FEATURE — Whether family meals are an everyday occurrence in your home or a new adventure, keeping a well-stocked pantry is essential in creating delicious and healthy meals that won’t break the bank.
Did you know that home-cooked meals often contain less sodium, unhealthy fats and sugar than those prepared in a restaurant? Knowing how to stock your pantry like a pro can save you dinnertime frustration and money!
Here are a few tips for stocking a healthy pantry:
- Stock up on lean proteins, such as canned light tuna, salmon or white meat chicken, packed in water. These are great for soups, casseroles and stir-fry meals.
- Choose dried or low-sodium (or no salt added) canned beans. Draining and rinsing canned beans can also help cut down on salt. Kidney, pinto and black beans add healthy protein to your meal and are a great source of fiber.
- Include nuts, seeds and nut butters like peanut butter or almond butter.
Money-saving tip: Shop case-lot sales. They typically occur one or two times a year and can help stock your pantry with shelf-stable foods that may last years.
Fruits and veggies
- Canned produce is excellent source of nutrition. They can easily add color and flavor to soups, casseroles and skillet meals (not to mention important vitamins and minerals).
- Choose low-sodium (or no salt added) canned vegetables. Draining and rinsing canned vegetables can also help cut down on salt. Canned corn, green beans and carrots are great to have on hand.
- Choose canned fruit that is packed in 100% juice or water to cut down on added sugars. Paired with cottage cheese, yogurt, in a fruity dessert or on its own, canned fruits are an easy way to add essential vitamins and tons of flavor. Canned peaches, pears, mandarin oranges and pineapple will offer variety to your pantry.
- Canned tomatoes are an excellent base for soups and sauces. You can also find low-sodium or no salt added options. Think variety: diced, whole, pureed, sauce and paste.
Money-saving tip: Consider adding a can or two of veggies to a dish that will increase the number of servings and provide you with leftovers. For example, add corn or green beans to a stir-fry or carrots to your spaghetti!
- The United States Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines encourage us to make half our grains whole grains. Choose whole wheat pasta, tortillas, bread and brown rice when possible. Having some of these items on hand can make quick work of some weeknight meals.
- Oatmeal – what else is there to say? It’s quick, hearty, healthy and a whole grain.
Money-saving tip: When preparing a meal that has pasta or rice, consider cooking extra to store in the fridge for a meal later in the week. Leftover rice can make a delicious stir-fry or fried rice. Pre-cooked pasta can be made into a pasta salad or added to soup. Not only will this stretch your food dollar, but it can save you time as well!
Other things to keep on hand
- Oils: Vegetable, canola, extra-virgin olive oil. Keep low-fat cooking spray on hand for applying to pans and baking dishes. It’s a healthier nonstick option than butter and can be used for a quick sauté or cooking up those quesadillas.
- Spices: You don’t need to be fancy here, but variety is key. Think about the types of dishes your family enjoys and what you’ll need to prepare them. For Italian meals, have oregano, basil and red pepper flakes on hand. Stock up on cumin, oregano and chili powder for Mexican-inspired meals and ginger, garlic powder and sesame seeds for Asian dishes.
- Vinegars: There are so many varieties to choose from! A few basics are apple cider, red wine and white vinegar. Having these in your pantry will provide countless salad and side dish options to spice up your menu.
Money-saving tip: Many spices come in large and bulk sizes that are cheaper per ounce than the smaller option. Dried spices and herbs can last one to three years if stored properly, so consider stocking up. Find recipes to make your own spice varieties such as taco, chili or all-purpose seasoning. Many of these can be made with spices you already have on hand!
Once you’ve stocked your pantry like a pro, add frozen and refrigerated items to the mix for a well-stocked kitchen.
Stock your refrigerator and freezer
- Try frozen chicken breasts or ready-to-cook fish fillets.
- Just like canned varieties, frozen produce is an excellent source of nutrition.
- When choosing fresh produce, consider buying varieties that will last more than a few days in the fridge. “Sturdy” fruits and vegetables are things like celery, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, onions, sweet potatoes, beets, oranges and apples.
Money-saving tip: Watch your local grocery store ads for meat and produce to go on sale. When you see it at a good price, buy in bulk and freeze to use later.
When buying fresh produce, don’t buy more than you can use before your next shopping trip. If you have too much fresh produce on hand, you may not be able to use it all before it spoils. Consider buying only two or three varieties each shopping trip, like broccoli, cauliflower and oranges. On your next shopping trip, try two or three different varieties, like carrots, sweet potatoes and apples.
Some foods may be difficult to find or too expensive. There are many substitutes and creative options for healthy and delicious meals. Do the best you can with what you have. Once you start cooking recipes using items from your pantry, you’ll see how easy it is to substitute one item for another.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Ground beef, chicken, turkey and sausage can be used interchangeably.
- Add tuna to casseroles instead of chicken.
- Most types of cheese can be used interchangeably.
- Frozen veggies can be used in the place of fresh and vice versa.
- Pizza sauce and pasta sauce can be substituted for the other.
- Add herbs like Italian seasoning, oregano and garlic to crushed or diced tomatoes to make a flavorful pizza or pasta sauce.
- Crushed crackers or unsweetened flake cereal can be used in place of bread crumbs.
- Use canned beans in place of meat to add protein to soups, skillets and casseroles.
- Dried herbs can be used instead of fresh.
- Rice and pasta can be used interchangeably.
- Different types of canned beans can be substituted in place of each other.
With your pantry, refrigerator and freezer stocked, you’re ready to create some delicious meals. One of my favorites is taco salad; click here for the recipe.
The great thing about this recipe is that it is so versatile. If you don’t have an onion, use dried onion flakes or onion powder. If you don’t have frozen corn, use canned. Any type of canned beans will work – use kidney, pinto, white, black or garbanzo. You can add canned chicken or ground beef to the recipe for an extra serving of protein. If you don’t have rice on hand, any type of grain will do.
Click here for a few more of my favorite recipes using ingredients from your pantry.
Written by CANDI MERRITT and BECKY EGLI, Certified Nutrition Education Ambassadors.
This article originally appeared May 5, 2020, on the USU Extension Create Better Health blog.
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