Experts from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy offer tips for nutrient-rich, long-lasting foods to keep on hand for whipping up healthy meals in a snap
This article originally appeared in the Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter, published each month by the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. For more expert guidance on healthy cooking, eating, and living, subscribe here.
Healthy cooking doesn’t have to start with fresh ingredients. Having nutritious staples and cooking essentials on hand makes it easy to prepare an endless variety of quick, delicious, healthy meals. Here are some of our favorites, and some ideas for putting them to good use:
Legumes. Dried or canned beans, peas, and lentils are nutritious, versatile, protein-packed options to keep on hand. They provide a healthy dose of fiber and important minerals like iron, magnesium and potassium. The many varieties of (low- or reduced-sodium) canned legumes make plant-based meals a snap. Toss them into soups, stews, and salads, puree them into creamy bean dips, mash them into burrito or quesadilla fillings, or form them into veggie burgers with whole grains and chopped vegetables. Dried beans, peas, and lentils keep indefinitely in a cool, dry place. They are perfect for comforting, slow cooked one-pot meals like soups, stews, chilis, and curries. Dishes made with legumes freeze well—so you can cook once, portion, and freeze for future meals.
Nuts, seeds, and nut butters. Even tiny seeds like sunflower and pumpkin are tasty, filling, and nutrient rich. Nuts and seeds make great grab-and-go snacks, yogurt and salad toppers, and additions to granola and other whole grain cereals. The healthy unsaturated fats in nuts and seeds boost the calorie content, but a little goes a long way—just a handful can help satisfy hunger. Nut butters make a great dip for carrots, celery, and apples. Or spread them on banana slices, whole grain crackers, or bread, stir them into oatmeal, or whirl them into smoothies with fresh or frozen fruit.
Whole grains. Stock familiar favorites, like oats, brown rice, and whole wheat pasta, as well as a couple different varieties, like farro, sorghum, or quinoa. Studies show dietary patterns containing whole grains (rather than refined grains) are associated with lower risk of many chronic diseases. Whole grains are simple to prepare and work for any meal, from hot breakfast cereal, to cold grain-and-bean salad with vinaigrette, to a hot pilaf side dish with mushrooms, onions, or any ingredients you like. Whole grain breads, cereals, and crackers make a quick sandwich, breakfast, and easy, out-of-the-box snack. Storing a few homemade whole-grain meals in the freezer can save the day when time is tight or energy is low.
Canned tomatoes. Whole, diced, or pureed, canned tomatoes are a common ingredient in many recipes. Grab no- or reduced-sodium varieties and see how easy it is to make a topping for whole grain or bean pasta or whip up a homemade salsa or a pot of chili or soup. Canned corn is also a popular pantry staple, although frozen may be more convenient and environmentally friendly.
Root vegetables. Keep root vegetables like onions, garlic, beets, turnips, and sweet potatoes on hand. They last for months and are very versatile. Try them baked, roasted, steamed, or added to soups and stews.
Cooking essentials and seasonings. Plant oils, like soybean, corn, olive, and canola, are the first step to making foods we love, like stir fries and sautéed and roasted veggies. Keep a few favorite spices beyond salt and pepper for flavoring. Dried oregano and basil, and garlic, chili, and curry powders are popular choices, and many home cooks like to use pre-mixed spice blends (just avoid those where the primary ingredient is salt). On the savory side, you’ll want to have a few vinegars (like apple cider and balsamic) on hand to use as a base for a vinaigrette or splash into soups and stews. Soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce add flavor to whole grains, stews, soups, and stir-fries.