Stock up on these foods for healthy meals

We’ve all been there at some point: Your family is hungry, but your fridge is low on meal options. So you do takeout. It’s no big deal when it happens once in a while. But ordering in can add up in terms of money, calories, sodium and added sugars.1

The solution? Stocking up on healthy staples. With plenty of options in the pantry, freezer and fridge, it’s much easier to put together quick, easy, good-for-you meals. Read on for the nutritious items to have on your shelves – and some ideas about meals you can make with them.

What to stock in your kitchen cabinets or pantry

Canned beans

Beans, peas and lentils are great sources of fiber and protein. Pick no-added-salt or low-sodium versions. Black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans and pinto beans are particularly high in fiber.2 Keep them on hand for quick chilis (kidney and pinto beans), soups (black beans) and stews (chickpeas).

Canned tomatoes

Having whole stewed, diced and pureed tomatoes available is smart – it gives you options. Grab a can of tomatoes, some canned beans and a few spices, and you’ve got the makings of a speedy Tuscan-style stew or vegetarian chili. Look for no-salt-added versions of the tomatoes.

Simmer sauces

Sauces aren’t just for pasta. A jarred curry sauce can transform canned chickpeas into a spicy main course. Asian sauces can add flavor to a simple stir-fry. Check the labels to keep sodium, sugar and saturated fat in check.

Rice and other whole grains

Yes, rice can take some time to cook, especially brown rice. But there are ways around that. You can cook up a large batch of rice or grains, portion them out and pop them in the freezer. Or grab a few packs of shelf-stable rice and other grains at the grocery store. These can be pricey, but they’re worth having on hand for quick grain bowls or sides. Another quick-cooking healthy grain to consider is fonio, a West African grain, which is similar to couscous or quinoa. It cooks in just 5 minutes.3

Noodles and pasta

You may have spaghetti and penne on hand for pasta-based meals. Bump up the health benefits with whole-wheat or whole-grain versions, such as 100% buckwheat soba. Soba noodles take just 5 minutes to cook. Whole-wheat couscous also cooks in 5 minutes. Both make great bases with other on-hand staples like nut butters (for soba), canned tomatoes (for couscous) and frozen shrimp (for both).

Nuts and seeds

These are loaded with vitamins, healthy fats, protein and fiber.4 Toss them onto everything from salads to oatmeal to boost your fiber intake. Or just save them for snacking. Include some variety, like hazelnuts, pistachios, pepitas (hull-less pumpkin seeds), sesame seeds and sunflower seeds. They last for up to a month in the pantry. Store them in the freezer if you don’t eat them often.

Peanut and nut butters

You probably have jars of peanut butter already. But peanut butter and other nut butters can be paired with other kitchen staples for quick meals and snacks. They add fiber, protein and healthy fats to noodles, oatmeal and smoothies.

Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes are full of fiber, vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and C and potassium.5 They can last for a week or two if you store them in a cool, dry place. If you’re short on time, cut the sweet potatoes into small pieces for roasting. Then add them to salads or eat them as a side. Or make a full meal by topping a baked sweet potato with canned beans or vegetarian chili. 

Canned fish

Tuna, salmon and sardines boast plenty of protein and heart-healthy omega-3s. They’re a great protein source when you toss them into salads and pasta. One thing to be mindful of is that solid white albacore tuna has 3 times the amount of mercury as chunk light (skipjack), according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.6 To keep mercury to a minimum, switch up your canned fish.

Low-sodium stock or broth

Why make your own stock when you can buy it? Stocks and broths add more flavor to stews and grains. They come in cans, boxes, cubes and pastes. Just refrigerate after opening.

Dark chocolate

A healthy diet includes some treats – and dark chocolate is a good choice. It’s rich in disease-fighting antioxidants, and studies show it can be beneficial to heart health and blood pressure.7 So keep a bar or two on hand.

What to stock in the freezer

Frozen vegetables and fruits

Frozen produce is just as healthy as fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s frozen at peak ripeness. And it doesn’t go bad like fresh produce does if you forget about it. Have a few bags of different types handy to add another serving of produce to your soups, salads or smoothies. Consider roasting or air-frying cauliflower or broccoli as a healthy side dish. Or use edamame (soybeans) in stir-fries if you need a protein boost. Add frozen cherries, peaches or mangoes to plain yogurt for sweetness.

Frozen fish and seafood

Just like veggies and fruit, fish and seafood are frozen at their peak freshness. Some types, like salmon, can usually be pan-fried directly from the freezer. Otherwise, you can thaw frozen seafood by putting it in a plastic bag and setting it in a bowl of cold water.8

Seasoned grains, beans and vegetable blends

Just like shelf-stable blends, these freezer-friendly blends can be a bit pricey. But they’re perfect for whipping up quick sides or bowls, and they will ensure that you’re getting some fiber in your meal. Look for them in the frozen food aisle near the frozen vegetables. Check the label to be sure they’re not high in sodium or saturated fat.

What to stock in the fridge

Kimchi, sauerkraut and other pickled vegetables

Fermented vegetables like kimchi, sauerkraut and some pickles contain probiotics – good bacteria that help with digestion, boost the immune system and can lower inflammation.9 Pickled veggies also last a long time in the fridge. Add them to wraps, tacos and sandwiches. Or use kimchi to dress up noodles or rice.

Lemons and limes

These tangy citrus fruits last a long time in the fridge. Their juice and zest (grated rind) add a bright burst of flavor to frozen fish. You can also use them to make a quick salad dressing with some olive oil. And squeezing a lemon or lime wedge into your glass of water may encourage you to drink more to stay hydrated.

Unsweetened or Greek yogurt

When you need to boost your calcium and probiotics, yogurt is an easy option. But don’t just save it for breakfast or snacks. Mix it into dips or use it in place of sour cream to top chili or baked potatoes.

Flavor-boosting condiments

Steamed veggies, rice and canned beans can get a flavor boost if you add some spicy condiments as you’re cooking or right before serving. Consider adding the following to your staples of ketchup, salsa and mustard: Indian chutney, hot sauces like harissa (a Moroccan chili), and sriracha and gochujang (a Korean fermented chili). Many of these are now widely available in supermarkets, or you can order them online.

With the right pantry ingredients, healthy, fast, home-cooked family meals can be ready in no time.

This article is part of UnitedHealthcare’s 7-Day Healthy Eating Challenge. For an entire week, you'll find new ideas that encourage every member of your household to get involved. Eating nutritious meals – and teaching kids about the importance of healthy foods – is a key to overall health, both now and in years to come.

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