I don’t know about you, but when most of the world went into Lockdown in March of 2020, I know everyone went into self-preservation mode. Many people RAN to the nearest grocery store, Costco, Drugstore, and emptied the shelves. Toilet paper was a hot commodity. It still is!
What I didn’t see much of is people picking up essential pantry items. I saw a lot of meat getting restocked, but just as quickly, selling out. I saw Lysol, sanitizer, and masks being sold by everyone and their Mom. But I didn’t see many people grabbing for essential, sustainable items like beans, canned foods, oils, and grains.
To be fair, everyone was quite worried, panicked, and rightly so. Many of us had never gone through something like this. So at that moment, it was easy to grab for the food we wanted, and weirdly enough, hundreds of rolls of toilet paper.
I wanted to go through some of the items I didn’t stock up on but wish I had. I happened to have some of these things lying around the house because they are staples for me and my family, but I’m fairly certain that you may have some of these lying around your place as well! I wish I had found this in February or March of last year!
This is an adaptation of Dr. Mark Hyman’s list of Pantry items that he thinks should always be stocked up. To see more, you can find his books Food Fix and The Pegan Diet 21 Practical Principles for Reclaiming Your Health in a Nutritionally Confusing World at a book store near you or online! The reason I like this functional medicine perspective is I believe it is the best of both worlds. I consider his views on diets and lifestyle to be sustainable (for your diet and for the world), still allows you to have some animal products if you choose to, and there are as many alternatives as possible for foods that are not so affordable.
What’s great about this list is that many people already have a lot of these foods on hand without even realizing they’re healthy. They also last a long time, which makes them great to have around in times like these with the COVID-19 pandemic still looming over us. Many of these foods are already prepared and ready to eat, some are condiments, and they all provide hearty sources of either carbohydrates, protein, and/or fat.
Here’s your list!
Canned Fish: This is definitely not everyone’s favorite, but this is not a popularity contest! High in protein and healthy essential fatty acids, fish is a really great thing to keep in your pantry for a rainy day or days you don’t feel like cooking meat. You’ll want to make sure your fish was caught sustainably, the fishers are treated fairly and paid adequately, and that your tin/can contain no BPAs. This is tough, and certainly not a necessity since we’re talking about survival and affordability! Look for the Marine Stewardship Council’s seal of approval.
- What to buy: Hyman recommends looking for “SMASH” or salmon, mackerel, anchovies, herring, and sardines. Because while they may not be your favorite fish taste-wise, they’re your safest bet to avoid toxins and metals. According to the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA), you should aim for 2-3 servings a week of these fish (4oz), either fresh or canned.
- What to avoid: Farmed fish is a poor choice due to antibiotic use, toxins such as PCBs, and pollution of waterways. You should also try to avoid fish that has been shipped overseas for processing. Stay away from big fish, as there is a higher chance these contain more mercury.
- Things to keep in mind: Oil-packed fish and water-packed fish are both great choices. With oil-packed canned fish, some omega-3 fatty acids are transferred to the oil, which may wind up being discarded. Tuna, salmon, sardines, crabs, clams, mackerel, and other fish are canned in water or oil, typically vegetable or olive oil. Even when the oil is drained, fish in oil has significantly more unsaturated fat than water-packed varieties. Fish packed in water is typically lower in calories. A 3-ounce portion of water-packed drained tuna has 1 gram of fat, while the oil-packed variety has 7 grams.
Olive Oil: Not only is OO convenient, but the Extra Virgin variety also has other great benefits such as its rich monounsaturated fats content, its high antioxidant count, is anti-inflammatory, and heart-healthy! Its versatility means you can add it to everything, either as a condiment, dressing or even as a cuticle oil!
- What to buy: Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is the way to go. It’s unrefined, free of chemicals and other “defects” like rancidity, and never treated with heat. Look for a dark, opaque glass or metal bottle, rather than a transparent plastic bottle. EVOO is a perishable product and does not like light!
- What to avoid: Low-fat or “Light” versions of olive oil. There is no such thing. Olive oil is fat. Unfortunately, and very surprisingly, some olive oils are diluted with a cheap soybean or seed oil or mixed with lower-grade olive oil that’s been chemically refined. This helps keep it cheap.
- Things to keep in mind: Apparently Australia and Chile have the best OO because Australia has the most stringent standards and a highly advanced testing system, and neither country mixes in carryover oil from the previous harvest!
Vinegar: So many spoonfuls of vinegar, so little time! This is where you can really get creative. Champagne vinegar? Don’t mind if I do. Anything from vinegar to a syrupy balsamic! I really like the mix of wine vinegar and olive oil. Wine vinegar is a combination of wine and bacteria (like the one you see in Kombucha) and allowed to age and ferment into acetic acid.
- What to buy: It’s important to know what you want to use this vinegar for and whether or not you are okay with something sweeter or sourer. Some staples are Apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar (sometimes sugar and salt are added), red wine vinegar, white distilled vinegar. Some of these are used for dishes, but the white distilled vinegar takes the cake, as you can clean your entire house with this stuff (and at a great price point, too)!
- What to avoid: There aren’t many types of vinegar that you need to avoid. One thing to note is the white vinegar is a great cleaning solvent, but not for the following messes – cracked eggs, granite, marble, fancy knives, wood furniture, your computer screen, or your dishwasher! Use with caution. It’s very acidic.
- Things to keep in mind: Not only is vinegar a great household product, but it’s also used for pickling foods, which can help preserve a bunch of other fresh produce.
Herbs and Spices: It’s hard to narrow this one down! With variety, you can take any meal and make it in several different ways. I personally love a good curry powder, but this is in no way essential.
- What to buy: Essentials include Kosher salt/Himalayan sea salt and whole peppercorns – you’ll need a pepper grinder! Other favorites are red pepper flakes, garlic powder (not garlic salt), ground cinnamon, cayenne pepper, ground cumin (a little goes a long way), and onion powder (just like garlic powder, this is great for rushed dinners). For dried herbs, go for some bay leaves, basil, and oregano.
- What to avoid: Table salt, pre-ground black pepper, MSG. Table salt is basically only good if you need a boost of iodine and is not great for seasoning food before cooking. It’s also more heavily processed to eliminate minerals and usually contains an additive to prevent clumping. Pre-ground black pepper loses its potency, flavor, and texture. Buy a pepper grinder and whole peppercorns for the spice and the crunch on a nice steak! Lastly: MSG. I’m not saying don’t buy it because it’s bad. I’m saying, be aware of when it is added to your spices – products like Accent, seasoning salts, bouillon cubes, and gravy mixes often contain hidden MSG. Read your labels!
- Things to keep in mind: I personally love spices like turmeric and ginger, but I know I can get them fresh rather than in spice form. Either way is delicious and healthy. However, the fresh root vegetables will not last as long as the ground, dried versions. The same goes for Rosemary, Thyme, and Mint leaves. So delicious, but they can easily go off in about a week.
Beans: The magical fruit. Dried or canned, these things are a hearty way to add protein and carbs to your meal. Give me rice and beans any day and I’m a happy camper. This food staple has been in many parts of the world for 10,000 years. They are a huge part of diets in China, India, the Middle East, and the Americas (along with grains down below ↓). It’s an inexpensive source of protein, fiber, carbs, and micronutrients. According to Today’s Dietician, consuming only 1/2 cup of cooked dry beans per day results in higher intakes of fiber, protein, folate, zinc, iron, and magnesium with lower intakes of saturated fat and total fat.2 A 1/2-cup serving of beans supplies 10% or more of the DV for potassium, magnesium, and iron, and beans are low in sodium.
- What to buy: All beans are great and have different nutritional values. Look for canned beans in water or dried beans at any bulk food store! Chickpeas and Cannellini beans are great options. Chickpeas are super versatile and have been shown to help those with diabetes, improve heart health, maintain GI healthy, lower cholesterol, and can lead to weight loss. Cannellini beans and other white beans are packed with fiber and protein making them great as a side or a main. High in zinc, Cannellinis help maintain proper functioning of the immune system, meaning fewer sick days!
- What to avoid: Any beans in sauce are going to be higher in calories, fat, and sugar. I’m not going to say don’t buy maple smoked beans, because I know they’re delicious – however, understand that these are not considered a healthy option. You can easily add sugar and maple syrup to fresh, dried, or canned beans on your own. 🙂
- Things to keep in mind: We are not getting enough fiber! Less than 8% of Americans are consuming some kind of bean or pea a day. This soluble fiber and resistant starch can help suppress appetite and manage your blood sugar! Consider it on days where you may want to try a vegetarian or vegan meal with the family. Canned beans are going to be more convenient, but also more expensive. Canned will also have a bit more sodium.
Grains: Much of what I said about beans is true here. Around for 10,000 years, rice is inexpensive, filling, and comes in a variety of different dishes: congee (thick rice porridge) in China, or India’s congee with grains like millet. In Costa Rica and Brazil, Gallo Pinto is the traditional rice and beans dish. A grain is a “whole grain” if it contains the three key parts of a seed: the bran, germ, and endosperm. This is what we want to look for when buying grains for our pantry.
- What to buy: Look for essential whole-grain foods, such as Bulgur, Rice, Corn, Oats, Farro, Teff, Sorghum, quinoa, and Buckwheat. You may not have heard of some of these, which is an even better reason to try them out!
- What to avoid: Highly-processed grains like many cereals are sometimes cheap, but they come with a price (for your health). They last a lot longer, but that’s because they use preservatives (tons of sugar) to keep them from going bad. If you’re going to buy this, make it a treat, rather than a go-to.
- Things to keep in mind: Are you gluten-intolerant or Celiac? If you can’t have gluten, there are options for you! Try brown rice, quinoa, corn. Avoid wheat, rye, barley, and triticale. Sometimes, oats are ok, but make sure you’re buying from a facility that only produces gluten-free products, like Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Rolled Oats.
Nuts: Raw, roasted, salted, unsalted, candied (ok, maybe don’t go for that one). These guys pack a nutritional punch, containing fiber, protein, B and E vitamins, and other minerals and antioxidants. They are rich in healthy monounsaturated and omega-3 fats. Great as a snack, to crush up on top of a salad, or to bread your baked fish for a low carb option.
- What to buy: All nuts and seeds are great options. Sesame, chia, almonds, macadamias… the list could go on for days. I personally like them roasted and salted, but I need to pre-portion them so I don’t go overboard and eat a day’s worth of calories in nuts. This goes for nut butter as well. That’s my personal favorite! If you’ve never tried Walnut butter, I’m sorry.
- What to avoid: Candied nuts are nice as a treat, or on a charcuterie board, but they are not great as an emergency stash. If you are worried about nuts going rancid before you can finish them, keep them in the fridge. They won’t go stale as quickly, especially if you’re buying the Costco macadamia and mixed nuts like my family do!
- Things to keep in mind: Eaten in large quantities, nuts can cause digestion issues. One trick is to soak your raw, unsalted nuts in water overnight (or for about 4 hours) to release any anti-nutrients. This makes them easier to digest, and you still get all the fatty benefits of the nut.
Not only are all these staples convenient, affordable, and sustainable for months or years at a time, they are also great for boosting your immune system. Keep a variety of all these pantry items around the house, and your meals will never be boring! I’m personally going to try to eat more canned fish, as I know fresh-caught fish in grocery stores is way too pricey for me. One thing I could probably cut down on is nuts and nut products (like nut butter), but that doesn’t mean I’ll stop keeping them stocked up in my place! Although all these foods are healthy, they are also meant to be consumed in small to medium portions, and for some, rarely, and only on occasions where you can’t get out to buy fresh food.
Do you have these ingredients at home in your pantry? What are your go-tos? What could you do without? Did I miss anything on this list? Go ahead and post it in the comments and tell me why it’s essential for your kitchen!
Chelsea has been active most of her life, which led her to become a Personal Trainer and Yoga Instructor for the past 7 years. Health and Fitness are not solely dependent on movement, though, and with that understanding, she addresses her client’s other needs, such as diet, mindfulness, and stress management.
When she is not training clients or teaching Yoga, she is finding new activities that keep her mind and body active, such as rock climbing, hiking, listening to podcasts, or playing Board Games with friends. She is constantly working towards finding natural solutions to live as long as possible, inclusive Yoga for all body types, and aiming to find mindfulness in everything she does.