These Pantry Staples Make Healthy Cooking So Much Easier

healthy pantry staples
Photo Credit: Jill Chen

May 10, 2021

By Lisa Freedman

If you’re trying to cook better-for-you meals, your pantry is a great place to start. Keep a well-stocked pantry and you can always pull together some sort of quick and healthy snack, WFH lunch, or weeknight dinner. “People often assume that because pantry staples are shelf-stable, they don’t promote health,” says registered dietitian and author, Malina Malkani, MS, RDN, CDN. “However this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s possible to stock a pantry with a variety of shelf-stable foods that both promote health and make it easy to whip up enjoyable meals without much shopping, planning, or preparation.”

And thanks to Vitacost.com, stocking your pantry with smart finds has never been easier. The online retailer specializes in natural, organic, and eco-friendly products that are good for you and your wallet. You’ll find lots of affordable options, which you can quickly reorder or even set for automatic delivery (with a 10 percent discount!).

So, what pantry staples should you add to your cart? Let’s do some shopping.

1. Rolled Oats

“Rolled oats are an incredibly nutritious source of soluble fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals,” Malkani says. And while they’re obviously great for oatmeal and overnight oats, they’re good for more than just breakfast. Malkani bakes them into cookies and muffins and even blends them into smoothies. If you haven’t used them to make veggie burgers yet, put that on the top of your meal plan.

Buy It: Bob’s Red Mill Rolled Oats, $6.49 for 32 ounces

2. Low-Sodium Vegetable Broth

What sounds more flavorful to you? Rice that’s simmered in water or vegetable broth? What about a soup that starts with water versus broth? The answer is always going to be broth. As long as it’s low-sodium. (You want the box to say no or low-sodium, as this gives you more freedom to adjust the level yourself.)

“I find that having ready-made, low-sodium vegetable broth on hand increases our vegetable intake and reduces the likelihood of food waste, because I end up making more plant-based soups and stews that incorporate whatever vegetables I happen to have in my refrigerator,” says Malkani.

Need some inspiration? Check out seven of our quick and easy dinner ideas.

Buy It: Imagine Foods Organic Low Sodium Vegetable Broth, $3.19 for 32 ounces

3. Canned Beans

Malkani reaches for canned beans when she’s making salads, burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, casseroles, stews, and even brownies. They’re a quick and easy substitute for dried beans — two 15-ounce cans of beans can stand in for every cup of dried beans that are called for in a recipe. A few to consider: pinto beans, black beans, garbanzo beans, cannellini beans, and kidney beans.

Pro tip: Unless the recipe you’re using specifically tells you not to, you should always rinse the beans. That goopy liquid that comes in the can is super starchy (which can add a not great texture to a dish) and it’s usually full of sodium. Even after they’re rinsed, they could taste a bit salty, so be sure to taste one or two before you do any seasoning.

Buy It: Vitacost Certified Organic Pinto Beans, $1.15 for 15 ounces

salad dressing
Photo Credit: Ambitious Kitchen

4. Salad Dressing

Armed with a quality bottle of salad dressing (and maybe a few other things on this list), you’re always minutes away from a quick, no-cook dinner. We like the pick below because it’s sugar-free, paleo-, keto-, and Whole30-friendly, and you can also use it beyond the salad bowl. Marinate chicken, dress up fish tacos, or use it as a dip for crudités.

Buy It: Primal Kitchen Dressing & Marinade Made with Avocado Oil Paleo Green Goddess, $5.49 for eight ounces

5. Canned Fruits and Vegetables

Canned produce can be just as nutritious as the fresh stuff, because it’s picked at peak ripeness, but you’ll want to make sure to read the nutrition label.

“Look for canned vegetables labeled as ‘low sodium,’ or ‘no salt added,’ and be sure to rinse and drain any canned vegetables before adding them to meals,” Malkani says. Watch out, too, for canned veggies that contain gluten. In general, the shorter the ingredient list, the better.

As for canned fruits, know that some brands pack their stuff in syrups or juices that are high in added sugars. Malkani’s tip: Look for cans that say “packed in 100% juice,” “packed in its own juices,” “unsweetened,” or “no added sugar.”

Buy It: Native Forest Organic Crimini Mushrooms, $2.39 for 4 ounces; Simple Truth Organic Yellow Cling Sliced Peaches No Sugar Added, $1.99 for 15 ounces

6. Canned Tomatoes and Tomato Paste

Yes, canned tomatoes are technically canned fruits, but they’re so versatile and integral to so many dishes, we thought they deserved their own mention on this list. Buy whole peeled tomatoes and you can dice them up, crush them, purée them, or turn them into sauces. Look for organic cans with non-BPA lining — and don’t forget the tomato paste, which will add deep flavor to soups, stews, sauces, and more.

Buy It: Muir Glen Organic Whole Peeled Tomatoes, $3.39 for 28 ounces; Cento All Natural Tomato Paste, $2.72 for 4.56 ounces

7. Simmer Sauces

There’s no greater dinner shortcut than a simmer sauce. Just simmer some sauce (it’s more than just a clever name!) with some meat or vegetables and you’re good to go. (You can also throw it all in a slow cooker, if you think of it in the morning.) When picking one out, be sure to check the sugar and sodium content. This Tikka Masala sauce has just 3 grams of sugar per serving and is gluten- and preservative-free.

Buy It: Maya Kaimal Indian Simmer Sauce Tikka Masala, $4.69 for 12.5 ounces

Canned tuna recipes
Photo Credit: Coley Cooks

8. Canned Tuna

“Canned tuna is a convenient and affordable way to add muscle-maintaining protein and brain-building omega-3 fats to meals and snacks,” Malkani says. Add it to salads, turn it into a sandwich, or mix it into pasta. Just try to limit your canned tuna intake to about two servings per week in order to limit your mercury exposure, she adds.

Buy It: Wild Planet Albacore Solid Wild Tuna in Extra Virgin Olive Oil, $4.81 for 5 ounces

9. Nut and Seed Butters

“All nut butters are fantastic sources of high-quality, plant-based protein, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants,” Malkani says. Spread some onto sandwich bread, add a scoop to a smoothie or a bowl of oatmeal, or swipe a spoonful onto some apple slices.

And if you haven’t tried tahini, this seed butter is the best friend your vegetables didn’t know they were missing. Mix a half cup with two tablespoons of maple syrup and the juice from one lemon. Add a pinch of salt and you have the perfect dressing for a grain bowl or a sauce for a tray of roasted vegetables. This DIY dressing — or just a straight spoonful of tahini — also makes for a great sandwich spread. Bonus: Tahini is fairly low in calories but packs a decent amount of fiber, protein, and vitamins.

Buy It: Vitacost Almond Butter, $7.99 for 16 ounces; Artisana Organics Tahini Sesame Seed Butter, $8.99 for 14 ounces

10. Gluten-Free Pasta

There are so many alternatives to traditional pasta these days and they generally have more nutrients and fewer carbohydrates than your go-to wheat-based spaghetti. Go the gluten-free route with this pick, made from organic whole grain rice grown exclusively in Italy, and you won’t even miss the regular stuff.

Buy It: Jovial Organic Brown Rice Pasta Gluten Free Capellini, $3.99 for 12 ounces

Clean Plates

Good food brings people together.
So do good emails.

Clean Plates

Good food brings people together.
So do good emails.