Healthy Must-Haves for Your Pantry

Here's everything you need to make healthy snacks or dinner in a pinch.

Medically reviewed in October 2021

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It’s a Friday night after a long week, and all you want to do is curl up with an evening of Netflix, but you have four mouths to feed. What do you do? While the tempting answer may be to order a pizza and call it a day, a well-stocked pantry can help you whip up something delicious and nutritious in a pinch—not to mention save you money.

That’s why we asked nutritionist Mary Willis, RDN, of Menorah Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri to share her list of healthy pantry must-haves.

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Olive, Avocado and Coconut Oils

Great for baking, sautéing and as a dressing, cooking oil is the ultimate pantry staple. Willis recommends looking for oils labeled “extra virgin” and stocking up on olive and avocado oils in particular because they aren’t as processed as canola and sunflower seed oils. She also recommends coconut oil, because, while it is high in healthy saturated fat, it is easy to digest.

Buying Tips: When buying oil, look for packaging that blocks light and helps maintain quality: dark glass, stainless steel, coated paperboard and bag-in box.

Cooking Tips: You can sauté veggies or make salad dressing with olive and avocado oils. Unrefined coconut oil is good for baking, adds Willis.

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Canned Beans

Black beans, kidney beans and garbanzo beans are rich in fiber and protein. Dried beans have higher nutritional value than canned—if prepared properly. Soak dried beans, Willis says, to properly release their nutrients.

Buying Tips: If using canned beans, low-sodium or no-salt-added versions are best, says Willis (although rinsing regular versions can help reduce salt).

Cooking Tips: Make Meatless Monday a hit with black bean burgers, says Willis. “It’s very easy and healthy using an egg, black beans almond meal for thickening (available at most grocery stores).” And, any bean can be made into hummus—just mix it with a little olive oil and tahini.

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Canned Tomatoes

While most veggies you serve should be fresh, some canned options pack a healthy (and convenient) punch. Canned tomatoes are high in lycopene (a phytonutrient that fights cancer and heart disease), potassium, fiber and C and A vitamins.

Buying Tips: Look for low or no-salt-added tomatoes, or rinse the canned veggies off with water.

Cooking Tips: Willis suggests mixing canned tomatoes (crushed, chopped, whole, whatever you prefer) with quinoa, black beans and cumin for an easy one-skillet meal.

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Nuts and Nut Butters (But Not Peanut Butter)

Willis stocks her pantry with tree nuts like cashews, almonds and Brazil nuts because they are high in healthy fats and protein. When it comes to nut butter, she warns that many name brands of peanut butter contain too much added sugar and salt. Look instead for raw versions of peanut and other nut butters, Willis says.

Buying Tips: Raw nuts offer the most nutritional value since they do not have any added ingredients.

Roasting Tips: If you love roasted nuts, here’s an easy recipe: Add to 1 1/2 cups raw nuts just enough water to cover. Add 1/2 tsp sea salt, stir and soak overnight. Drain the nuts and spread on a baking sheet and bake at 140 degrees F for 8 hours. Let cool completely.

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Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds (pepitas), sesame seeds, chia and flaxseeds are great sources of protein and are always in Willis’s pantry. Chia and flaxseeds in particular are high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Buying Tips: Willis buys flaxseed in bulk at her local discount store. She keeps some in her pantry and tosses the rest in her freezer to keep them fresher longer.

Cooking Tips: Add a tablespoon of your favorite seeds to a salad; ground flaxseed is a great replacement for breadcrumbs to keep hamburger meat together. Also, flaxseed can easily replace eggs in any baking recipe: just mix 1 Tbsp flaxseed with 3 Tbsp water and let stand for five minutes before adding it, says Willis.

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Dried Herbs and Spices

“Herbs and spices taste great and are rich in medicinal properties,” says Willis. She swears a little pinch of Himalayan sea salt, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, pepper and ginger are healthy additions to any meal. “Pepper helps absorb nutrients and turmeric and ginger are anti-inflammatories,” she adds.

Buying Tips: You may be surprised to learn that herbs and spices have expiration dates, but if you buy them in glass, colored jars, they’ll stay fresher longer.

Cooking Tips: Cinnamon may lower blood pressure, and just a pinch of it can add an unexpected flavor twist to a hearty bowl of chili.

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