7 Pantry Essentials That Help Me Eat Healthier

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Karen Biton-Cohen)

This time of year, once the holiday cookies have been nibbled away and the eggnog put to rest, many of us begin about clearing the plate, so to speak.

Today, I thought I’d share with you the seven essentials in our house that we use to jumpstart our healthy-eating routine for the new year. They’re all good basics, nothing too fancy or fussy, and should be easy to find at your local supermarket.

(Image credit: Emily Han)

The easiest way to start incorporating healthier foods back into your diet is obviously to have more of them around at the ready, and to feel inspired to use them. I’m sure if you’re anything like me, you’ve succumbed to purchasing something at the store because you’d read about it or heard that it was healthy only to get home and have the product gather dust on the shelf.

When I began thinking about this list, I decided to leave out the super-basic basics (like a good olive oil and salt) because, well, let’s call them self-evident. Those are always good to have around to help pull together a quick meal. I’d even add to that, a good oil with a high smoke point like coconut oil, to do more serious stovetop cooking (or baking) with. So those aside, below you’ll find the pantry essentials that help lead to many healthy meals in our house, and maybe even just as important, meals that don’t necessarily rely on a recipe. With the ingredients below, there’s so much you can “wing” and get right.

(Image credit: Megan Gordon)
  1. Whole grains: I realize not everyone can tolerate grains these days and a variety of folks fall on the spectrum of gluten sensitivity, but for those of you who can tolerate grains, they are the number one pantry essential in our house for healthy eating. Rolled oats and steel-cut oats guarantee a healthy breakfast with a quick oatmeal or a more deluxe, creamy steel-cut oatmeal. Hearty whole grains like farro or wheatberries ensure lunch is at the ready with a quick whole-grain bowl. And fluffier grains like quinoa help to get a whole-grain side dish on the dinner table in less than 20 minutes. I love experimenting with the different flavors and textures that whole grains lend to my everyday cooking.
  2. Your favorite nuts and seeds: Whether it’s smoky almonds, salty peanuts, or crunchy pumpkin seeds, nuts and seeds prove to be an indispensable way to liven up everything from morning pancakes to afternoon salads. Packed with omega-3s, protein, and fiber, they make a great quick snack — but I love using them as a sprinkle on sweet and savory dishes alike.
  3. Spicy seasonings: It can really help to have a few sauces or spices on hand to help add personality to something as basic as a bowl of leftover grains or plain scrambled eggs. In our house, we use a lot of harissa and za’atar. With harissa, that addictive spicy chile paste, you can add some spice to green beans or easily add some life to your next fish or chicken dish. Za’atar is a Mediterranean spice blend with a good bit of thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac. We make toasts sprinkled with za’atar as an appetizer, or you could try these eggplant fries or pita chips. If harissa and za’atar aren’t of interest, just be sure to stock up on some fresh herbs or spices that you’re inspired to grab and use to dress up basics and leftovers in your pantry.
  4. Homemade muesli or granola: A lot of store-bought granola and muesli, while seemingly healthy, actually contain a remarkable amount of sugar. We love making our own and storing it in jars, where it’s good for a number of weeks and makes a great morning cereal, yogurt topper, or quick afternoon snack. The Hazelnut Cherry Muesli is nice this time of year, as is this Cardamom Spiced Granola.
  5. Canned tomatoes: Right up there with whole grains, canned tomatoes get a lot of play in our pantry. If you’ve got a can or two of tomatoes, a can of beans, and a few other kitchen staples, you are guaranteed success with this Tomato and White Bean Panade. Or how about a simple, delicious Tomato Soup?
  6. Lentils and beans: When I was single and lived alone, canned black beans were probably my #1 go-to for instant meals. I’d make open-faced oven-baked quesadillas with black beans and smashed avocado (that part done post-oven). Still, when my husband is out of town, this is my favorite meal to make for myself. Black and white beans can be folded into leftover grains or used to top a baked potato for a quick meal. And lentils make an easy and satisfying soup or stew as well as a hearty salad on their own.
  7. Beyond balsamic — interesting vinegars: Vinegars probably wouldn’t have made my list a year ago, but I find that they’re an amazing way to add instant flavor when cooking meats and vegetarian dishes as well as pulling together soups and salad dressings. While balsamic gets a lot of attention, red wine vinegar has a nice bite to it and rice wine vinegar has a sweetness that is great in a lot of salads or to pickle vegetables. I recently discovered brown rice vinegar which has a delicate sweetness and is wonderful in salad dressings, as is apple cider or champagne vinegar.

What ingredients help you kick off the new year just right?