Pantry staples for healthy meals anytime

Keep these items in the pantry for a quick, budget-friendly meal.

According to Michigan State University Extension planning weekly menus ahead of time is a great strategy to guarantee you have the ingredients on hand to make a quick, balanced meal at home. While planning meals ahead is a helpful routine, life sometimes gets in the way of these routines. 

It may be a familiar scenario to look at the pantry or fridge with a variety of ingredients that may not be easily identified as a meal. There are some strategies to choosing pantry staples that can make pulling together a healthy meal easy and inexpensive. “Pantry staples” can be defined as items your keep in the cupboard on a consistent basis. It may be items you buy in bulk, canned goods, fruit, and vegetables that store longer. 

Stocking up on some of these items can keep you from spending money on carryout or fast food when time is tight and you don’t have time to run to the store. These suggestions were chosen based on their nutrition, value, and storage life. Longer shelf life may mean a reduction in the waste and money lost to spoiled food. These items, especially the grains and legumes, can be used as a blank canvas for adding the fruits, vegetables, proteins, and dairy foods you have available making them last longer. This can stretch leftovers and buy you time to go grocery shopping when your busy, changing schedule allows. 

  • Brown rice
  • Whole-wheat pasta
  • Oatmeal
  • Canned or dried beans
  • Lentils
  • Canned chunk light tuna
  • Nut butter
  • Dried Fruit (dates, raisins, etc.)
  • Nuts
  • Canned tomatoes
  • Onions
  • Potatoes
  • Seasonings of choice (Black pepper, Chili Powder, Garlic Powder, Curry Powder etc.)
  • Olive oil 

Some websites even provide recipe suggestions tailored to the specific items left in your cupboards. Here are a few recipes from Cooking Matters, a MSU Extension program that aims to bring healthy meals to families on a budget.

Tuna Boats

Serves four, ½ cucumber and six ounces filling per serving


2 large cucumbers

1 lemon

2 green onions

1 (6-ounce) can low-sodium tuna, packed in water

1 (15 ½-ounce) can white beans

1 Tablespoon canola oil

1 Tablespoon Dijon or country mustard

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper


  1. Rinse cucumbers. Peel off skin every ¼ inch, all the way around. Cut lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds with a small spoon.
  2. Rinse lemon. Zest using the small holes of a box grater. Cut in half. In a small bowl, squeeze juice. Discard seeds.
  3. Rinse and chop green onions.
  4. Drain tuna. In a colander, drain and rinse beans.
  5. In a medium bowl, mash beans lightly with a fork.
  6. Add green onions, tuna, oil, mustard, salt, pepper, lemon zest, and two Tablespoons of the lemon juice to beans. Mix with a fork.
  7. Fill each cucumber half with ¼ tuna mixture. Serve.

Brown Rice and Orange Salad

Serves 12, 1/2 cup per serving


1 cup brown rice

4 small clementines, or 1 cup mandarin oranges, canned in juice

3 green onions

1 large lemon

1 cup almonds

1 cup frozen shelled edamame beans

1 cup dried cranberries

1 Tablespoon honey

1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

¼ cup canola oil

Optional Ingredients:

½ cup feta or farmer’s cheese 


  1. Cook rice following package instructions. Remove from heat. Let stand covered for ten minutes. Scoop out into a large bowl to cool. While rice is cooking, prepare rest of salad.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  3. Peel clementine’s and tear into segments or, if using canned oranges, rinse and drain.
  4. Rinse and chop green onions.
  5. Rinse lemon and cut in half. In a small bowl, squeeze juice from both halves. Discard seeds.
  6. Slice almonds. On a baking sheet, spread slivered almonds. Bake until golden brown, about eight to ten minutes. Watch closely so they do not burn.
  7. Fill a small pot with about two inches of water. Bring to a boil. Add edamame. Cook for three minutes, or until tender. Drain and set aside.
  8. Add clementine’s or mandarin oranges, edamame, green onions, almonds, and dried cranberries to bowl with rice. Mix together.
  9. In a second small bowl, use a fork to whisk together lemon juice, honey, and ground black pepper. While still whisking, slowly drizzle in the oil until a dressing forms.
  10. Pour the dressing over the salad. Mix well. Let salad rest at room temperature for ten minutes so flavors can combine.
  11. If using, top with crumbled feta or farmer’s cheese.

Barley Lentil Soup

Serves eight, 1 cup per serving


3 medium carrots

2 medium onions

3 large cloves garlic

4 cups fresh/2 c frozen spinach

¾ cup pearl barley

1 Tablespoon canola oil

1 teaspoon ground paprika

½ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

6 cups water

4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth

1 cup dried lentils

1 (14½-ounce) can diced tomatoes, no salt added

1 teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

Optional Ingredients:

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese 


  1. Rinse, peel, and dice carrots and onions. Peel and mince garlic. Rinse and chop spinach.
  2. In a colander, rinse barley with cold water.
  3. In a large pot, add oil. Heat over medium-high heat. Add carrots and onions. Cook until slightly soft, about five minutes.
  4. Add garlic, paprika, and cayenne pepper to pot. Stir and cook for 30 seconds.
  5. Add barley, water, and broth to pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low. Partially cover with a lid and simmer for 15 minutes.
  6. In a colander, rinse lentils with cold water. Add lentils to pot, along with tomatoes. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
  7. Add spinach to soup and stir. Cover and simmer for five more minutes.
  8. Add salt and pepper and stir. If using Parmesan cheese, add now. 

Set yourself up for success by keeping some healthy basics like these on hand.  This list provides suggestions but there is plenty of room to get creative by experimenting with different types of grains and other minimally processed foods. You can save money and time by stocking up on the building blocks for healthy meals at a moment’s notice. 

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