 160 calories 6 grams fat, 1.5 grams saturated fat (per 1/3-cup mix)
  • Reduced Fat Bisquick: 140 calories, 3 grams fat, .5 grams saturated fat (per 1/3-cup mix)