10 Healthy, Low-Cost Staples You Need in Your Pantry

Healthy Living

August 18, 2020

When you can’t get to the store, your pantry becomes a dinner lifeline — assuming your pantry is fully stocked, that is. Two stale crackers and a few dust bunnies don’t make a filling dinner for anyone. 

With a well-stocked pantry, though, you’ll be able to pull together a healthy, satisfying meal made almost entirely from dry goods. Looking for inspiration on how to stock your pantry? 

Keep the following items on hand in case storms, a pandemic or even just a busy week keeps you from the grocery store.

#1) Low-sodium tomatoes

Canned foods are usually high in sodium, so stock your pantry with low-salt versions of your favorite vegetables. Tomatoes are particularly versatile since they can be used as a base for soups and sauces. Canned tomatoes and your favorite spice blend make for easy spaghetti dinners. 

Stock a variety — pureed, crushed, whole and diced — to use for different purposes. Tomato paste could be a great option if you’re pressed for space since it comes in tinier cans. And because paste is a concentrated tomato product, you can use it as a sub for tomato sauce by adding enough water to get it to the consistency you need.

Keep in mind that metal food cans might be a source of BPA, a chemical that’s been associated with some health concerns. Although the Food and Drug Administration considers low levels of BPA safe for food contact, you may want to avoid it. Some brands package their shelf-stable tomatoes in BPA-free cans or aseptic boxes instead.

Glass jars are another BPA-free alternative to metal cans. The lids may still contain BPA, but choosing glass over metal will still reduce your overall exposure.

#2) Jarred fruit

For shelf-stable sweets, head to the canned and packaged fruit section. Jarred or tinned fruit makes a great addition to your pantry because it can be eaten as-is or as a component in your meals. Plus, canned fruit lasts significantly longer than fresh fruit, making it an economical choice.

When shopping for jarred fruits, pay attention to sugar content. Skip varieties with added sugar since fruit is sweet enough on its own. And plenty of brands, even store brands, pack their diced fruit in fruit juice or water these days. 

If you want extra sweetness, opt for canned or packaged fruit that uses light or reduced-sugar syrups.

Dried fruit is another good pantry option. Basic raisins usually don’t come with added sugar, but watch the sugar content on things like dried cranberries, pineapples and other fruit.

#3) Tuna

Even if you tend to avoid canned meats in general, you may want to keep some tuna fish handy. When fresh or frozen meat isn’t available, tuna can provide much-needed protein. 

One serving of light tuna contains about 22 grams of protein. It’s also a valuable source of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids.

Water-packed tuna is lower in fat than its oil-packed counterparts. If you opt for tuna packed in oil, choose olive oil over soybean oil.

Not a big fan of fish? Canned salmon and chicken are also good proteins to include in your pantry stockpile.

#4) Dried beans

When it comes to cheap pantry staples, dried beans should be one of the top items on your list. With just water and seasonings, you can prepare a flavorful pot of beans to serve in soups, stews and casseroles, or paired with a bowl of rice. Plus, beans are high in fiber and protein.

For variety, keep several different types of dried beans on hand. Pintos and black beans are some of the most popular. You can also try red, kidney, garbanzo (chickpeas) or navy beans.

Store beans in airtight containers for up to one year. They may still be safe to eat after that, but they won’t turn out as tender.

#5) Lentils

Beans belong to the pulse family. And lentils are another member. They’re typically smaller than beans, but they’re packed with protein, flavonoids and cholesterol-lowering fiber.

Cooked brown lentils make a good sub for ground meat in tacos, pasta sauces and other recipes. You can also add them to a batch of ground beef to stretch the meat further. Red and yellow lentils are tasty in soups.

#6) Nut butter

Peanut butter sandwiches are more than just a kid favorite. They’re also an easy way to get the protein that your body needs.

If price plays a major factor in your pantry shopping, then peanut butter is probably your best bet. Available in natural and processed varieties, peanut butter is the perfect pantry food to keep on hand for its versatility — provided no one in the house is allergic, of course.

With a little wiggle room in the budget, you can branch out to try almond and cashew butter as well. Each variety has its own flavor profile and offers a slightly different lineup of vitamins and minerals.

In addition to nut butters, don’t forget to keep whole nuts on hand. They make a great grab-and-go snack and provide valuable nutrients like magnesium and vitamin E.

#7) Rice

A dietary staple for millions of people around the world, rice deserves a spot in every well-stocked pantry. You can eat it plain, top it with canned tomatoes, serve it with a side of beans or add it to soups and stews.

Because it’s a whole grain food, brown rice is usually recommended as a more nutritious option against white rice. Brown rice also beats out white rice in protein, fiber and selenium content.

That’s not to say that white rice is totally bad. In fact, this popular starch serves a purpose in some diets, especially for people who have digestive problems.

And for long-term storage, you may want to go with white rice. That’s because brown rice usually lasts about six months at room temperature. White rice, on the other hand, can be kept for 25 years or more.

#8) Whole-grain pasta

If pasta is in your regular dinner repertoire, then keep an extra few boxes on hand for emergencies. Being able to whip up old favorites like spaghetti or goulash can be a great comfort when life feels out of control.

As with rice, whole grain pasta is higher in fiber content than traditional white noodles. You may also find varieties made from nontraditional ingredients, like vegetables, lentils and chickpeas. These can also be helpful for picky eaters who need more diverse nutrition.

In addition to boxes of pasta, it’s also a good idea to keep jarred sauces in your pantry so you can pull together a quick dinner at a moment’s notice.

#9) Oatmeal

Feeling lackluster these days? Start your day off on the right food with a hearty bowl of oatmeal. A serving of oatmeal will help you stay full for hours thanks to the fiber content.

The soluble fiber in oats has a positive effect on cholesterol. Oatmeal also provides nutrients like manganese, zinc and phosphorus.

Oatmeal is a cost-effective pantry staple with uses that stretch far beyond your standard bowl of maple cinnamon goodness. It can be ground up (in a blender) to make oat flour and used in place of wheat flour and breadcrumbs in a host of different recipes. 

Don’t think you have to buy pricey steel-cut oats to gain nutrition benefits, either. Because all oat varieties — steel cut, rolled and “quick” — start out the same, they all offer the same nutritional benefits. The difference is in the processing.

Store oats in a cool, dry place, where they’ll last for about a year once opened.

#10) Shelf-stable milk

If you have toddlers in the house, sippy cups of milk are probably a part of your daily routine. Maintaining a supply of shelf-stable milk will allow you to continue that practice even during a power outage.

Shelf-stable milk, also known as UHF milk or aseptic milk, is processed at high temperatures and packaged in sterile boxes. Just remember that, once opened, a package of shelf-stable milk must be refrigerated.

You can find shelf-stable milk in single-serve boxes or larger sizes for the whole family. And while it’s okay to drink them at room temperature, you’ll probably prefer them refrigerated (if possible) first. 

Just remember to check the date on the box. Milk can be shelf-stable, but it doesn’t last as long as some of the other foods on this roundup.

Keeping a well-stocked pantry is a good way to take some stress off your plate when things go awry. By preparing your pantry with healthy staples now, you’ll be ready the next time a dinner emergency — or a natural one — strikes.