While I always do some sort of grand spring-cleaning project, usually involving the basement, garage and my closet, I never think to clean out my pantry. But when my friend Lucy told me that she found a bottle of vinegar that expired in 2006 and boxes of gelatin with a use-by date in 2008 when she cleaned out her kitchen, I thought perhaps it was time to take a look.

Luckily, it was easier than I thought. Here's how I did it (and if you use these guidelines it'll just take you a few minutes, since you won't have to spend time debating whether to keep or not to keep).

  • Almost everything in my pantry was tagged with a date and one of these phrases: "Use By," "Best By" or "Use Before." I ditched everything that was past its date (see ya, chicken gumbo soup from 2009!) and arranged similar things together.
  • I put items with sooner use-by dates at the front so they'd get used first and tossed anything that was in an unlabeled random container.
  • I sniffed all the dried herbs and spices and dumped the ones that didn't smell like anything anymore.
  • I made a list along the way of what I needed to replace so I wouldn't be caught short making dinner one night.
  • Don't Miss: Our Comprehensive List for Stocking a Healthy Pantry
  • Then I bagged up everything I had bought that was still good but I knew I wasn't ever going to use and dropped it off at the local food bank.

Look at all that space! Now it's time to stock up on healthy staples! Here are my top 5 healthy-cooking staples to stock in your pantry.

Healthy-Pantry Staple #1: Whole-grain pasta
I usually make pasta for dinner once a week, but I make sure I have a few boxes in my cupboard because it makes a great I-don't-wanna-make-dinner dinner. All I have to do is heat up a jar of sauce and cook some pasta and dinner is ready in minutes.

Healthy-Pantry Staple #2: Beans
I like to stock my pantry with a few types of canned beans plus different kinds of dried ones for when I have more prep time. Canned beans are a great emergency-meal ingredient. I just cook some rice, heat up some beans, wilt some spinach, chard or other dark leafy green, then assemble into what I call "Mexi-bowls," topped with shredded cheese and salsa.

Healthy-Pantry Staple #3: Canned tomatoes
Perhaps my favorite pantry staple, I love canned tomatoes because they can become anything from soup to sauce with just a few other pantry ingredients. Having different varieties available-sauce, crushed, diced, fire-roasted, with chiles, with herbs-lets me be more creative.

Healthy-Pantry Staple #4: Canned fish
Sardines, salmon, tuna-I make sure to have all three on hand at all times! They're all great sources of omega-3 fats, plus I can open a can and turn any salad into a meal.

Healthy-Pantry Staple #5: Broth
I always have a few boxes of different kinds of broth, like chicken, vegetable and beef. They're great for making "clean-out-the-fridge" soup, reheating leftovers and cooking whole grains, among other things.

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