Have you ever wished you could peek inside a nutritionist’s cupboard for healthy food ideas you can use to stock your own? We spoke with Chrissy Wellington-Garner, M.S., C.N.S., L.D.N., C.P.T., one of our nutritionists at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass., to give you some insights into the shelf-stable foods she and her peers keep on hand at home. The goal? To help you keep nutrient-rich foods at the ready that will allow you to make quick and easy meals out of what’s in your kitchen cabinets (yes—it can be done!). “A pantry filled with nutritious staples, combined with a little creativity and a commitment to planning ahead, can help us prepare fast meals in a fast-paced world,” Wellington-Garner says.
First, follow these two key rules for stocking your pantry:
Look for items with five ingredients or fewer—the food will be less likely to include chemicals, preservatives or an overabundance of salt and sugar.
If you can pronounce it, you can eat it. In other words, look for foods with ingredients that sound like they came from nature rather than a chemistry lab.
With these tips in mind, Wellington-Garner suggests looking for the following foods to stock your shelves smarter.
If you’re shopping for protein, choose:
• Canned or pouched fish: Tuna, salmon and sardines all contain high levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and can easily be mixed with a bit of mayo or Greek yogurt to create a sandwich topping, or tossed into a hot or cold pasta dish for an easy source of protein. If you’re going for tuna, choose chunk light packed in water to reduce your mercury exposure. (Visit our article Safe Ways to Eat More Fish for more advice on how to limit your exposure to toxins in seafood.) Buying fish in pouches is a smart way to know you’re avoiding bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that’s used to line many aluminum food cans that may pose health risks.
• No-salt added beans: Dried beans offer protein, fiber and antioxidants, and they taste great—they just take hours to prepare. Keep some cans of garbanzo, black and kidney beans in your stash for in-a-pinch meals. You can also give them a whirl in the food processor with a clove of garlic, some olive oil and some spices for an easy protein-packed dip.
If you’re shopping for grains, choose:
• 100% whole-wheat pasta: Pasta, as most of us know, is one of the easiest pantry staples to create a fast entrée around. Just look for 100% whole-wheat or other whole-grain (like brown rice) varieties for an extra fiber and B-vitamin punch.
• Quinoa: This popular grain is simple to prepare and can be used as a side dish, tossed with chopped veggies and vinaigrette in a cold salad or topped with warm milk and dried fruit as a breakfast cereal.
• Ancient grains: Up your whole-grain game by testing out some high-nutrient ancient grains like teff, faro and millet. Look for them in the bulk section so you can try just a bit to see what you like, and use them like you would brown rice or quinoa.
• Cereal grains: Instead of packaged cereal, which can contain a whopping dose of sodium and sugar, go for single-ingredient grains like oatmeal and quinoa flakes. Customize their flavors to your liking with fruit, nutmeg, cinnamon or maple syrup.
• Whole-wheat panko: These Japanese-style breadcrumbs are cut differently than the traditional kind, which means they add a crunchiness to foods even if you bake instead of fry. They’re also lower in sodium. Use them to coat chicken cutlets or homemade fish sticks.
If you’re shopping for condiments, choose:
• Organic canned tomatoes: Crushed, diced and tomato paste can all be used to whip up a quick pasta dish or add depth to soup. Some tomatoes have ranked in the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen Plus (a list of produce that contains a high level of pesticides), so look for organic versions to minimize your exposure.
• Natural peanut butter: High in protein, fiber and healthy fats, peanut butter paired with a piece of fruit like a banana or an apple makes a filling, energizing snack. Look for one with one (maybe two) ingredients: nuts, and possibly some salt.
• Flavored vinegar: Instead of relying on bottled salad dressings, which can contain high amounts of sugar and are a surprising source of sodium and gluten, keep a vinegar of your choice (like balsamic, red wine or cider) on your shelf to whisk with olive oil and add to any salad.
• Extra virgin olive oil: Look for expeller-pressed or cold-pressed oils to use on salads and in low-heat cooking. These versions have been processed at a low temperature to preserve their nutritious fatty acids.
• Canola oil: With a neutral flavor and good amount of omega-3 fatty acids, this is smart oil to keep stocked for most of your cooking. Again, look for one that’s expeller- or cold-pressed for the highest concentration of nutrients. Canola oil is made from the rapeseed plant, with is often genetically modified. If you’re concerned about this, opt for organic.
More: Choosing the Best Oil
If you’re shopping for soups and stocks, choose:
• Low-sodium, organic boxed broth: Cooking with broths can easily skyrocket your sodium intake. Use a boxed broth to minimize your exposure to BPA, and make up for the missing salt by adding a splash of acidic (but sodium-free) ingredients like lemon juice or vinegar.
• Low-sodium, organic boxed soups: These make for easy meals on nights when you’re crunched for time or just don’t feel like cooking. Again, bump up the flavor with lemon, vinegar—even hot sauce.
If you’re shopping for snack foods, choose:
• Whole-grain crackers: Look for ones with three to five grams of fiber (enough to help fill you up), and less than 200 mg of sodium per serving.
• Fruit and nut bars: Favor energy bars with no more than 200 calories and just a few whole-foods ingredients (like dates, almonds and honey) over versions with corn syrup, saturated fat and hydrogenated oils.
If you’re shopping for spices and herbs, choose:
• Turmeric: This potent cancer-fighter and anti-inflammatory has a mild flavor and imparts a bright yellow color to curries and stir fries.
• Ginger: Add natural warmth and soothe your gastrointestinal tract with this spice, which works well in baked goods, hot cereals and Asian-inspired stir fries.