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Meal Planning

7 Must-Have Pantry Staples for Busy Weeknights

When you have no time to make a last-minute grocery store run, lean on these pantry staples for nutritious and simple dinners.

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We’ve all been there. Dinnertime rolls around, your stomach is rumbling and you haven’t gotten around to meal prepping. Sure, having a piece of fresh grilled salmon with roasted asparagus and a serving of multicolored quinoa would be a nutrient-dense and satisfying meal to enjoy. But life happens, and there are days when the fridge is bare. 

Enter pantry staples for busy weeknights. Having some shelf-stable food items on hand can help you whip up a nutritious meal in a pinch. And with the right combos, you can be enjoying a well-balanced and delicious meal in a jiffy — no takeout necessary!

When stocking your pantry, be sure to have these seven must-have pantry staples for busy weeknights so you can be prepared for those days when you simply can’t make it to the grocery store. 

7 Pantry Staples to Keep on Hand

1. Roasted Lentils

Roasted lentils, or pre-cooked lentils that are roasted and crispy to the bite, are now being sold in many grocery stores in the snack aisle. There’s no shame in leaning on these protein and fiber powerhouses as a convenient snack, but these crunchy little nuggets also make a great plant-based protein addition to Buddha bowls and salads. Lentils can elevate plenty of dishes when you need to add a crunch and you want some protein added to the mix.

2. Pasta

Pasta Pantry Staples
(Photo: GettyImages)

Pasta is a food with a low glycemic index, meaning that eating it does not cause blood sugar to rise as high as foods with a higher glycemic load, like white bread. Data shows that pasta has a lower glycemic load than other major sources of carbohydrates when the same quantity is consumed. Pasta is one of the most versatile foods out there. And enjoying pasta on busy weeknights can be a healthy and satisfying choice for many people.

And if you are a pasta lover, you will be glad to know that higher pasta consumption is linked to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke. Since one serving of classic pasta contains protein, B vitamins and carbs for energy, enjoying it with a light sauce, some veggies and a light sprinkle of cheese on top can be a true winner on busy nights. 

If you aren’t feeling traditional noodles or live a gluten-free lifestyle, choose options made from chickpeas, lentils and other antioxidant-rich ingredients — they are a great choice to lean on when you need a protein boost but still want a pasta fix. 

3. Peanut Butter

Think peanut butter is just for PB&J? Think again. While the creamy nut spread is a perfect accompaniment to jellies and jams, peanut butter can be so much more than a sandwich spread. 

Peanut butter can be used in stir-fries, salad dressings, sauces, smoothies, oatmeal and a slew of other dishes to give them a boost of protein and healthy fats. Just be sure to watch for added sugars if you’re trying to limit them — there are plenty of natural peanut butter options that simply include peanuts (with or without salt). 

Related: The Benefits of Adding Nuts to Your Diet

4. Canned Salmon

Canned Salmon
(Photo: Getty Images)

Expert panels like the American Heart Association recommend one to two meals of non-fried fish or shellfish per week for better cardiovascular health — especially when fish replaces less healthy foods. But if you aren’t making it to your local fish market or you are one of the many people who simply don’t know how to cook fish, you may not be meeting this target. 

Canned salmon provides the same important nutrients that the fresh counterpart offers but in a shelf-stable vessel that is ready to eat and relatively economical. 

On busy nights, you can whip up a salmon salad sandwich, salmon patties or scrambled eggs with salmon for a boost of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and selenium. Canned salmon is one of the most versatile must-have pantry staples for busy nights

Just make sure to opt for canned salmon options that are preserved in cans that are BPA-free. And if you are trying to limit your fat intake, opt for choices that are packed in water instead of oil. 

5. Pitted Dates

A date is a shelf-stable fruit that is packed with antioxidants, fiber, iron and other key nutrients. And since it is a lower glycemic food, it can be a perfect food to eat when the sweet tooth strikes. 

For a simple dessert, fill a pitted date with some natural peanut butter and a few chocolate chips for a rich and satisfying sweet treat. Dates also can be used as a sweetener in smoothies, chopped and mixed into salads, and even added to more savory dishes like chicken. 

6. Broth

Pantry Staples Broth
(Photo: GettyImages)

If you have one of those kitchens that is loaded with a bunch of random foods but nothing that can make a true meal, soup may be your answer. Keeping a stash of chicken, veggie or mushroom broth allows for a soup that includes many ingredients that you likely have on hand. From vegetables that are past their prime, canned and drained beans, leftover pasta and unused chicken from the night before, tossing some goodies into some cozy broth can result in a satisfying meal that takes very little time (or thought) to make. When possible, choose lower sodium choices because some varieties can be packed with salt.

7. Canned Pineapple

When whipping up a quick stir-fry, creating a tropical marinade, making a salad or assembling kebabs, adding canned pineapple to the mix can add some excitement to your dish with no added sugars and some natural vitamins. Just make sure to opt for choices that are canned in natural juices and are not preserved in cans with BPA when you shop. 

And for a quick dessert, nothing beats some drained canned pineapple with a small dollop of frozen yogurt on top. Refreshing, simple and good for you — what more could you ask for?

Looking for more meal planning ideas? These ideas will help: