Healthy and Versatile Pantry Staples

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While using fresh ingredients is usually the preferred healthy choice, there are times when a canned or frozen item is more affordable and efficient… say, on a Thursday night when you’ve run out of food in the fridge, don’t feel like take-out, and definitely do not want to go to the grocery store!

I’m going to highlight 8 staple items that I always keep in the pantry and freezer for such “emergency” meals. All of these staples are still healthy and provide important nutrients to create a balanced meal. Stock up on these items (you can find them all at your neighborhood grocery store), and the next time you are faced with an empty fridge, try out some of the ideas below!

  1. Boxed Whole Wheat or Brown Rice Pasta

I love these pastas as a healthier alternative to the standard semolina pasta because they utilizes whole grains, which means more fiber. The noodles are also pretty hearty, which means they’re easy to cook and hard to mess up (it’s OK to overcook a little). Brown rice pasta is also a nice option for gluten-free friends.

  1. Frozen Brown Rice

With frozen brown rice, look for the kind that comes individually packaged. It heats up in 4 minutes, which means it’s a great time saver on busy weeknights. Brown rice also has more nutritional value than white rice: 1 cup of cooked brown rice contains 4g of fiber and 5g of protein, while 1 cup of cooked white rice contains only 1g of fiber and 4g of protein. But there’s something even more impressive about brown rice! According to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health, replacing white rice in your diet with brown rice may reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. (Archives of Internal Medicine)

  1. Frozen Veggies

Many brands are able to be steamed right in their own bags. I like the veggie blends, such as a stir-fry mix, to get a variety of colorful vegetables. I dump a bag right into a skillet with a little olive oil and reduced-sodium soy sauce, and serve with some sauteed shrimp (also frozen!) for a quick, healthy stir-fry.

  1. Canned Wild Caught Albacore Tuna in Water, No Salt Added

Tuna is a great source of protein and Omega-3 fats. I love mixing this tuna with a mashed up avocado, some chopped red onion and pickles for a simple tuna salad, served over a bed of mixed greens. You can also add a can of tuna to some pasta with olive oil, salt, pepper and capers for simple Mediterranean-style dish (bonus if you can throw in some baby spinach too!).

  1. Organic Canned Diced Tomatoes, No Salt Added

Tomatoes are so versatile!  Make a simple Italian-style dish by cooking a whole wheat or brown rice pasta, then mixing in some olive oil, canned tomatoes, dried basil and salt and pepper. Throw in some spinach (frozen or fresh) for an extra punch of veggies. Or, you can easily switch up a few ingredients to make a more Mexican-style dish, with brown rice, black beans, some chili powder and roasted bell peppers!

  1. Wild Caught Frozen Shrimp

These lean protein machines defrost quickly (dump in a bowl of cool water for a few minutes and then drain) and are already peeled and deveined. I usually sauté them in some olive oil, lemon juice and a little chili powder with whatever veggies I have on hand; an easy weeknight meal that only uses 1 skillet, so minimal clean up!

  1. Organic Canned Beans

Beans are packed with protein, fiber and nutrients like folate, zinc and iron. They contain amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein and help us build muscle. There are also studies that suggest a correlation between eating beans and reduced risk of heart disease, lowered cholesterol and prevention of diabetes. (Harvard School of Public Health) Oh and they’re cheap too! You can even find organic canned beans for about $1/can.

Adding beans to a simple salad makes it a more filling, complete meal. I also love to roast chickpeas to make a healthy snack, especially if I’m craving something salty like chips. Rinse and completely dry chickpeas, drizzle them with olive oil and toss with a spice of your choosing (I like cumin) and a little sea salt. Roast on a baking sheet at 400 degrees for about 30-35 minutes.

  1. Frozen Veggie Burgers

My only word of caution with this packaged food is to check the ingredients before you buy! Look for a brand that has a simple list of ingredients (i.e. words you recognize and can pronounce), and that include a variety of vegetables. Higher-quality burgers will include several veggies like kale, spinach, carrots, peas, peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, broccoli, and/or sweet potatoes. They cook up quickly on the stove, oven or microwave and can be eaten as a snack (just the patty), or on a whole-wheat bun or lettuce wrap as an easy healthy meal.

-Emily Koches, Fitness Instructor and Nutrition Coach

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