I love keeping a well-stocked pantry. It’s really nice to be able to throw open the cupboard and ask myself what I want to make, and actually have a few choices waiting for me! What’s in there has to be a great value, and for me to consider something a great value it needs to deliver on cost, versatility, nutrition and taste. Here are ten of the best values I try to always keep on hand.
Whole Wheat Pasta – about $1.30/box, about $.19 per serving
Why it’s healthy: Each serving gives you 24% of your daily fiber needs, and it’s a decent source of trace minerals like magnesium (good for bone health and lots of other stuff).
I like to keep whole wheat pasta around because I can always make a meal out of it. Even if I just toss it with a little olive oil and garlic, it’s delicious. Top it with most anything, serve it as a side or main, use it in recipes or dig around in the fridge and come up with your own creations. When in doubt, think Mediterranean/Italian flavors.
Why they’re healthy: You get 24% of your daily fiber, 7 grams of protein and 8% of your daily potassium (great for heart health) in each serving. That’s pretty impressive for $.11!
I like chickpeas because they’re so versatile. I use them in Indian dishes, as a meat replacement in pasta meals, in hummus and other Middle Eastern dishes, they’re great in salads, when they’re baked they make an awesome crunchy snack…you name it and chickpeas can rock it. Skip the canned ones for two reasons: less cost effective, more sodium. Cooking them from dried is easy (here’s a great how-to) and you can freeze what you don’t use right away.
Why it’s healthy: It’s got 6 grams of protein per serving – a protein balance apparently similar to milk – 13% of your daily fiber, plus lots of phosphorus and riboflavin, which is said to be great for migraine relief. And it’s gluten free.
Quinoa is a tad more costly than most of the food in my pantry, but a little goes a long way. It’s great in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes and salads (think tabbouleh), and I sometimes use it in place of pasta. You can even make desserts and bake with it, which I haven’t tried as of this post but I’m totally going to.
Why they’re healthy: Potatoes are all about nutrients. Each serving has 45% of your daily vitamin C needs, 18% of your potassium, 10% of B6 (great for all kinds of stuff) and lots of bits and pieces of trace minerals that can be hard to get into our diets elsewhere. They’re also a decent source of fiber, especially if you leave the skins on.
Potatoes are fabulous. What can’t you do with them? I love them in Indian dishes, bake them as oven fries (try them in salads, seriously), steam them in the microwave and top them with spinach and seasonings (I call it potato meal…don’t ask), mash them with roasted garlic…there’s no end to what you can do with potatoes. Just avoid the obvious pitfalls like deep frying them, mashing them with a bunch of high fat stuff and over-salting.
Why it’s healthy: Brown rice is white rice with its healthy little jacket still on. Its a whole grain, a good source of fiber, really (I mean really) filling, good for heart health and super rich in selenium and other antioxidant trace minerals.
I use brown rice pretty much everywhere I used to use white rice – casseroles, Asian dishes, Indian dishes and often just thrown together with veggies, chickpeas and seasonings. If I’m really hungry and/or feeling run down, brown rice is just the ticket. It’s ridiculously filling and I feel better almost immediately. I know, most of us grow up used to white rice, but brown has a nice nutty flavor and great texture that’s easy to get to like.
Why they’re healthy: This one’s controversial. Rice noodles are gluten free and enriched a little, but other than that they’re pretty meh nutrition-wise. I included them because they get me to eat about 3x more veggies than I would without them. They cook super fast and are just exotic enough to make me think anything with a rice noodle or two draped over it is a real treat. Toss them with broccoli, carrots, peppers, mushrooms, pretty much anything from Team Asian Veggies, splash on some Sriracha…boom. I’m in food heaven.
Why they’re healthy: 43% of your daily fiber and 10 grams of protein in each serving…what?? For less than a dime. It’s almost hard to believe. They’re also rich in magnesium and other trace minerals and very filling.
Lentils have a traditional place in Indian cooking, and that’s the only way I’ve used them so far. I mean to incorporate them into other types of dishes, but they’re so good in Indian I just keep going back there! They only take about 20 minutes to cook so they’re easy to make spur-of-the-moment, and you can throw them in soups, casseroles, and stews. They have a mild, very delicate mouthfeel, not like beans (which is what I expected when I first tried them).
Why they’re healthy: 7 grams of protein, 21% of your daily fiber and %14 of your daily potassium in a yummy little fat free package. They’re also a good source of antioxidants.
I keep black beans around because they’re so versatile. They’re great in Mexican and Latin dishes, as well as American variations like southwestern and Tex-Mex (love me some black bean burritos – chili, too). Pretty much anywhere you’d use a fatty meat in those cuisines, you can substitute black beans. Healthier, still great protein and way less expensive! Black beans are also great in baking chocolate/fudgy things like brownies – really! Not only do they come out dense and rich, but you get some extra protein and an opportunity to cut down the gluten, too. The brownie crust on this peanut butter cream pie is made with black beans, and it tastes as good as it looks.
Why it’s healthy: yes, it’s totally fat, but it’s a good-guy fat (monounsaturated, if you’re taking notes) that many health professionals believe can lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. I don’t exactly splash it around (ok, sometimes I do) because it’s 120 calories a tablespoon, but in moderation it’s a wonderful thing.
Olive oil has a hefty initial investment price, but that bottle goes a long way. I use it to cook everything, and I mean everything. Anywhere oil is needed, I use olive. I also use it as a butter substitute in baking and it almost always works like a charm. Here’s a guide to baking with olive oil I use to help me.
Why it’s healthy: It all gets pretty complicated (here’s Web MD’s take on it), but if I’m understanding right garlic relaxes blood vessels, thereby lowering blood pressure.
Garlic is next to olive oil for in terms of I use it in everything (except desserts, and who knows, there might be a place for that). Everything. I always have garlic on hand because I can’t make anything I like without it. If there’s any dish that isn’t improved by the addition of at least a little garlic, I don’t know about it.
I based the prices on what I pay at my local grocery store plus $.07 – $.10 to make sure they were fairly representative. I always buy store brands unless there’s none available.