The Best Healthy Canned Foods, According to a Dietitian
These shelf-stable pantry staples are great to have on hand for meals, snacks and more.
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.
If you’re like me, you are not working with an extravagant budget to spend on food. Especially this year with people trying to consolidate their grocery trips, having a few staple foods on hand can make mealtimes that much easier. Contrary to popular belief, a lot of canned foods can be really nutritious and make great additions to meals and snacks. As a bonus, canned foods are typically much cheaper and last longer than their fresh or frozen counterparts. Here are a few of the best healthy canned foods that this dietitian always has on hand.
Related: Top 10 Pantry Foods of a Dietitian
Fish is one of the healthiest foods around, but can also be the priciest. Canned fish is a great way to get all of the nutrition at a fraction of the price. I have tuna salad loaded with fresh dill on repeat for a quick and tasty lunch, and make our delicious Spicy Salmon Cakes for dinner in a pinch. Whether you fancy sardines, tuna, salmon or mackerel, canned fish is super affordable and healthy, and I always try to have some on hand. If you are new to the world of canned fish, start out with something more mild like salmon or tuna before trying more oily fish, like sardines.
I could go on and on about why I love beans and eat them several times a week. They are versatile, packed with protein, fiber and nutrients and vegan- or vegetarian-friendly. For the price, they are one of the best value foods in the grocery store. I always have chickpeas and black beans for all of my hummus or vegetarian taco needs. I also regularly use white beans, and highly recommend our Tuscan White Bean Soup. When buying beans, be sure to keep an eye on the sodium content and choose “no salt added” versions when you can. Rinsing the beans before using also helps get rid of the excess sodium hanging out in the liquid.
While I do love a fresh ripe tomato, that's only the reality for a few months of the year here in Vermont. For the other 10 months, I rely pretty heavily on diced tomatoes. They are useful for a variety of dishes beyond pasta sauce, from Chickpea Curry to Slow-Cooker Mediterranean Stew. Want to make the world's easiest dinner ever? Put a can of diced tomatoes and spices into a pan, crack a few eggs on top and call it a simple Shakshuka. Similar to beans, try to choose “no salt added’ or low-sodium versions when you can.
If you are looking for a super affordable, creamy flavor additive that is vegan- and vegetarian-friendly, coconut milk is for you. I always keep a few cans on hand for everything from Coconut Blueberry Smoothies to Fish with Coconut-Shallot Sauce, both of which make me feel like I’m on a beach somewhere. It's also a great addition to dishes like curry. As a bonus, it's super affordable and dairy-free, and it lasts much longer than refrigerated coconut milk.
If you think canned pumpkin is just for the fall, think again. It is packed with vitamin A and fiber and adds a great earthy flavor to several dishes. Sure, I am all for seasonal recipes like a Traditional Pumpkin Pie, but canned pumpkin can do so much more. Try our Gnocchi with Bacon & Creamy Pumpkin Sauce or Pumpkin Curry Soup for a new unique way to boost your veggie intake. Left with half a can after you make a recipe? There are several delicious and creative ways to use up canned pumpkin, like adding it to oatmeal or making Pumpkin Hummus.
Canned Green Chiles
Though green chiles are more of a condiment than a main, they are worth always having on hand in my book. They boost the flavor and add spice to everything from scrambled eggs to tacos and more. Plus, they up the excitement of a dish for only 4 calories for a two tablespoon serving. If you need more convincing, try our Green Chile Turkey Burgers or Creamy Green Chile Chicken Soup and you’ll be hooked.
Similar to green chiles, artichokes are a healthy way to add flavor to your meal and boost your vegetable intake. Choosing the “canned in water” versions cut down on the added sodium compared to those that are pre-marinated, and allow for the flavor to be more versatile. Add artichokes to level up your average pasta, or as the star of a dish like our Chicken Cutlets with Artichokes & Lemon-Dill Sauce.
Though it has taken some heat in the anti-carb era, corn has a lot going for it. Corn has only 100 calories per ear and close to three grams of fiber, which is a winning combination if you are trying to lose weight. It is also loaded with B vitamins, iron and potassium that can help with vision and heart health. Like many other canned veggies, watch the added sodium. Canned corn is versatile and can help you add veggies to everything from salads to stews. Plus, it is super affordable and pretty much lasts forever on the shelf.
I love beets but don’t always have the time (or energy) to roast them fresh. Beets can help lower blood pressure, boost athletic performance and fight inflammation, but they aren’t always the easiest to prepare. Buying canned beets allows me to enjoy their flavor and nutrition in a fraction of the time and for a fraction of the price. Try adding them to a salad or enjoying Brown Sugar-Glazed Beets as a side to see for yourself why I always have these on hand.
As much as I love to cook things from scratch, that's not always the reality. Canned foods can be super nutritious, easy to prepare and affordable compared to their fresh or frozen counterparts. Plus there are many easy ways to make them taste delicious. From canned fish to coconut milk, these are some of the best healthy canned foods I love to keep on hand and regularly use.