The ability to make quick, simple, nutritious meals from your pantry is something that can easily be mastered and only requires a dash of creativity! This becomes easy to do once your pantry has been stocked with the essentials.
When thinking of what to stock your pantry with, think of getting foods from each of the five MyPlate food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. All of the five food groups can be found in shelf-stable forms. Remember, fresh, frozen, or canned – they all count! Some key things to remember for each food group:
- Certain fresh fruits can be held without refrigeration for a few days at a time (think bananas, mandarin oranges, oranges, pears, peaches, etc.). Fruits can also be found in many shelf-stable forms, such as canned, dried, dehydrated, and pureed. When shopping for fruits, look for items that are packed in their own juices, not in syrup or with added sugars. Whenever possible, try to eat fruits in their whole form, as these will provide you the added benefits of portion control and more fiber than what you find in juice or in pureed fruits.
- Fresh vegetables like tomatoes, avocados, and uncut winter squashes can be stored without refrigeration for days at a time. Like fruits, vegetables can be found in canned, juiced, and frozen varieties. When looking for packaged or canned vegetables, look for the kind low in added sodium, and packed in water instead of cream or oil.
- Grains are typically a staple in our diets and our pantries. The beauty of grains is that they open our cuisine to a world of possibilities – rice, pasta, quinoa, tortillas, cornflour/masa, and wheat flour allow us to recreate dishes from our favorite cuisines in a pinch. Look for whole grains, easily identifiable if the word “whole” is the first word we read in the ingredients list.
- Protein can come from animal and plant-based sources and can be found in fresh, frozen and canned varieties. Dried or canned legumes (peas, beans or lentils) provide your body with many of the same protein building blocks found in animal-based proteins such as poultry, seafood, and meat and are easy to keep on hand for quick meals. Additionally, you can buy animal-based proteins in canned form for easy meal prep, such as canned chicken or fish.
- Dairy can be challenging to maintain in a truly shelf-stable environment without any refrigeration. For milk, we can find powdered milk, single-serving ultra-high-temperature pasteurized (UHT) milk, or milk alternatives (such as soymilk). UHT typically comes in carton containers and is found on the dry shelf, not in the refrigerated section.
Nutritious Pantry Meals
With a pantry filled with foods from each of the food groups, it’s easy to plan nutritious meals. Simply choose one or two items from each of the food groups, and let your creativity take over!
- Start with a grain, preferably whole grain, base. Choose brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, whole grain bread, tortillas, or other starch-food of choice.
- Add a vegetable mix. Pick a cuisine, and use appropriate vegetables. Beans, corn, and tomatoes go well with all Mexican-inspired dishes such as tacos, burrito bowls, and salsa preparations. Choose snap peas, baby corn, broccoli and carrots for oriental-inspired stir-fries. Simple tomatoes and dried herbs can make any Italian-inspired dish come to life.
- Think through your protein options. Plant-based shelf-stable proteins give us an opportunity to increase cholesterol-lowering, gut-healthy, fiber-rich foods in our diet. Beans for your tacos and salsas, chickpeas or white beans for your Mediterranean soups or pasta salad, and frozen edamame as a finisher for your oriental veggie bowls.
Fruits and dairy can be part of your pantry meals, for example, if adding fruits to your salads, salsas, or breakfast cereals. Yet they could also be saved for your snacks or healthy dessert options. The same is true for dairy – sometimes pantry dishes like mac and cheese, cereal, or creamy soups require a bit of a dairy alternative to complete the dish… and sometimes we look to dairy as a drink to go along with a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack.
Bonus Recipe: MyPlate Salsa (Five food group salsa)
A five food group salsa is a family favorite, versatile dish that can be prepared in a short amount of time. You can enjoy this as a light meal on its own, as a fiber-rich side for any entrée, and as a topping for Mexican-inspired pizza. For this preparation, tomato salsa, corn, bell peppers, and cilantro provide the vegetables, crushed pineapple and lemon juice are the fruits, canned beans give the meal protein, a bit of shredded Mexican cheese for dairy, and the corn tortilla base is our grain.
- Jar of salsa or a can of diced tomatoes
- Additional vegetables of choice (bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, corn, etc.)
- Canned beans for protein (black or pinto)
- Canned or fresh fruits of choice (pineapple, peaches, mangoes, etc.)
- Corn tortillas, option to turn into tortilla chips
- Shredded cheese, optional
- Cilantro and limes for flavor
- If preparing the corn tortillas into chips, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Stack your tortillas, and cut them into the desired chip size. Lightly brush tortillas with vegetable oil, and sprinkle with a dash of salt. Place tortilla pieces in a single layer on a baking sheet or pizza pan. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown, turning chips over after five or six minutes.
- For the salsa, wash and dice your vegetables, and roughly chop a tablespoon of cilantro. Place cut vegetables in a medium or large bowl. Rinse canned vegetables, such as beans or corn, to eliminate excess salt.
- Drain ½ cup to 1 cup of your canned fruit, or chop your fresh fruit. Combine all fresh and canned fruits and vegetable in bowl. Finish your salsa by adding the canned tomatoes or salsa, ¼ cup of cheese, and season to taste with cilantro, lime juice, salt, and pepper. Remember, a little salt goes a long way.
- Stir, serve and enjoy!
For additional information on healthy pantry prep, check out the links below:
- Pantry Prep: Stock Up for Emergencies Infographic
- Shopping for Health: Beans, Peas and Lentils Resource