Life is busy, but dinner doesn’t have to be. A well-stocked pantry is the best way to ensure you’ll have everything you need to make a healthy and flavorful dinner every night, even on the busiest weeks when stopping at the grocery store just isn’t realistic. A combination of classic pantry staples (like canned tomatoes, chicken broth and canned beans) and flavor-boosting convenience items (like herb mixes, soy sauce and jarred pesto) are key to keeping your kitchen dinner-ready. No need for expensive takeout when you have what you need to make a healthy dinner at home.
This kitchen pantry list below includes many of the items you need to prepare healthy recipes, plus a few other ingredients that will make impromptu meals easier and more delicious. If you're building a healthy pantry from scratch, start with the basics and slowly expand your pantry with some of the other "Beyond the Basic" ingredients as you're trying new recipes and cooking techniques.
Don't have a large pantry to stock? You can hone this list down to go-to foods, the ones you are most likely to use again and again in meals. This way, you can stock a smaller kitchen pantry cabinet without overwhelming your limited space.
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Oils, vinegars and condiments are the backbone of many recipes. They're necessary for quick marinades, salad dressings, pan sauces and more. For a cook with an eye toward healthy ingredients, this collection of pantry staples helps you swap out convenience foods that are often filled with too much sodium, sugar and other unnecessary ingredients. (Bottled salad dressing, we mean you.)
A collection of oils is particularly important for home cooks. Some oils, like extra-virgin olive oil, are best used in uncooked dishes, such as salad dressings, or brushed on chicken and fish after cooking. (Olive oil has a low smoke point and can burn in a hot pan or grill.) Meanwhile, canola oil is a high-quality oil that can tolerate high temps. Flavorful nut and seed oils are next on the list, for when you're expanding your pantry; they add unique flavor to salad dressings and stir-fries.
• Extra-virgin olive oil
• Canola or grapeseed oil
• Unsalted butter
• Mayonnaise (olive-oil mayo has less saturated fat)
• White, red-wine, white-wine and cider vinegars
• Dijon mustard
• Flavorful nut and seed oils, such as toasted sesame oil and walnut oil
• Balsamic and rice-wine vinegars
• Reduced-sodium soy sauce
• Fish sauce
• Hoisin sauce
• Chile-garlic sauce
• Curry paste
• Kalamata olives and green olives
• Barbecue sauce
• Worcestershire sauce
• Hot sauce
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A seasonings cabinet or drawer can quickly begin to burst at the seams. Unique spice mixes you used just once sit stale beside the cumin and coriander, which do get a fair share of use in a variety of recipes, from Mexican and Southeast Asian dishes to beef stews and more. Paring down to the basics will help you save space and make sure you're utilizing everything before the flavors fade.
This seasonings list also includes foods that make up the foundation of many recipes—the aromatics. These foods are the first things you throw in the pot (with canola oil) to start simmering—onions and garlic, for example. They add a depth of flavor and heft to many dishes, even fast ones, so keeping them on hand can help you turn basic tomato soup into a filling tomato-y veggie-grain soup in a flash.
• Salt, including Kosher salt, coarse sea salt and fine salt
• Black peppercorns
• Fresh garlic
• Dried herbs: bay leaves, dried thyme leaves, dried oregano, Italian seasoning blend
• Spices: chili powder, ground cinnamon, ground cumin, curry powder, dry mustard, paprika, cayenne pepper, crushed red pepper, turmeric, garlic powder
• Citrus: Lemons, limes, oranges. The zest is as valuable as the juice. Organic fruit is recommended when you use a lot of zest.
• Granulated sugar
• Brown sugar
• Fresh ginger (store in the freezer for longer life)
• Anchovies or anchovy paste for flavoring pasta sauces and salad dressings
• Dried herbs: dill, crumbled dried sage, tarragon
• Spices: allspice (whole berries or ground), caraway seeds, cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, ground ginger, nutmeg, za'atar
• Pure maple syrup
• Unsweetened cocoa powder, natural and/or Dutch-processed
• Bittersweet chocolate, semisweet chocolate chips
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While your first inclination may say otherwise, some canned foods are indispensable in healthy cooking. Canned tomatoes, for example, can be used in soups and stews, but they're also a boon to many quick and healthy skillet meals and one-pot pastas. Cooking dried beans takes time and effort (though it's worth it if you can manage), but canned beans make black bean tacos or a tomato-bean shakshuka happen in a hurry
• Canned tomatoes, tomato paste
• No-salt-added diced tomatoes
• Reduced-sodium chicken broth, beef broth and/or vegetable broth
• Canned beans: cannellini beans, great northern beans, chickpeas, black beans, red kidney beans
• Clam juice
• Light coconut milk
• Canned tuna (chunk light) and salmon
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Beans, rice, whole grains and lentils can be added to a plethora of dishes for instant protein and filling fiber. They also store well, so you can keep them on hand for a considerable time, and they go from season to season—in soups and stews in the winter and in light grain sides in spring and summer. You can use some of these pantry staples to turn basic chicken breasts into crispy oven-fried pieces, leftover steak into a hearty burrito bowl or make black-bean patties in a pinch.
• Whole-wheat flour and whole-wheat pastry flour
• All-purpose flour
• Assorted whole-wheat pastas
• Brown rice and instant brown rice
• Rolled oats
• Whole-wheat breadcrumbs
• Whole-wheat panko breadcrumbs
• Pearl barley, quick-cooking barley
• Whole-wheat couscous
• Dried lentils
• Yellow cornmeal
• Dried beans (black, cannellini, garbanzo)
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You may think these kitchen pantry staples are best suited for snacks and trail mixes, but a cook with an eye toward healthy eating knows they can be used in everything from salads and grain bowls to muffins, quick breads and quick coatings for proteins (like this Walnut-Rosemary Crusted Salmon). Most fresh nuts and seeds should be stored in the fridge or freezer to keep their oils from turning rancid.
• Dry-roasted unsalted peanuts
• Natural peanut butter
• Pine nuts
• Sesame seeds
• Natural almond butter
• Assorted dried fruits, such as apricots, prunes, cherries, cranberries, dates, figs, raisins
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We use the term kitchen pantry to refer to your cold storage, as well as dry storage. These ingredients should be kept stocked in your fridge, as they can quickly and easily be used for many fast dinners. Yogurt, for example, is a great snack, but it can be a dipping sauce for fish or pork. or turn into a dressing for falafel or shawarma. Eggs are staples for many dishes, but they can star in fast omelets and frittatas too.
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• Low-fat milk or soymilk
• Unsweetened coconut or oat milk beverage
• Low-fat or nonfat plain or Greek yogurt
• Reduced-fat sour cream
• Good-quality Parmesan cheese and/or Romano cheese
• Sharp Cheddar cheese
• Eggs (large)
• Orange juice
• Blue cheese
• Dry white wine
• Water-packed tofu
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Yes, the freezer counts as part of you kitchen pantry too. You can use this chilly storage option to keep a number of foods good longer, which gives you more time—and more options—for using them up. A stash of frozen vegetables promises you'll have a healthy, crisp side in the bleak mid-winter months. Berries are at their best in summer and quite pricey in winter, so stocking up on frozen options saves you money and delivers nutrient-filled fruit. Even quick-thawing meats are good to have on hand for fast pizzas or stir-fries.
• Frozen vegetables: edamame soybeans, peas, spinach, broccoli, bell pepper and onion mix, corn, chopped onions, small whole onions, uncooked hash browns
• Frozen berries
• Italian turkey sausage
• Fish fillets
• Whole-wheat pizza dough
• Fruit-juice concentrates (orange, apple, pineapple)
• Sliced prosciutto to flavor fast pasta sauces
• Frozen yogurt for impromptu desserts
• Whole-grain bread
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First things first, clean out the space you intend to use for your kitchen pantry, whether it's a stand-alone closet or a smaller kitchen pantry cabinet. The same goes for your fridge and freezer. Toss outdated items and anything you know you'll never use again.
Sell-by, expiration and best-by dates aren't actually useful for the purposes of knowing whether a food is good or not. Each means something entirely different, and relying on them can lead to some serious food waste. Instead, use the sniff test. If the food looks and smells fresh, keep it if you'll use it.
What's left? As you take stock of what you have, organize ingredients in a system that feels intuitive to you, whether that's grouping grains in one bin and oils and vinegars in another, or giving areas a "theme," such as Italian, Mexican or baking. You're not married to this system forever, but it's a good way to help you assess what you have and what you need to buy.
A food pantry is only as useful as the items you have on hand. Be sure to replace items as you use them up so you always have them on hand. As you cook new recipes that require beyond-the-basic ingredients, you'll naturally expand your pantry to help you get to that well-stocked state.
When you add new staples, be sure to place them behind or below the old ones. This way, you can use up what remains before opening a new bag, bottle or box.
If your pantry or cabinet shelves are deep, consider putting tall items in the back so you can see them over the shorter items. Unfortunately, foods that are shoved into the back of pantries tend to be lost—and forgotten. Lazy Susan trays can help with this issue too. Put a few on deep shelves so you can rotate your stock and see everything at once.
You don't need to spend hundreds of dollars filling out your kitchen pantry during one trip to the grocery store. Start with the basics and expand your pantry as you expand your cooking skill set. Over time, you'll find it easier to make meals from scratch using what you have on hand.
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