Keep these nutritionist-approved items on hand and an easy, healthy meal will always be within reach.
Maintaining a well-stocked pantry is vital if you want to eat healthy. Think about it: When hunger hits, whatever’s in reach is what goes on your plate.
“If you don’t have healthy items on hand, you’re more likely to pick a convenience food, order takeout, or run out for fast food or to a restaurant,” says Nathan Myers, R.D., a clinical dietitian at James J. Peters VA Medical Center and an adjunct professor of clinical nutrition at New York University. “Most restaurant food and convenience foods like frozen meals and the stuff you pop in the microwave generally have a worse nutritional profile than something you might put together yourself, even if it’s something simple.”
Keeping certain staples on hand means you’ll always have a healthy meal at your fingertips. And if you stock smartly, you could be doing your body some big favors. The shelf-stable options below will help you replenish after your favorite gym workout or SilverSneakers class. And they’ll deliver some surprising health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease, healthier blood sugar, and natural pain relief.
Open up your pantry. If these foods aren’t there for the taking, it’s time to go grocery shopping.
1. Low-Sodium Canned Beans
The type—garbanzo, black, or pinto, for instance—is up to your taste buds. They can all add heft to any soup or salad, says Kristin Willard, R.D.N., a dietitian who specializes in senior nutrition in Chico, California.
Canned beans are not only affordable and versatile, but they’re also nutritional powerhouses with disease-fighting antioxidants and plenty of vitamins and minerals. Best of all, a ½-cup serving of cooked black beans has 7 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber.
Why that’s good: The combo of fiber and protein helps the glucose (sugar) from the starch of the beans to be slowly released into the bloodstream. While simple carbs—including processed foods like cookies, cereal, and refined grains—release sugar into the bloodstream very quickly, beans keep you full for a long time and help control blood sugar levels.
Choose a can that has “low sodium” on the label, and rinse them before you serve, Willard says. A study in the Journal of Culinary Science and Technology found that draining and rinsing canned beans can cut their sodium content by 41 percent.
This yellow-orange spice has long been a staple in Indian dishes like curries, but it’s just as tasty if you sprinkle it on your scrambled eggs or cooked vegetables, Willard says. It’ll do your body good too. Turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties—thanks to an active component called curcumin—which makes it helpful for relieving joint pain caused by arthritis, she says.
A 2014 Japanese study found that when people with knee arthritis were given high-dose capsules of curcumin (180 mg) every day for eight weeks, they experienced a significant reduction in knee pain and were less dependent on NSAIDs than those given a placebo. The researchers believe that curcumin may suppress the activity of compounds in your body called prostaglandins, which are key to sparking the inflammatory process.
3. Canned Salmon
Keep a few cans of salmon on hand for when you want a quick and easy meal that’s high in protein and low on prep, Willard says. One 3-ounce can of pink salmon packs about 17 grams of protein.
Try folding some salmon into your omelet for breakfast, or grill up some salmon burgers for lunch or dinner. According to a new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, older adults who eat protein-rich meals throughout the day—instead of trying to cram the majority in at once—tend to maintain more muscle mass and strength as they age.
Salmon is also high in omega-3 fats, which may help lower blood pressure by reducing levels of LDL (often called “bad”) cholesterol, Myers says. Canned tuna—pick chunk light instead of albacore, which can be higher in mercury—works too, but salmon comes with an added hit of calcium, Willard says. Credit that to the tiny bones in salmon, which most people can safely eat.