Healthy Eating 101: Essential Pantry Foods

Keep these foods stocked in your house and you can always whip up a healthy meal.


By Aimée Suen, NTP


There’s nothing worse than feeling so hungry and looking at a pantry or fridge that just doesn't have enough to make a meal from. Especially after a long day, this could lead to some less than healthy meal decisions that could affect your health and fitness goals as well as your wallet, if the problem persists.

With some planning and keeping some pantry essentials stocked at all times, you can avoid this and stay on track with healthy eating no matter how much fresh produce you were able to get at your last grocery store visit or how much you were able to meal plan.

What is a Pantry Essential?

A pantry essential is a food you eat regularly and make meals from. You keep it stocked at all times and when it runs out, you replace it in your next grocery run.

It’s always there so you can make a lot of different meals or dishes with it. They can be shelf-stable foods like grains or dried beans, but they can also be perishables like eggs, tofu, bunch of kale, or chicken. If you’re cooking and eating them every week, you don’t have to worry about these foods going bad because you’re using them up each week.

Pantry essentials can change a little bit over time as your tastes move from one kind of cuisine or flavors to another, but the idea of keeping things you eat or cook with regularly in stock each week remains.

If you don’t already, grocery shop regularly each week so you can replenish your essentials on a consistent basis. Before you go shopping, make a meal plan and after you list the specific ingredients you need for those meals, look through your fridge and cabinets to see if your regular items are running low or need to be replaced this trip. You can also keep a list on your phone or fridge during the week as your run out those items.

What are Your Pantry Essentials?

Not sure what your pantry essentials are? Write down a list of all the meals you made in the past week or two. Do you eat a lot of meals with a certain grain, vegetable, legume or seasoning that needs to be replaced a regular basis? Those and other foods you find that repeat themselves in your meal list would be considered staples.

Good Pantry Essentials to Have

If you don’t find you have a lot of pantry essentials or want to try some new ones, here are some solid suggestions that you can get a lot variety and flavor from.

Eggs: Whether as a main ingredient in a quiche, frittata, shakshuka or a binder in meatballs or patties, or even just fried on top of a salad or noodle bowl, the amount of things you can do with an egg are endless. Eggs also have a good shelf life in your fridge, most of those “sell by” or “best by” dates are several weeks away from when you purchased them.

Beans/Legumes: Beans and legumes can add some heft and great taste to any dish. You can use them as is in your dish or turn them into a lot of different dishes (link to bean article). You can buy dried beans and make the whole bag and freeze them until you’re ready to use them, or buy a few cans of beans. Either way, both will last you several meals and can be used in lots of different ways.

Grains: Any grain can be a great staple to have on hand. You can have them as a side dish, a main component of a dish, filler and binder for meatballs or burgers, a way to add heft to soup. They're easy to store and cook and keep for a few months in an airtight container. The great thing about grains (dried beans as well) is you can buy them in larger quantities so you’ll only need to restock them occasionally and always have a source of fiber at a meal.

Greens: Vegetables are an important part of healthy eating, and it’s always good to have a bunch or large package of organic, pre-washed greens. For the most versatility, go with kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, or what’s in season at the time.

Salad greens are good for if your enjoy making raw salads, but the other greens will give you more versatility because you can cook them down. You can use part of the greens in a few meals or make one large meal and enjoy that throughout the week. Also, if you don’t end up using the greens for a dinner, you can also make a smoothie out of them as well.

Root/Tuber Vegetables: Root and tuber vegetables are great to keep stocked in your fridge. They’ve got a good shelf life in the fridge and are good go-to vegetables for roasting, stuffing or adding to other dishes. Good root vegetables to keep on hand are carrots (which are sold at the market in 2-5 pound bags), turnips, radishes and beets. Carrots are a solid year-round vegetable while the others may come in and out of season over the course of the year. Tubers are potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, jicama. Most are available year round in your supermarket, but may vary at local farmer’s markets.

Aromatics: Aromatics are vegetables and herbs that when heated in oil or butter just give that extra depth of flavor in a dish. Common aromatics that are good to have as pantry essentials are onions and garlic. They’re used in enough dishes you can easily get through a few onions or a head of garlic in a week.

And if you don’t use all of them in a week they will keep for another week or so.

If this is your first time shopping to stock up on pantry essentials, start with buying what you need for your meal plan that week or just one bag of grains or just a few vegetables. This way you can figure out how much you use in a week and will prevent overstocking your pantry.

Each time when you do your grocery list, take a quick inventory of your essentials to see if you need to restock and if you want to try something else as a pantry essential. It can be easy to get repetitive if you’re buying the same kind of food, so mix it up when you can.

Regardless of what your pantry essentials are, keeping them stocked can help you keep your healthy eating on track and nourish you even if you had time to plan a meal that night or not.

Healthy Eating 101 returns with whole grain options and recipe suggestions that go beyond the usual brown rice.

Aimée Suen is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who shares nourishing, gluten-free recipes and nutrition wisdom at Small Eats. She is driven to help others enjoy whole foods and empower them to find their own healthy in all aspects of life, one small step at a time. When she’s not in the kitchen, she’s practicing yoga, in the gym, or learning something new. You can find Aimée on InstagramTwitter and Pinterest.

Second Photo Credit: Azonman/; Third Photo Credit: Jiri Hera/; Fourth Photo Credit: Ruslan Mitin/; Fifth Photo Credit: Kerdkanno/