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In Los Angeles, we're often reminded to have a well-stocked pantry in case of an earthquake, but it's the day-to-day diet emergencies where having a full larder can really help out. The best-case scenario is that you've been to the farmers' market and stocked up on fresh fruit and veggies, lean meat and fish, and other healthy staples. But when someone's polished off the last chicken breast, the fresh blueberries have sprouted green fuzz, and that head of romaine is now a brown puddle at the bottom of the crisper, it's time for Plan B. And hopefully, Plan B isn't that folder of delivery menus you've been collecting. You can save money and your diet by storing up some nonperishable items for a rainy day.
Here's a list of items a healthy pantry shouldn't be without.
1. Canned tuna
This is a great source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids—120 calories and 30 grams of protein in one 6-ounce can. Try to buy tuna packed in water instead of oil to reduce fat and calories. And look for preparation methods that aren't mayonnaise based. Other good fish choices include canned salmon, sardines, or anchovies (although you might want to watch the sodium content in these). Note: Consuming large amounts of fish, including tuna, can expose you to unhealthful levels of metal contamination (especially mercury). Generally, the benefits of eating fish far outweigh the risks, but it's worth mentioning to your physician to determine whether you need to limit your fish intake.
2. Instant oatmeal
Oatmeal you prepare on the stove is OK, too. But for those of us who are culinarily or time-challenged, instant is the way to go. Low in fat and high in fiber, oatmeal is a great filling breakfast or snack. Try to skip the presweetened, flavored oatmeals though. You're better off adding your own sugar, maple syrup, or honey, as you're more likely to add less than the manufacturer. Better yet, try to accustom your palate to eating it plain. The first few times might have a higher yuck factor, but before long, you'll wonder how you ever ate it so sweet. There are also a lot of oatmeals on the market with added ingredients like soy and flaxseed—even healthier!
3. Energy bars and shakes
When all else fails, I say, hit the bar. Actually, I'm usually talking about the other kind of bar, but energy bars are great, too, and far more nutritious. I know several people who are short on time (and also the love of cooking) who practically live on them. But, to repeat our tired refrain yet again, it is important to read the label. Some brands are little more than glorified candy bars that have an oat or two mixed in. Try to find bars and shakes that offer a balanced mix of protein, carbs, and healthy fats, such as Beachbody's P90X® Peak Performance Protein Bars and Meal Replacement Shake, and of course, Shakeology, the Healthiest Meal of the Day®.
4. Peanut butter
The best peanut butter will be preservative free and contain only peanuts, and will have to be refrigerated after being opened. Two tablespoons will give you 8 grams of protein (although don't go "nuts"—those tablespoons also have 16 total grams of fat). If you get bored with peanut butter, you might give almond or soy nut butter a try. Nut butters are also great additions to smoothies.
5. Canned vegetables
Fresh vegetables are usually better, and organic better still, but the downside of getting rid of nasty preservatives in your veggies is that they tend to spoil faster. Believe me, ask my crisper. Enter frozen and canned vegetables. In my opinion, frozen tastes better, but thawing adds another step to the preparation process and real estate is at a higher premium in the freezer than the cupboard, so canned vegetables win for their convenience. The only downside besides a mushier texture is the sodium that some brands load their veggies with. Read the label to make sure you're getting the veggies with the least salt.
6. Canned fruit
Similar to the veggies, canned fruit is another easy option. Just make sure to avoid fruit that has been packed in heavy syrup. Even light syrup is the wrong direction diet-wise. Try to find fruit packed in its own juice.
Canned or dried, it's great to have a supply of lentils, pinto beans, kidney beans, low-fat refried beans, and/or garbanzos on hand. As with other vegetables, watch the sodium content in the canned beans. Dried beans won't be as mushy as canned, but can require soaking overnight to achieve a non-tooth-breaking consistency. The lentil is a wonderful dried food that tastes great, has lots of fiber, and does not require soaking.
8. Broth and soup
Every good cook should have several cans of chicken, beef, or vegetarian broth on hand—preferably reduced fat and low sodium. Bouillon cubes add a prep step, and can be saltier, but work in a pinch. Broth is a great way to flavor rice, vegetables, and pasta, and can be used instead of oil or butter to sauté foods. Some cooks recommend filling an ice cube tray with broth and using a cube at a time—although make sure everyone in the household knows this system, as I've seen many a cocktail hour ruined this way. Low-sodium soups are also great, but check the labels carefully. And if the name of the soup begins with "cream of", it probably isn't the best diet choice.
9. Whole-grain pasta
There has been an encouraging trend in the pasta market, with brands now offering whole-grain versions of the old white-flour standbys. Some brands also include flaxseed, protein, and other healthy stuff. Grant you, some brands of adulterated pasta also taste like feet. Some sampling may be required before you find the one that's right for you.
10. Tomato sauce
Tomatoes are full of the antioxidant lycopene, and cooked tomatoes have even more of it than raw tomatoes, so using canned and cooked tomatoes is actually a potentially healthier choice than the farmers' market tomatoes. Canned tomatoes, sauce, and paste are all great ways to get all the nutrition the tomato packs in, but with all due respect to former President Reagan, ketchup is barely a vegetable. It's mostly salt and corn syrup. As with all canned food, watch the sodium.
11. Brown rice
Rice has an incredibly long shelf life and is easy to prepare, and brown rice and wild rice have lots of fiber. And now, there are even microwavable versions available!
Nuts are a great snack. They're filling and high in omega-3s. They're also high in fat, though, so portion control is a must. I like buying the nuts with the shells on. Having to shell them myself slows me down a little, so by the time my stomach finally tells my brain it's full, I haven't powered through an entire bag.
This usually has to be refrigerated after it's been opened, but having ground flaxseed on hand is a great way to add a little fiber and some heart-healthy omega-3s into your diet. It's very versatile and has a mild, nutty flavor that goes with almost anything. You can add a couple of teaspoons to a smoothie, a bowl of soup, or a salad.
The best tea, health-wise, is probably green tea. But black tea has some healthy properties as well, and herbal teas offer a whole range of benefits. Recently, I was forced to confess to being a compulsive tea buyer. I had about 30 boxes of different teas packed in my cupboard, some boxes containing only one or two bags. I solved the storage problem by buying a "tea box" and dumping the individually wrapped bags into it. It's a real space saver and impresses company after dinner.
Sometimes the healthiest food is not always the tastiest. Instead of resorting to salt and fats to make a meal more savory, it's good to keep a small army of healthy, flavorful condiments on hand. Vinegars, mustards, and hot sauces are among the many available flavor-izers that can perk up a drab dish without adding additional fat or calories.
When stocking your pantry, it's important to have healthy meals and snacks that can be made quickly. One of our favorites is Shakeology because it's a low-calorie, delicious meal that packs a serious protein punch, but even more important is it a source of serious nutrition in an efficient serving. This shake, referred to as "The Healthiest Meal of the Day" can help curb cravings for other not-so-healthy options. Plus, it's easy to change the flavor by mixing it with other tasty ingredients (such as nut butters or fruit) so even if you enjoy it every day, you won't get bored.