9 Essential Pantry Staples for Healthy Dinners That Are Quick, Easy, and Cheap

A healthier pantry starts here.

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When you think of dietitian-recommended healthy meals, you probably picture a plate or bowl piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables. Of course the nutrition pros still recommend fresh produce when you can find it in season and afford it—and as a supplement to all of your shelf-stable foods—but you can absolutely build a well-balanced meal or snack out of pantry staples … if you shop wisely.

"Creating quick, easy, and economical meals from pantry staples is one of my favorite things to teach my clients. Learning a handful of fast meals that you can add to your mental meal rolodex is key to simplifying healthy meal prep," says Laura Burak, RD, CDN, the founder of Laura Burak Nutrition in Roslyn, New York and author of Slim Down with Smoothies. "Think of a few pantry staples to always keep stocked for meal ideas that you will realistically use in a pinch when you're running low on fresh groceries. A few cans of beans, a can of crushed tomatoes and dried spices are really all you need as the base for any chili recipe, for example."

Burak suggests making a list of five to 10 items to always have on-hand that you'll turn to time and time again (read on for some ideas!).

"You don't need to stock dozens of different ingredients because you'll probably never use them all. Keep it simple and less cluttered, especially when it comes to food and your health. Buy products you can use in many dishes," Burak adds.

Rigatoni alla Puttanesca e Arrabbiata
Rigatoni alla Puttanesca e Arrabbiata. Buckwheat Queen

How you shop is important, to be sure, but so is how you store your staples. The physical layout of your pantry will influence what you grab for a snack or what you choose to eat for your next meal.

"Strategic organization is an integral part of building a healthy pantry," says Mary Stewart, RD, LD, the founder of Cultivate Nutrition in Dallas. "Knowing what you have and placing specific items in specific areas will encourage healthier choices throughout the week. Place beans, canned veggies, whole grains, and nuts in a place near front and center. Stock more heavily-processed foods like sweet treats and chips in a spot that is not as visible and harder to reach."

Burak and Steward suggest stocking up on these staples—and placing them right in your eye line—for quick and healthful meals and snacks.

Here they are, the 9 basic ingredients that every home pantry needs, according to dieticians.

1. Canned beans and lentils

Jam-packed with both fiber and protein ("two nutrients that are key when building a balanced plate," according to Stewart), beans are wildly versatile, too. Try them in salads, soups, as a meat replacement in pasta sauces or blend into a hummus-like dip.

"Protein supports skin, hair, nails, bone density, ligaments, muscle mass and hormone health, while fiber helps with digestion, balances blood sugar and provides a feeling of fullness," Stewart says. "Although I'm a big fan of all beans, each offering a variety of nutrients, my favorite beans to have on-hand are white beans."

That's because each cup of white beans provides 17 grams of protein, 11 grams of fiber and numerous vitamins and minerals. They're also speedy to use if you opt for canned over dried. (Although dried are just as nutritious and often a little cheaper; you can't go wrong!)

Creamy Hummus
Buckwheat Queen

Get the recipe for Creamy Hummus.

2. Whole grain crackers

To dunk into that bean dip or crumble over salads, Burak loves whole grain crackers like Ella's Flats and Mary's Gone Crackers. "These add crunch and texture and are made with heart-healthy ingredients, including seeds, which provide an extra dose of fiber, protein and omega-3 fats," Burak says.

3. Seeds

Speaking of seeds, they're a stellar choice for adding "tons of nutrition to smoothies, pancake mixes, oatmeal and more," Burak says.

Stewart always has chia seeds in her pantry for all of the above uses and more, such as mixing into muffins or yogurt. (Discover 16 ways to sneak more chia seeds into your diet.)

"Just 2 tablespoons of chia seeds provides 6 grams of fiber, 4 grams of protein, and gram for gram offers more omega-3 fats than salmon," Stewart says. "But don't stop at chia seeds! Sesame seeds and flaxseeds are also excellent to have in your pantry."

Salad Crunchies Seed Medley
Buckwheat Queen

Get the recipe for Salad Crunchies Seed Medley.

4. Nuts and nut butters

Both Burak and Stewart are also nuts about nuts, from pistachios and walnuts to peanut butter and almond butter.

"All nuts are extremely nutrient-dense. They are a good source of healthy fats, fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Nuts and seeds are easy to sprinkle on any salad, toast, smoothie or enjoy a handful raw," Stewart says.

5. Marinara sauce

Rich in lycopene, low in calories and ideal for brunch (shakshuka!) and dinner (soups, pasta tosses and more), "The question is, what don't I use jarred marinara for?! A quality jarred marinara sauce like Rao's is a staple in my kitchen for quick and easy dishes that taste incredible," Burak says.

Whole30 Baked Eggs in Marinara Sauce
France C.

Get the recipe for Baked Eggs in Marinara Sauce.

6. Canned seafood

For another high-protein meal-starter, Burak adores packets or cans of tuna and salmon. They're both excellent sources of healthy fats, and can be used in salads, sandwiches, casseroles, fish cakes and beyond.

7. Oats

"Whole grains, like oats, give you sustained energy to tackle your daily to-do list," Stewart says.

They're full of fiber, loaded with antioxidants and aren't just for breakfast, you know!

"It's easy to incorporate oats into any meal of the day," Stewart adds. "Try overnight oats for breakfast. For a midday snack, add oats to muffin batter. For lunch, make homemade granola using oats and use it to top a yogurt parfait. Or for dinner, mix oats into your favorite burger or meatball recipe."

No-Cook Overnight Oatmeal
France C

Get the recipe for No-Cook Overnight Oatmeal.

8. Olives

They're good in oil but great whole, too. And since they're cured and fermented, they're one of the longest shelf-life fruits on the market, Stewart explains.

"Whether you prefer black, green, pitted, or stuffed olives, they are not only convenient and easy to incorporate into your meals, they are packed with heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and fiber—each 10-olive serving has about 3 grams of fiber," she says.

Try them as an on-the-go snack, as part of a charcuterie board or atop salads or pizzas.

9. Herbs and spices

"The flavor factor of any meal can be just as important as the components of the meal," Stewart says, so she advises keeping a fresh stock of plenty of dried herbs and spices "to transform even the most mundane meal."

A few of her personal favorites: dill, garlic, cinnamon, chili powder and oregano. (Study up on 10 tricks to keep herbs and spices flavorful and fresh longer.)


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