Keep these go-to items stocked and make meal planning simpler than ever.
Once you get in the swing of making nutritious, flavorful meals for yourself, you'll notice a lot of recipes call for the same pantry staples—oils, spices, sweeteners, sauces. And having a well-stocked kitchen can make both meal planning and throwing together impromptu meals a ton easier.
Imagine what a splash of vinegar and oil or a dash of dried basil and a can of fire-roasted tomatoes can do for your basic chicken breast. Or how some garlic, olive oil, and chili flakes can transform plain zoodles. Making sure to always have essentials on hand also saves you some green—and cuts down on those last-minute grocery runs. If your current pantry is just a bunch of random cereals, obscure spices you used for one dinner party, and gifted and inherited oils you don't use regularly, read on for the ultimate list of 10 items you should have on hand at all times.
While nothing beats the nutritional goodness of fresh, in-season, organic produce, frozen veggies can come pretty darn close. Keep a variety in your freezer to grab when your fave veggie isn't available fresh, or for those last few days of the week when your preferred produce is just about (or completely) used up.
Keep a high-quality, unrefined olive oil or extra-virgin olive oil on hand to use for everything from cooking to baking. Mix the oil with balsamic vinegar for a healthy salad dressing, or for dipping steaming hot fresh bread in. Olive oil is the most common staple oil, but other popular options include coconut oil, flaxseed oil, and safflower oil. It's good to keep a mix of different oils on hand because each one has a different smoke point that you'll want to pay attention to when cooking.
Citrus and Vinegar
Cooking acids like lemon juice (which can keep in your fridge for weeks) and vinegar can punch up a dish with just a little drizzle. Acid and oil are the foundations of basically every salad dressing, giving you the liberty to create your own while cutting out unnecessary calories and sugar. Although vinegar gets a bad rap for its stinky scent, a splash of apple cider, rice, or balsamic vinegar brightens the flavors of many dishes, from thick sauces to crisp salads and sweet fruits.
Broth or Stock
Broth and stock are pantry must-haves to load your healthy food with extra flavor. Wonder what the difference is? Broth is usually thinner and is used for sauces and soups, while stock produces a thicker, richer flavor for hearty stews. Boil your grains, like quinoa or barley, in broth or stock instead of water for a tasty side dish, steam your veggies with it for an easy and delicious upgrade, or use it to make delicious soups, sauces, and a variety of meats. You can even use it for those 100 percent necessary comfort foods, like mashed potatoes and chicken noodle soup.
A Variety of Whole Grains
Whole grains—like quinoa, rice, barley, and oats—are essential to meal planning, because they're simple to make in big batches. They offer a variety of nutrients, such as fiber and protein, and can help manage inflammation and reduce cholesterol. For some fresh takes on nutritious grains, try some of our recipes, like almond butter oats and eggplant and quinoa salad.
Herbs and Spices
Stock up on the basics, like dried basil, oregano, thyme, smoked paprika, dill, and chili flakes, and pick up a few unique ones as well, like Turkish urfa biber, turmeric, or Maldon Sea Salt. If you're not ready to commit to a full jar, try grabbing a small amount from a store that offers bulk options.
While we're on the topic of adding flavor, make sure to have garlic handy for a nutrient-packed way to spice up any dish. Fresh is best, but a can of the pre-diced garlic can be handy for those days when you don't have time to peel and dice, or if you just don't feel like dealing with the smell of garlicky hands.
Stock up on healthy sweeteners (agave, raw honey, balsamic glaze, or maple syrup). Raw honey has a long list of health benefits. It has vitamins, including vitamin B6, thiamine, and niacin, and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and zinc.
Also try using maple syrup to whip up a healthy homemade salad dressing—or make perfectly caramelized roasted veggies like you've never had before.
What's a fridge without salad dressings and sandwich spreads? You can keep all your faves, but try switching to simplified formulas with little to no processed sugar. Dijon mustard, for example, has about one-third the calories of ketchup and is packed with the same antioxidants found in broccoli and cabbage—with a spicy flavor all its own.
If you're going gluten-free, swap out traditional soy sauce for GF tamari, which boasts the same salty taste without wheat. If you're vegan or paleo, opt for dressings and spreads with tahini, a paste made from ground sesame seeds that will give you the same creamy texture as Caesar dressing or hummus. And don't worry, your sriracha is safe.
Canned Tomatoes and Tomato Paste
Both canned tomatoes and tomato paste offer powerful antioxidants and vitamin C. When used to cook a homemade pasta sauce, canned tomatoes add texture, while tomato paste produces a smooth, saturated flavor. Add a dash of garlic, onion, or oregano to take it to the next level.
Snacks You Can Store
The trick is to fill your pantry with healthy alternatives that are easy to grab on the go, like a variety of nuts, dried fruit, and nut butter. Make your own trail mix of almonds, walnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, and dried cranberries. If you're not a fan of sunflower seeds or cranberries, try granola and dried cherries or banana chips instead. Throw in some dark chocolate bits if you've got a sweet tooth.
When choosing a nut butter, be sure to check the ingredient list, as many contain unnecessary additives. Example: Look for a peanut butter with just "peanuts" and "salt" on the label.
Plan Now, Eat Well Later
Having these staple ingredients on hand will make meal planning a breeze. Once you're set up, cooking apps like eMeals take care of the rest with their healthy and delicious recipes. Whether you prefer low-calorie, gluten-free, paleo, or vegetarian meals, having an app to help you stay organized is a lifesaver. We also love that the app generates grocery lists for each week, making shopping quick and easy. And if all else fails, you can always make a pretty delicious meal out of just your curated pantry items.
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