Stock Up & Stay In!

Author: Lisa Powell
Director of Nutrition, Canyon Ranch Tucson

Home is where the peanut butter is. Your favorite crackers, too. You can’t always go shopping for groceries, so think of your pantry as your personal convenience store. Canyon Ranch Director of Nutrition Lisa Powell, MS, RDN, recommends keeping certain staples handy to create healthy, delicious meals any time – from tried-and-true standbys to your own culinary experiments.

“Channel your inner chef,” Powell says. “You can whip up amazing meals and snacks just by keeping the essentials on hand.” These are some of the staples she suggests for good health and great taste:

Include protein with every meal or snack to maintain energy and provide amino acids for immune function. Choose animal products, such as fresh fish/seafood, poultry, lean red meats, dairy products and eggs or plant-based proteins like beans, soy foods and nuts/seeds. Excellent shelf-stable proteins include.

  • CANNED OR IN-A-POUCH FISH OR CHICKEN. Tuna, salmon and sardines all contain high levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Chicken is a pantry staple. Mix equal parts mayo and Greek yogurt to make tuna/salmon or chicken salad. Or simply toss meat 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 risk of mercury exposure. Buy fish in pouches to avoid bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used to line many aluminum food cans that may pose health risks.

  • BEANS. Dried beans offer protein, fiber and antioxidants and great taste. However, plan ahead as they take hours of soaking before you can use them.

Keep some cans of garbanzo, black and kidney beans – no salt added – in your stash for in-a-pinch meals. Or give them a whirl in the food processor with a clove of garlic, olive oil and some spices for an easy, protein-packed dip. Look for cans labeled “BPA-free.”

  • NUTS, SEEDS & NUTS/SEED BUTTERS. The ultimate pantry protein – nuts, seeds and nuts/seed butters – can be a valuable addition to your menu. Look for raw nuts and seeds and toast them lightly, just until you can smell their delicious aroma. Choose natural-style nuts/seed butters.

Whole grains are excellent sources of energy, fiber, vitamins and minerals. They can form the base of many meals, from pasta dishes to grain bowls and salads. Best choices include.

  • 100% WHOLE-WHEAT PASTA. Pasta is one of the easiest pantry staples to create a quick entrée. Look for 100% whole-wheat or other whole-grain (like brown rice) varieties for extra fiber and B complex vitamins. Combine with your choice of protein and a jarred or fresh tomato sauce; add grated Parmesan and dinner is done!
  • QUINOA. This popular grain is a complete protein that’s simple to prepare. Serve it for a side dish or tossed with chopped veggies and vinaigrette as a cold salad. You can also top it with warm milk/dairy alternative and fresh or 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. Use them as 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 cereals like oatmeal and quinoa flakes. Customize flavor to your liking with fruit, nutmeg, cinnamon or maple syrup.
  • WHOLE-WHEAT PANKO. These Japanese-style breadcrumbs are cut differently from the traditional kind and add extra crunch 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.

Condiments and seasonings add flavor and interest to your meals. Experiment with.

  • 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 NUT BUTTERS. High in protein, fiber and healthy fats, nut butter paired with a piece of fruit, such as a banana or an apple, makes a quick, healthy snack. Look for those with only one or two ingredients, like nuts, and possibly some salt.
  • FLAVORED VINEGAR. Instead of relying on bottled salad dressings – which can contain lots of sugar and are a surprisingly high source of sodium and sometimes gluten – keep a variety of vinegars (like balsamic, red wine, citrus or cider) on your shelf to whisk with olive oil, herbs, some salt and pepper. Add a teaspoon or two of mustard as an emulsifier to keep your dressing mixed.
  • EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL. Rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, this kitchen classic – often referred to as EVOO – is a great choice for cooking and salad dressings.
  • ORGANIC CANOLA OIL. With a neutral flavor and good amount of omega-3 fatty acids, this is a smart oil to keep stocked for most of your cooking. Look for expeller- or cold-pressed oils.


  • CINNAMON. Sprinkle on hot cereals and roasted fall vegetables like acorn or butternut squash to add a natural sweetness. Cinnamon also helps improve your body’s ability to control blood sugar.
  • 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 tummy with this spice, which works well in baked goods, hot cereals and Asian-inspired stir-fries. Try grating fresh ginger; then squeeze out the ginger juice and discard the fibrous solids – add to any dish for a warming “kick”; it’s great in smoothies, too!

Soups and broths can be a simple base for many meals. Think of them as a blank canvas and add your choice of protein, veggies, beans or whole grains for an easy meal in a bowl.

  • LOW-SODIUM, ORGANIC, BOXED BROTH. Cooking with typical broth can easily skyrocket your sodium intake, so be sure to buy the low-sodium varieties. Use a boxed broth to minimize your exposure to BPA, and brighten the flavor 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. Bump up the flavor with lemon, herbs, vinegar—even hot sauce.

Snacks can bridge the time between meals, managing your energy and appetite. Choose a moderate portion – around 150-200 calories. Be sure to include protein and some healthy fat to create a balanced snack.

  • 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. Pair with nut butter, string cheese or hummus.
  • FRESH OR DRIED FRUIT. Serve with string cheese or other individual cheese portion; nuts/nuts butter or add slices to Greek yogurt.
  • HARD-COOKED EGG. Prepare several at one time and add fresh veggies or whole-grain crackers.
  • ENERGY BARS. Choose bars with no more than 200 calories and just a few whole-foods ingredients (such as dates, almonds and honey). Avoid bars with corn syrup, saturated fat and hydrogenated oils. Pair with a piece of fresh fruit for the easiest possible meal.
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