The food in your pantry can be used for meals, snacks, for a crowd, or even for 1 or 2. The size of your pantry may range from a cabinet or two to a full-size closet. When was the last time you took a good look at all the items in your pantry and considered the impact they have on your nutrition and health? A nutrient-rich, stocked pantry can help you build better meals, choose healthier snacks, and save money on impulse buys that may not measure up in nutrition.
Starting your day out with breakfast, including at least two different food groups, will give your body the fuel to jump-start your day and help you feel your best. Keeping whole grain ready to eat cereal on hand pairs great with milk and fruit at home or when modified to take on the go. When venturing down the cereal aisle, try not to get caught up on the front of the box packaging. Put your focus on the Nutrition Facts Label on the side of the box. Choose at least 3 grams of fiber and the lowest in sugar. Fiber helps keep our hearts healthy and our digestive tract in check. Whole-grain cereal can be used in snacks such as homemade trail mix when mixed with nuts and dried fruits. Stocking up on oats, old-fashioned or quick-cooking, is another heart-healthy choice that may help to lower your cholesterol. High levels of cholesterol cause blockages, and our blood can’t flow as freely as it should. Oatmeal is a good source of iron that helps form red blood cells and B-vitamins, which help our nervous system function. Adding fresh fruit like strawberries or blueberries and some nuts like sliced almonds or walnuts will provide a balanced meal, providing energy to start your day. It’s great any time of the day for a mini-meal or snack. Try an overnight oats recipe if you’re short on time in the morning and need a to-go breakfast. Many combinations are easy to put together the night before and grab on your way out the door. You can use oats for a fruit crisp, a healthier dessert, and make homemade granola bars.
When we build our meals, we want to aim for at least 3-5 different food groups. We want to make sure half our plate is fruits and veggies, which we may find more in our fridge and freezer than in dry storage. The rest of our plate should be split with grains, making sure half of those grains are whole grains and half lean protein. In addition, we don’t want to leave out low-fat and fat-free dairy. Vary eating whole grains by trying quinoa, millet, bulgur, or buckwheat, to name a few. The grains mentioned above are packed with fiber, protein, and B vitamins. They can be added to salads, soups, sides, breakfast bowls with eggs and veggies, or swapped when a recipe calls for rice. Whole grain pasta is an excellent choice as a substitution for regular pasta as it includes extra fiber and nutrients. Popcorn is a whole grain and makes a great snack too! If plain is not your preference, sprinkle a little parmesan cheese or dried herbs and seasonings on top.
An inexpensive, versatile protein is beans and lentils. Beans are packed with fiber which helps give you a feeling of fullness, potassium for your blood pressure, and magnesium for your blood sugar. They contain iron for wound healing and phosphorus for energy, to name a few. There are different methods to cook dried beans, or if you are short on time, canned beans work too. If available, try to choose low sodium versions and rinse them off before using them. You can add beans to salads, soups, chili, casseroles, and pasta dishes. Another protein source to keep on hand is canned tuna packed in water; it’s a great source of Omega 3, which provides heart health benefits. You can use tuna to top whole-grain crackers, make it into or top a salad, or for a light sandwich. Peanut butter or other nut butter can also be used in meals and snacks and spread on a sandwich, wrap, or dipping fresh fruit. Nuts and seeds are a great source of protein; it is essential to keep a variety in the pantry, such as walnuts, almonds, and pecans, for a healthy snack.
Using cooking methods such as sautéing, grilling, roasting, or stir-frying requires healthy cooking oils. Keep heart-healthy oils such as canola and olive oil and non-stick cooking spray. Aim to make meals without the saltshaker and flavor with herbs and seasoning. Keep a variety of dried herbs, be creative and make homemade spice blends and store them in airtight containers that are labeled. Different vinegar types, such as apple cider, rice wine, or balsamic, can be part of a homemade salad dressing—vinegar mixed with dried seasonings and fat such as healthy oils, Greek yogurt, or mayo. Keeping low sodium stocks and broths makes it easy and convenient to add to flavor grains and create soups and other healthy sauces.
How does your pantry measure up? As you select new foods at the store, check the nutrition facts label. Use the label to find fiber and sugar, as mentioned. In addition, keep sodium in mind; even if you do not use a saltshaker, salt is in packaged and canned foods. Aim for 2,300 mg of sodium or less a day to keep your blood pressure in check. When reading food labels, start at the top and check out the serving size and servings per container. You can have more than one serving at a time, but make sure your nutrition counts! Build better meals and a healthy lifestyle by building a better pantry.