See the foods that this dietitian keeps on reserve for easy meals that are super nutritious without breaking the bank.

Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D.
February 22, 2020
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Welcome to Thrifty. A weekly column where assistant nutrition editor and registered dietitian, Jessica Ball, keeps it real on how to grocery shop on a budget, make healthy meals for one or two, and make earth-friendly choices without overhauling your entire life.

Some things are worth always having on hand for a rainy day. Even when my kitchen starts to look lean, there are a few foods in my pantry that make my life easier. These foods go with almost everything, allow me to throw quick meals together during busy weeks and are super nutritious without breaking the bank. For more on meal prepping, check out my Meal Plan & Tips for a Student Budget.

Top 10 Pantry Foods

To be clear, this list does not include everything in my pantry. There are a few things that I omitted but definitely think are worth stocking up on if you have extra space and want to go above and beyond. Spices and herbs are pretty much required to flavor of your food (I'm assuming you have some on hand). Though they can be expensive up front, they last for a year if stored properly and can allow you to get creative with your dishes.

Also, while it's not quite a food, I always have some wine on hand, for drinking and occasionally cooking with too. I follow a Mediterranean-style eating pattern, and am fully convinced it is good for me (physically and mentally). Without further ado, here are my desert-island-worthy pantry staples:

1. Whole Grains

Yes, this is more than one food. But this category can look a lot different depending on your preferences or dietary restrictions. I personally always keep oats, quinoa and brown rice in jars and refill them in the bulk bins at my local co-op. This helps me save on money and plastic compared to buying them pre-packaged. If stored in an airtight container, dry grains can last on the shelf or in the cupboard for up to six months. Not to mention, they are the building blocks for a healthy oatmeal breakfast, grain bowl lunch or stir-fry dinner and more.

2. Legumes

I love legumes, and you should too! They vary in shape, sizes and flavors and are some of the most nutritious foods out there. In fact, they may even be the key to longevity. I have an array of beans in my pantry, from lentils to chickpeas to black beans, for a cheap delicious protein in a pinch. Canned beans lend themselves well for tacos, bowls and salads. Just be sure to rinse them well—it cuts down on sodium. Dried lentils, one of my favorite foods, are a great addition to hearty soups and curries, but also make a tasty cold salad if you are looking for something lighter.

3. Nuts, Seeds & Nut Butters

Peanut butter is one of the most underrated culinary staples in my opinion. Sure, it makes delicious oatmeal and baked goods and adds healthy fat and protein to a snack of fruit or bread. But peanut butter is also a game changer when used in savory dishes like stir-fries with peanut sauce, salad dressings and curries. Beyond nut butters, whole nuts and seeds add a healthy crunch (and some plant-based protein) to dishes like soups and salads to make them more interesting and filling.

4. Oils & Vinegars

These days, they make oils from just about anything. But save your money on the trendiest new thing and stick to these basics—your wallet will thank you. Olive oil is a flavorful source of unsaturated fat, and is one of the cornerstones of the Mediterranean diet. Make sure you buy olive oil in a tinted container and store it in a dark place, because light can oxidize the nutrients and turn it rancid over time. Olive oil also has a relatively low smoke point, which means it is great for cooking unless you are frying or roasting over 400 degrees. For high-heat frying, sauteing and roasting, I like to keep less expensive canola or vegetable oil, which is also a great source of heart-healthy unsaturated fats.

Vinegar is an acidic food, and acid brightens the flavor of your dishes. Adding vinegar to salad dressings or stews adds a whole new layer of flavor and can take your cooking to the next level. I keep balsamic vinegar and white wine vinegar that I use primarily for salad dressings and Mediterranean-style stews. I also always have rice wine vinegar on hand for marinades, stir-fries and noodle bowls.

5. Canned fish

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I have recently learned to love canned fish (particularly in the form of dilly tuna salad and anchovies). It is not news that fish is some of the healthiest, but unfortunately priciest, food around. Canned fish is a way to beat the system. Try mild fishes, like salmon or tuna, to dip your toes in and branch out to sardines, anchovies and more once you're converted. They can be enjoyed cold in (or on) a salad, or hot like our Easy Salmon Cakes. Not only are foods like sardines really nutritious and really low on the food chain, but also there are several brands that are affordable and devoted to sustainable fishing practices. My personal favorite is Wild Planet.

6. Diced Tomatoes

Don't get me wrong, I love fresh tomatoes more than most. However, especially here in Vermont, the growing season is very short. During the other times of the year, I take advantage of how affordable and versatile canned tomatoes are. Have eggs? With tomatoes, you can make delicious shakshuka, which is one of my weeknight go-tos. Pasta? Diced tomatoes come in handy here for a quick sauce as well. Keeping some on hand is an easy way to boost the flavor of your meal and increase the amount of veggies you get in a day.

7. Onions & Garlic

When onion and garlic get cooking, the whole house smells amazing. These aromatic staples are the basis for many different types of cuisine. From Indian dishes like curry to Italian pastas and Morrocan tagine, garlic and onions could be the great unifiers in the culinary world and are worth a spot in your pantry. Not to mention, on top of being delicious, alliums like onions and garlic are super healthy and could reduce your risk of breast cancer by half.

8. Potatoes

These starchy vegetables are some of the most comforting foods to me. I use both white and sweet potatoes because they both have unique flavor profiles and nutritional benefits that make them worth a spot in my eating pattern. Potatoes get a bad reputation in the carb-phobic society we live in, but both white and sweet potatoes have a slew of health benefits and are good staple vegetables to keep on hand. When all else fails, a baked potato with cheese, salsa or a fried egg (or all three) is an easy, cheap meal for when you truly have nothing in the fridge.

9. Kosher Salt

I am going to let you in on a little secret to help you cut down on added salt and make your food taste better: use kosher salt. Though it may not seem obvious, compared to iodized salt or sea salt, kosher salt has larger crystals. This helps it spread more evenly throughout your food (and it, honestly, easier to pick up and sprinkle into things). Use kosher salt on meats and while cooking to draw out excess moisture, tenderize and preserve flavor. One thing I wish I knew before cooking more: do not be salt-phobic when cooking from scratch. Many of us do get too much salt in a regular day, which can lead to high blood pressure. However, cutting down on processed foods can go a long way for slashing excess sodium so you don't have to feel stingy in the kitchen.

10. Flour

Flour is one of those things that you don't realize you need until you are halfway through a recipe and don't have it. Aside from baked goods, flour can be added to vegetables and meats when making a stew to help thicken the sauce. If you have the time and want to take on the challenge, pasta and pizza dough can be made from scratch much more cheaply than their store bought counterparts. Take advantage of the bulk bins to cut down on waste. Opt for whole wheat flour to get a fiber and nutrient boost where it makes sense. I also keep all-purpose flour to blend with whole wheat when baking and for making fresh pasta. If you have dietary restrictions, most grocery stores have tons of alternative flours to choose from as well.

Bonus: Freezer Items

Even though these items aren't shelf-stable, they are always in my kitchen because of how versatile they are. The vast majority of the time, I opt for frozen berries over fresh. They are significantly cheaper and keep in the freezer for up to a year, compared to about a week in the fridge. Recently, I have also started freezing my bread. For one person, it is difficult to get through an entire loaf before it goes bad, especially if you buy fresh bread or make your own. Freezing it preserves its freshness for much longer, and all you have to do is toast it a little extra for the perfect slice. Lastly, my best freezer hack is to keep a gallon bag of veggie scraps frozen for making homemade veggie stock. This helps me cut down on food waste, saves me money on store-bought broth and makes my meals super flavorful. I usually make a big batch of stock once every few weeks and freeze what I won't immediately use.

Bonus: Refrigerator Items

There are a few foods I always try and have in my fridge as well, because I use them almost every day. First of all, I always like to have eggs on hand. For breakfast and beyond, they are super nutritious and are the best-value protein at the grocery store. I also like to have full-fat dairy products around, like milk, cheese and Greek yogurt. From my morning coffee to a substitute for sour cream on a soup, I love their creaminess and flavor. Butter is another item always in my fridge. Yes, some things just need to be cooked with butter, like eggs. I don't use butter every day but it is a great staple to keep around for the recipes that need it. Lastly, I always buy a few lemons and limes whenever I am in the grocery store. Similar to vinegar, the acid from citrus juice livens up any meal and can cut through things I accidentally make too spicy (which happens more than I care to admit). Keeping citrus in the fridge helps it last longer.

Bottom Line

These are not the only foods in my kitchen or the only foods I buy, and they are certainly not the only foods you should be eating. My refrigerator is usually stocked with a variety of fruits, vegetables, tofu, meat, various cheeses and you name it. But there are the staples that are (ideally) always around. Many, like eggs, rice and garlic to name a few, are the building blocks of many healthy meals and snacks. Beyond the top ten pantry foods I keep, I usually have a few staples in my freezer and fridge to streamline my week. Though my list of go-to foods may not be the same as yours, it makes planning and grocery shopping simpler if you keep your kitchen stocked with healthy, budget-friendly basics that don't go bad.

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