May 15, 2018, 3:05:21 PM CDT Feb 3, 2023, 2:18:26 PM CST

Stock your pantry for quick and healthy meals

A Children's Health dietitian shares nutritious, convenient options to have in your family's pantry

Asian woman looking for ingredients in pantry Asian woman looking for ingredients in pantry

The groundwork for any healthy lifestyle habit is planning. Spending a few minutes each weekend planning meals and snacks for the upcoming week will save time and money by avoiding last-minute grocery runs or trips through the drive-through lane.

But at some point, even the most well-intentioned parents will end up with hungry kids and no plan at dinner time. Mikie Rangel, clinical dietitian at Children's Health℠, says that's when having a well-stocked pantry and a few quick, healthy recipes up your sleeve can keep your family on-track. She shares some must-have staples to add to your pantry for quick and healthy meals.

Stock your pantry

Plan for protein: Protein is often the foundation of dinner and having access to easy sources can get the dinner ball rolling. Canned tuna, beans and dried lentils are all non-perishable sources of lean protein that build satisfaction into your meals.

Add whole grains: Whole wheat pasta, brown rice and quinoa are all quick-cooking grains that add fiber and serve as a base for all types of cuisine. Dry cereal is an easy breakfast or snack; look for less than 10 grams of sugar and at least 3 grams of fiber to maximize the nutritional impact of this kid-friendly food.

Include fruits and veggies: It's important to incorporate fruits and vegetables into every meal and snack.  Not only do they have vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, but they're also packed with fiber to boost that feeling of fullness. Unsweetened applesauce and fruits canned without added sugar (look for those packed in water or natural fruit juices) are sweet go-to snacks that won’t spoil. Make sure the pantry is stocked with canned vegetables that are low in sodium or have no added salt. Diced tomatoes, corn and peas can stand alone as a side dish or be added to recipes to boost nutrition.

Spice it up: Don't let easy equal bland. Spices like garlic, cumin, sage, lemon pepper, basil and oregano add flavor and antioxidants to your meals. Spicy mustard, vinegar, low-sodium soy sauce and lemon juice enhance recipes with their unique flavors. Onions are a great produce item that can last a long time on the kitchen counter and add a kick to your last-minute meals.

Don't forget the freezer: Think of the freezer as a cold pantry since items can stay fresh for months while frozen. Frozen fruits and vegetables are equally nutritious to their fresh counterparts without the frustration of spoilage. Look for frozen berries, peaches and mango as well as broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and peas to throw together a last-minute meal. Don't underestimate the ease of a bag of frozen chicken breasts or tilapia fillets. They can defrost quickly and take on any flavor to add variety to your usual routine.

Healthy go-to snack and meal options

Need a little inspiration? Rangel shares some filling options for healthy meals and snacks.

  • Although perishable, eggs and plain yogurt are good staples to have on hand for snacks or a protein boost in almost any recipe.  
  • For lunch consider a healthy tuna salad. Combine canned tuna with Greek yogurt and a little salt and pepper for a high protein spread on whole grain bread or crackers. For an extra boost of nutrition head to the pantry or freezer to add corn or peas, bonus points for chopped boiled eggs, celery or cucumber when you have them on hand.
  • Frozen vegetables can be steamed in the microwave and combined with whole beans and canned tomatoes and added to any number of things:
    • Combine with scrambled eggs and a sprinkle of cheese for a healthy take on breakfast-for-dinner
    • Add to whole wheat pasta with lemon pepper and olive oil for a light but filling Italian meal
    • Mix steamed vegetables with brown rice and soy sauce in one pan for an at-home take on "fried" rice 
  • Mix up an easy chili using mostly canned foods. Sauté a chopped onion with a little olive oil, add one can each of diced tomatoes, kidney beans, chili beans, black beans, corn and low-sodium tomato soup. Season to your liking with chili powder, cumin, garlic, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper. Simmer until thoroughly heated, then enjoy!

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