12 pantry essentials you can't be without
Stock up on pantry staples for healthy last-minute meals
It’s the dreaded moment.
You’ve picked up your youngest from daycare and you’ve rallied a dog and a toddler for their daily walk. Work has been chock full of meetings, emails and deadlines. The last thing on your mind is dinner, but soon the cries begin, first as a whimper, then as a collective howl.
“I’m hungrrryyyyy, what’s for dinner?”
You mentally do a scan of the fridge and your mind blanks. Apart from the soggy cucumber and souring milk, you’re not sure what produce you have on hand.
If this scenario is familiar, you’re not alone. As our work and home lives become more entwined and demanding, cooking a healthy and nutritious meal can seem like a distant luxury.
But, rest assured; with just 12 affordable items in your pantry, you’re armed with all the basics you need to make countless quick and delicious meals.
Keeping your pantry well-stocked with these staple foods will give you the flexibility and confidence to eat at home more often, saving you from those dreaded ‘what’s for dinner?’ moments.
Eggs are a convenient and healthy food that can be quickly transformed into a nutritious meal. Take frittatas for example – super quick to cook and you can combine any number of delicious flavours, making the most of what’s in season or what’s left in your fridge. Frittatas are great for a weekend meal, for a picnic or even between two slices of crusty bread for an unbeatable weekday sandwich. Another great staple meal with eggs is shakshuka (Middle Eastern baked eggs). Shakshuka is a dish made of poached eggs in a hearty, spiced tomato sauce. Throw on some feta cheese and coriander and it’s a standout meal. Eggs are also a great addition to a quick veggie-filled fried rice.
2. Olive oil
The staple of healthy cooking is healthy oils, which can be a great source of fats like omega-3. Olive oil contains vitamins E and K and heaps of beneficial fatty acids. For me, there’s nothing better than olive oil, the foundation of the Mediterranean diet. I use a mellow, golden olive oil for everyday cooking and it’s the basis of almost every recipe. Buy something affordable and cheerful in a large quantity of 2-4 litres. Make sure it’s Aussie, and opt for cold-pressed as it’s a sign of quality. The only time I won’t use olive oil is for very high temperature cooking, searing or frying. In these few cases, I use canola oil.
3. Tinned tomatoes / tomato paste
Tinned tomatoes are super convenient and great for building healthy meals. They’re also the backbone of many dishes from across the globe. However, you do get what you pay for. Some of the cheaper brands may use imported produce and can be watered down or laden with sugar and salt. Consider investing in some good quality passata and tinned tomatoes, as these form the base of many pasta dishes – a dish I cook often for friends and family. Tinned tomatoes and pastes are also the foundation of fragrant and spicy chickpea stews and eggplant curries.
4. Spices & dried herbs
Spices are great to have on hand; with the added benefit that most herbs and spices will retain their flavour for a year. Take your own tastes and favourite cuisines into consideration when selecting your pantry basics. I suggest cinnamon, cumin, ground coriander, paprika, turmeric and dried oregano as a good place to start.
5. Canned beans
Borlotti, chickpea, black and kidney… Beans are one of the ultimate superfoods. Loaded with dietary fibre and protein, they are also rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Beans can be put to good use in many quick meals. An easy ‘veggie con carne’, quesadillas, pasta (such as pasta e ceci) - or you can even blend them to make burger patties. Beans can also be used to make very quick and tasty dips to use as spreads or for dipping vegetables.
If you have tahini on hand, you can whip together your own hummus quicker than you can drive the shops. You just need tahini, a can of chickpeas, olive oil and lemons.
7. Canned seafood
Canned seafood is an excellent pantry staple. Canned seafood, such as tinned tuna, is packed with healthy omega-3s and is a great source of protein. Look out for high-quality brands and those with sustainable certifications, as they’re worth the extra investment. Beyond the obvious delicious tuna pasta, try adding tinned seafood into your grain salads or poke bowls!
8. Good grains & pasta
Pasta: My go-to for the quickest mid-week meal. Add as many seasonal veggies as possible to make this hearty and nutritious. Check out some of the wholegrain pasta versions for added fibre.
Barley: Deliciously nutty and chewy, barley is packed with goodness. Added to soups or salads, it gives extra flavour and fuel to any meal.
Brown rice: The intact nutrient-rich bran layer and cereal germ makes brown rice healthier and tastier than white rice. It’s an excellent source of iron, fibre, healthy fatty acids and B vitamins. Add some tuna and broccoli and you have an easy mid-week meal!
Lentils: Lentils come in a range of sizes and shapes, each with their own unique flavours. With just a couple of additional pantry ingredients - onion, garlic, carrot and coconut milk - you can whip together a simple dahl or lentil soup in no time.
Quinoa: The superhero of the grain world, quinoa has a crunchy texture and delicate flavour. It’s packed with protein, fibre and vitamins. Add in some roasted vegetables, nuts and a simple salad dressing, and you have yourself a balanced dinner.
Pesto pasta is perhaps one of the best comfort foods. Pesto is such a zingy addition to your pantry and the best part is that it works really well with whatever you have on hand. Throw in some roasted veggies (pumpkin, zucchini, capsicum, sweet potato), or pan fry whatever greens are in the fridge (spinach, kale, beans, broccoli) to make it a more nutritious and delicious pasta.
10. Shelf-stable & frozen vegetables
These guys last well in the pantry (or in the freezer). They’re a great addition to most meals and are often equally as nutritious as their fresh counterparts. Sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, ginger and carrot are pantry heroes, while frozen peas and frozen spinach will last for months in your freezer.
11. Nuts & seeds
These little powerhouses add an incredible crunch to your meals. Our favourites are almonds, macadamias, pinenuts, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. They’re also great to snack on while you’re waiting for dinner to cook.
Having stock on hand is great as it enables you to quickly create a one-pot meal. With just one vegetable (pumpkin, cauliflower or broccoli) you can easily whip up a soup in no time. I find vegetable and chicken stock to be the most versatile.
As you can see, having a well-stocked pantry can save you time and effort. Remember to test and taste different varieties of your pantry staples until you find the brands and prices you feel most comfortable with. Once you’ve decided on your preferred brand, buy them in large quantities (particularly if they’re on special) to save yourself some extra cash – and time, because you’ll need fewer trips to the shops.
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Dr Sandro Demaio
Dr Sandro Demaio
Co-host of the ABC TV series ‘Ask the Doctor’, author of 30 scientific papers and ‘The Doctor’s Diet’ (a cookbook based on science), Dr Sandro Demaio is an Aussie medical doctor and global expert on non-communicable diseases.
For more articles by Dr Sandro Demaio, check out The Check Up’s dedicated section.