Healthy Cooking With What’s in Your Pantry

Before COVID-19, pantry staples were the supporting cast. Now, as you limit trips to the market and wait days for grocery delivery, they’re the star of the show.

Anyone can boil a box of pasta and call it dinner. Healthy meals take a little more thought and effort. But it's worth it to give your body what it needs without stressing yourself out.

Do the Best You Can

In an ideal scenario, you’d have a balance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and dairy at every meal.

It might be hard to pull that off now, and that’s OK. What you eat affects your physical and mental health, and both are a priority. Start with what you have and fill in the gaps.

Take Stock of Your Pantry

First, get your pantry in good shape. Group similar products and toss out expired items. Share products you don’t plan to use with others who need them.

Make a mental or actual list of what you have. Use these categories as a guide:

  • Canned soups and broths
  • Canned fruits
  • Canned vegetables
  • Canned beans and legumes
  • Condiments
  • Canned meat and fish
  • Dried beans
  • Rice and pasta

Make a Meal List

Instead of a meal plan, which is based on preparing certain dishes on certain days of the week, make a list of meals you can make any time based on what you have.

To keep stress low in the kitchen, plan your meal list for a few days or a week. That way you won’t have to decide on the spot what to have for every meal, every day -- especially when you’re hungry.

Keep these things in mind:

  • Balance. Work in as many fruits and vegetables as you can. Protein (tuna, chicken, beans, nuts, seeds) will help you feel full longer.
  • Weather. If it’s cold, make warm meals, like soups or stews. They’re a great way to pack in a variety of vegetables. Bonus: Big batches leave lots of leftovers.
  • Variety. You’ll get bored quickly if you do beans, rice, repeat. Think about themes or ethnic cooking styles to help you mix it up, including Asian, taco Tuesday, Mediterranean, pasta night, and breakfast for dinner.
  • Leftovers. You don’t have to create an entirely new meal every day. Pick a few options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and rotate them. If your food reserves allow, make double or triple batches of meals, and freeze the extras for later.
  • Flexibility. Pantry meals are very forgiving. Substitute one bean, vegetable, or grain for another and rely on your spice rack to amp up the flavor.

Continued

Use these ideas or vary them based on what you have in your pantry, fridge, and freezer:

  • Sliced apples with peanut or almond butter
  • Banana, yogurt, and granola
  • Whole-grain cereal with shelf-stable milk
  • Scrambled eggs with frozen peppers, tortillas, salsa
  • Frozen berry smoothie made with spinach and shelf-stable milk
  • Tuna salad with whole-grain crackers
  • Black beans with diced tomatoes, onion, and chili spices
  • Canned chickpeas with quinoa, baked tofu, lemon, and soy sauce
  • Whole-wheat pasta with chicken sausage, jarred artichokes, and olive oil
  • Chicken and salsa cooked in the slow cooker, served with brown rice and avocado
  • Frozen salmon with canned green beans and a baked sweet potato

What worked? What didn’t? Make notes as you go and adjust for next time.

Keep a Running Grocery List

You don't want to have to stop by the market for that one ingredient you forgot. Keep a running grocery list of canned beans, fruits, vegetables, meats, and grains, plus items that pull them all together like canned tomatoes, jarred sauces, and condiments.

To keep things healthy, look for low-sodium and no-sugar-added items. Choose whole grains and brown rice. And cross super-processed foods off your list.

Think fresh when you can. Root vegetables like sweet potatoes keep a long time, as do apples and oranges. But frozen is just as healthy.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on March 24, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

U.S. Department of Agriculture: “ChooseMyPlate.”

Mental Health Foundation: “Diet and Mental Health.”

Lori Zanini, RD, CDE, Los Angeles.

Iowa State University: “How to Organize the Kitchen Pantry.”

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “3 Strategies for Successful Meal Planning.”

National Academy of Sports Medicine: “Protein and Weight Loss: How Much Protein Should You Eat to Lose Weight?”

American Heart Association: "Staple Ingredients for Quick Healthy Meals."

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