Prep School: Your Pantry

Healthy Tips gives you quick and easy information about nutrition and health-promoting foods, but over the past year we’ve received a lot of questions about ways to prepare and plan for meals. Because of this we are rolling out a new series of blog posts that we’ve named “Prep School.”

These posts are going to help you integrate meal preparation into your life, give you easy base recipes to build on and offer tips on how to save time in the kitchen (so there’s time for other things you want to do).

First up: the pantry. Not every meal you make is going to be from a new recipe. In fact, most meals are made by taking a look at what is in the cupboards and fridge and putting it all together as quickly as possible. A well-stocked pantry (and we are including items in the fridge and freezer here) is the secret weapon of your next weeknight meal. You just need to build its arsenal. Many of these items go on sale on a regular basis, like 5 for $5, making it easy to occasionally stock up. Keep an eye on your grocery store circular!

What To Keep in Your Pantry – The Staples

Diced tomatoes can go a long way when adding flavor and bulk (and vitamin C) to soups, casseroles, sauces and side dishes. Plain or low sodium are perfect selections, in both 15 oz. and 28 oz. can sizes, and some brands have options that include flavorful herbs like basil and oregano or vegetables like onion and peppers.

More than just spaghetti, and we love spaghetti, pasta can be baked, boiled, eaten hot or cold and used as a substitute for other grains. Keep a few shapes on hand for making Chili Macaroni or Pasta with Risotto-Style Carrots.

Brown rice is our favorite with it’s fiber-filled whole grain goodness, but white and instant rice are also great for quick cooking sides.

A colorful variety of canned beans can be added to soups, tacos, pasta, and salads. Our staples are chickpeas, black, refried, kidney, cannnelini and pinto, but don’t let this list limit you.

The ultimate topper for eggs, baked potatoes, and (of course) chips, salsa can be used as a quick sauce for chicken or fish.

This is a foolproof pasta topper, but have you ever tried it mixed it into chili or as a ketchup substitute in meatloaf?

Peanut Butter
Sandwiches, smoothies and oatmeal are standard uses for this favorite spread. Keep some on hand for enriching dishes like Chicken Mole or African Peanut Stew.

There are so many types of vinegar available in the store today and this is great for expanding your sauce and dressing repertoire. We like balsamic, red wine and apple cider as staples. Keeping vinegars and vegetable oils on hand is the first step to making salad dressing from scratch. Bonus: They never go bad!

Also called stock, this is the backbone of soups and sauces. You can use a little broth to cook vegetables for added flavor or deglaze pans for a simple sauce. Chicken stock is a favorite, but vegetable, beef, turkey and fish stock are readily available, too.

Canned or in a pouch, tuna is a lean protein that can round out more than just sandwiches. Add it to salad or make a quick stove top dish with noodles.

A good source of iron and vegetable protein, these green or brown members of the legume family cook up in less than half an hour and can be a warm salad addition, stand alone in casseroles, add richness to soup, or a meat substitute in shepherd’s pie or tacos.

Frozen Vegetables
These are year-round staples that have just as many nutrients as their fresh counterparts – and they’re often less expensive, too. Build a meal out of baked potatoes or simply heat them up as a stand alone side.

Frozen Meat
When cuts like pork chops or chicken thighs go on sale, buying the family pack size is like saving the future you money. When you get home separate them into smaller portions, like 2 chicken breasts or 4 pork chops, add them to resealable bags and freeze. The same goes for ground meat like beef or pork; smaller portions are quicker to thaw and you only pull out what you’ll use for that meal.

In addition to these pantry staples, there are many things cooks keep on hand to spice up their day-to-day menus (hot sauce, anyone?) but spices are a fat- and sodium-free way to easily add flavor. Keep them away from heat, not next to or over the stove, and replace them every year or so. Pepper, Italian seasoning, thyme, cinnamon, chili powder, paprika, oregano and basil are a good group to start off with.

Written by Adriene Worthington, RDN, LDN

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