A Dietitian’s Pantry Staples

Hey everybody – it’s getting close to finals time at school and my mileage is getting pretty gnarly for Houston Marathon training so here is something I wrote for work. It cracks me up, because it’s so clear to me that I use different voices with the different audiences. I’ve edited this a tad to cut out some of the exclamation points and to bring you a little bit more flair, ifyaknowwhatI’msayin. Enjoy, and I hope you aren’t spending your thanksgiving writing papers like me.

It’s the time of year when we think about food all the time: epic feasts, fighting through crowds at the grocery store, and donating to food pantries. Keeping a well-stocked pantry can help all three of these causes: the feast will be easy to pull together, you’ll be less likely to need to run out for that one ingredient you forgot, and you’ll be better prepared to donate good, nutritious food to those less fortunate. I would take you on a tour of my own pantry if it wasn’t a complete shit show (what can I say, my thoughts and schedule are organized but my physical belongings are not). In lieu of that tour, please accept the following list, which contains items that I always try to have on hand.

1. Nut and Seed Butters – I’m old school and still love a natural peanut butter above all else, but there are plenty of interesting nut and seed butters at the market that can appeal to all tastes. Choose ones without added sugar and oils, especially partially hydrogenated oils or palm oil. Nut and seed butters are high in calories, so be conscious of serving size, but those calories come from heart healthy fats and you get the added benefit of fiber and protein for a truly nutritious food!

2. Canned or Pouch Tuna and Salmon – Many proteins are not shelf stable, but lean tuna and salmon can be found in both easy-to-open pouches or the traditional cans. They’re great to have around for quick weeknight meals or when you get home from traveling and don’t have any proteins in the refrigerator. Better yet, they can be thrown into a lunch box as part of a healthy, satiating lunch.

3. Quick-Cooking Whole Grains – Without proper planning, the starch component of meals can easily go from a nutritious source of carbohydrate to fuel exercise to a quickly digested, highly processed pile of crap that will leave you feeling just like that (you are what you eat, after all). No, whole grain bread and cheese fries are not created equal. At the grocery store, look for 10-minute farro, barley, or brown rice. These products have been par-boiled so that instead of taking the normal soul-crushing 40 minutes, your whole grain is fully cooked in 10 and your hanger has barely had time to develop. Bulgur and kasha are two other quick-cooking options with good texture and complex carbohydrate and fiber to keep you full for longer. You can look for these items in the bulk section.

4. Dried Lentils – Beans and legumes provide tons of soluble fiber, which can help to lower cholesterol, along with a big plant-based dose of protein to build muscle and keep you feeling full well beyond the end of the meal. The best part about these foods aside from their nutritional benefits is that they store indefinitely. I like to keep dried lentils on hand to star in favorites like lentil soup, to Middle Eastern mujaddara, to vegetarian sloppy joes, and even sub in red lentils for oats in a lightly sweet breakfast porridge. We could all stand to eat more lentils, and the first step is to keep them in the pantry.

5. Canned Beans – Dried beans are great, but they require some foresight for overnight soaking or a good investment of time to fully cook. Canned beans are much quicker, and a quick rinse in a colander will remove a good portion of the sodium that they are packed with. Add canned beans to stir fries for plant-based protein, use them to top salads, add them to soups, or puree into a dip or spread (hello, hummus) that is wayyy healthier than french onion dip or aioli.

6. Dried Fruit – Even dietitians get a sweet craving from time to time, and dried fruit is a great way to satisfy that craving. Don’t get me wrong – sugar is still sugar, but unlike candy and many baked goods dried fruit provides a wide range of vitamins and minerals along with the sweetness. My favorite? A date stuffed with a bit of something from category #1.

7. Whole Grain Pasta – With all the gluten free and low carb crazies out there, pasta has been made a villain lately but it doesn’t have to be. As long as your pasta meal also includes a big serving of vegetables, pasta can be part of a healthy dinner. Think rotini with sautéed onion, garlic, and spinach with lots of steamed broccoli and chicken, seasoned with red pepper flake and parmesan cheese rather than a full plate of buttered noodles. Choosing a whole grain option will not reduce the calories in your pasta, but will increase the nutrition that you get from that meal. Whole grain pastas provide significantly more fiber, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc than their enriched counterparts.

8. Low-Sodium Jarred Pasta Sauce – A jar of sauce to go with that whole grain pasta starts you out on the right foot for a balanced meal (just add frozen veggies if in a pinch), but try to find one with lower sodium. Many jarred sauces will have upwards of 500 milligrams (about 1/3 of the recommended limit) of sodium in a scant half cup, which is a lot. Taking the time to try different lower sodium varieties to find one that you actually like is worth the time and effort if you have high blood pressure, since sodium exacerbates the issue.

9. Low Sodium Canned Tomatoes – An alternative to keeping jarred sauce on hand is to have canned tomatoes, but these too will have salt added for preservation. Unlike beans, you don’t want to rinse your tomatoes because the liquid in the can is valuable stuff for your cooking! Choosing reduced sodium canned tomato products can help with this. I am kind of obsessed with canned tomatoes for their versatility and the flavor that they add to everything from soups and chilis to Rotel in scrambled eggs.

10. Herbs and Spices – This one doesn’t work so well for donation, but it’s crucial for anyone who is starting to cook more at home or who has moved recently. Stocking up on common spices may be an investment now, but it will help you to create dishes that are much more flavorful, making you more likely to want to cook at home versus going out to eat. Seriously, what college kid is going to take the time to cook an unseasoned chicken breast with bland frozen broccoli when Domino’s will sell you a large 3-topping pizza for $8?? Also, nobody wants to make a trip to the store just for a tiny jar of paprika. Some herbs and spices that I could not live without are salt and pepper, garlic powder, smoked paprika, turmeric, cinnamon, dried thyme, ginger, cayenne pepper, red pepper flake, cumin, and a good curry powder.

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