Ask any chef what makes a great meal and they’ll tell you: salt to enhance flavor, fat for taste and texture, and acid for balance. Stocking a pantry with essentials starts here. If you have these elements on hand, creating meals, whether it’s for one day or one week, will be simpler and more delicious.
Elements of good cooking aside, a pantry fit for meal preparation should include a combination of foods that provide essential nutrients like protein, fat and carbohydrates. Pantry staples can provide all of these nutrients, plus vitamins and minerals. Foods like olive oil, whole grains and pastas, canned fish, dried or pre-cooked beans, and dried herbs and spices are some of the most nutrient-rich foods out there and can live in the pantry for months to years.
If you’re not an avid meal-prepper, it’s still worth having staples on hand because it saves time and money and helps reduce food waste. Pantry foods are inexpensive, long-lasting, and suited to quick, convenient meals. They can help you stick with your health goals when you’re short on time and access to fresh food is limited.
Use the following tips and lists as a guide when shopping for food and making meals. Every pantry will look different depending on your access, preferences, and budget.
How to best store food
The cool, dark, and dry pantry environment is ideal for storing unopened canned goods, uncooked grains, breads, and seeds. When kept between 50-70 °F, these foods will last for one to five years (with the exception of bread, which should be frozen if not consumed within a few days).
Foods commonly stored in the pantry that should be refrigerated include apples, nuts and nut butters, tortillas, ripe bananas, opened cans and jars, and condiments like maple syrup and ketchup. Some fruits and vegetables actually prefer to live at room temperature and will actually go bad faster in the refrigerator. These include unripe fruits, tomatoes, melons, eggplant, squash, cucumbers and peppers.
What to Buy
If your budget allows for only a few items, prioritize the basics. Though simple and inexpensive, they are packed with vitamins, minerals, fats, and carbohydrates. They carry immense flavor and allow for flexibility and creativity in the kitchen.
- Salt (kosher, sea, flaky)
- Black pepper
- Lemon, lime, or vinegar (apple cider, rice, or balsamic)
- Cooking fats (olive/coconut/avocado oil, ghee)
- Dried herbs and spices
Next, fill your shelves with food that provides the entire range of nutrients, including protein. Doing so will help you create balanced meals even when fresh produce is running low. Below is a list of pantry foods and the nutrients they provide.
- Proteins: Canned beans, canned fish (tuna, salmon, sardines, anchovies), quinoa, nuts and nut butters, beans and rice, seeds
- Fats: Oils (olive, peanut, grapeseed, canola, etc.), nuts, seeds, tahini, olives, chocolate, cocoa butter, avocado
- Carbohydrates: Grains (rice, oats, couscous, farro, quinoa, barley, hominy), cereal, pasta, bread, potatoes, squash, peppers, eggplant, garlic, onions, pears, citrus fruits, melons, bananas, cucumber, tomatoes, pomegranate, dried fruit, legumes (lentils, peas, beans), canned tomatoes
It’s not realistic or necessary to stock all of these foods. Choose one or two from each category so you get a range of nutrients and have options when cooking. Lastly, consider investing in additional condiments, seasonings, and broths to give your meals more flavor and texture and to stay interested in the same staples over time.
- Soy and fish sauce, tamari, hot sauce, or pesto
- Pastes like tomato, curry, sambal, and harissa
- Broth or stock
- Honey or maple syrup
- Mustard, mayonnaise, and ketchup
- Nutritional yeast
Cooking from the Pantry
Recipes are useful but can be limiting when we don’t have all the ingredients on hand. Learn what foods and food groups pair well together and start to develop loose recipes in your head. Here are some examples:
- Grains form a complete protein when combined with dairy or legumes. Make lentil curry on a bed of rice, add cheese to pasta, or make your own burrito bowl.
- Canned fish is a great addition to pasta, salad, or on top of bread.
- Take advantage of the versatility of canned tomatoes: mash or puree them into a quick pasta or pizza sauce, or cook eggs in a bath of canned tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes.
- As long as you have broth or stock, you can make soup. Add a grain or noodle, vegetables, and beans for a more filling meal.
- Cooked beans are another versatile powerhouse. Mash them with olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon. Lather on whole grain toast for breakfast or a snack. Or make your own veggie burger: mash beans and cooked rice, add an egg to bind plus onions, salt, and pepper.
Remember, you don’t need a bounty of pantry staples to make a meal nutritious and delicious. Have your basics covered and add on from there!
If you have more questions about you can better stock your pantry, you can call (312) 374 – 5399 or schedule an appointment online to talk with one of our registered dietitians.
Submitted by Emily Guzman
Edited by Alex Franz
reviewed by Morgan Murdock
McGee, H. (2004). On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (Rev. ed.). New York: Scribner.
Nosrat, S. (2017). Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking (4th ed.). New York: Simon and Schuster.
Refrigeration and Food Safety. (n.d.). Retrieved December 30, 2019, from https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/refrigeration-and-food-safety/ct_index