Meal Prep Like a Pro With These 15 Staple Foods

James Eaton

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Nutritionists love to beat the meal-planning drum. I would know, I’m one of them!

And while it is true that planning your meals in advance can help you eat healthier in the real world, pre-planning your family’s food isn’t always realistic.

If you’d liketo eat well (but just haven’t yet mastered the art of meal planning with color-coded tabs and itemized Pinterest lists), simply stocking a healthy pantry can be a big step in the right direction.

Want to make your kitchen a one-stop shop of mealtime building blocks? Look to these 15 good-for-you pantry, fridge, and freezer essentials.

Prep suggestions

If you have a can of chickpeas, you have the makings of all sorts of dinners (and lunches too).

Drain the can and pop the little legumes into soups or stews for extra protein and fiber. Or mash them with lemon juice, fresh dill, and diced celery as the filling for a wrap. Then, of course, there’s the world of chickpea cakes, chickpea tacos, and chickpea salads to choose from.

Save it for later

Leftover chickpeas can be kept in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to a week, and can even be frozen. For best results, dry canned chickpeas as much as possible, then place them on a baking sheet in a single layer in the freezer. Once frozen, store them in a zip-top bag or other airtight container.

Health benefits

Despite their humble appearance, chickpeas are a veritable powerhouse of nutrition.

One cup of the cooked beans contains 12.5 grams of fiber, 14.5 grams of protein, and just 4 grams of fat. They’re also quite high in manganese, which supports bone health, and folate, a B vitamin that helps create new cells and form DNA.

Prep suggestions

There’s a reason chicken has the highest per capita availability of all meats in the U.S. It’s a total fan favorite for innumerable meals, including stir-fries, sandwiches, pastas, soups, casseroles, and more.

Keep boneless, skinless chicken breasts on hand as a protein to build dinner around. Simply add a whole grain (like rice, quinoa, or pasta) and a vegetable (broccoli, green beans, or carrots, perhaps?) and dinner is well on its way.

For a flavor boost, sprinkle pantry staple herbs and spices like dried basil, rosemary, oregano, or garlic powder on your chicken before cooking.

Save it for later

Pardon us while we do a little chicken dance for chicken. It’s just that this meat is so simple to preserve for supplying healthy meals down the road. Raw chicken breast can be frozen in its original packaging (but will be easier to remove individually if you separate breasts into their own foil packets).

Cooked chicken is also extremely easy to freeze. Just place it in an airtight container in the freezer for up to 9 months.

Health benefits

The high-quality complete protein in this poultry choice can support your immune system, help you build muscle, and promote wound healing.

Prep suggestions

Fresh salmon filets get plenty of homage for their versatility and healthy fats, but smoked salmon is an even easier route to healthy meals.

Because it’s already cooked, it arrives ready for insertion into wraps (try a salmon-kale combo), salads, and pastas. Smoked salmon pairs especially well with the flavors of lemon, dill, smoky paprika, or cream cheese.

Save it for later

Since smoked salmon typically comes in smaller packages, you may not have leftovers to save. If you do, though, you can keep it in a sealed container in the fridge for 1 week (or 1 month in the freezer).

Health benefits

Just like fresh salmon, smoked salmon contains plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, known for their benefits for heart and brain health. It’s also got vitamins A and E, antioxidants that work to combat inflammation. Just beware its high sodium content of 600-1,200 milligrams per 100-gram serving.

Prep suggestions

If you’re still on the fence about tofu, it’s possible you just haven’t tried it prepared well.

Pressing the liquid out of extra-firm tofu gets it ready for delightfully crispy pan-frying, making it the perfect protein for stir fries, curries, and Asian noodle dishes. Its neutral flavor allows it to take on the essence of whatever sauce or seasoning you apply.

Save it for later

Got leftovers after your pad Thai? Extra-firm tofu should be kept in the refrigerator in sealed packaging 5-7 days or the freezer for 4-6 months.

Health benefits

Don’t fear the ’fu! Though still dogged by myths that it’ll alter your hormones, research shows that tofu is actually potentially beneficial for preventing hormone-related cancers like breast cancer. Meanwhile, it’s got plenty of plant-based protein (17 grams per 3.5-ounce serving) and over 50% of the Daily Value of calcium.

Prep suggestions

In terms of cooking time, red lentils are fairly middle-of-the-road, with typical simmering times around 20-25 minutes. And though you could choose any of several lentil colors (including green, yellow, brown, and black), the red variety has an earthy flavor that’s mild and slightly sweet — just right for daal, an Indian stew featuring tomatoes, onions, and spices. (Try this gingery recipe!)

Save it for later

Cooked lentils can be a companion to next-day sautéed greens or serve as a high-fiber topping for baked sweet potatoes. Or simply refrigerate them in a sealed container for 5-7 days.

Health benefits

As a member of the pulse family, lentils have health benefits galore. Their mix of fiber and antioxidants make them a friend to heart health, and they’re surprisingly high in protein at 46 grams per cup (dried).

Prep suggestions

For a last-minute dinner fix, there’s nothing like a box of pasta. And if you make it a box of whole wheat spaghetti, you’ll get sturdy, thin (but not too thin) noodles that go with just about everything.

Use whole wheat spaghetti as the base of a Mediterranean-inspired pasta featuring sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, and olives. Or let it soak up a jarred or homemade pesto, plus cannellini beans and fresh arugula.

Save it for later

Extra uncooked whole wheat spaghetti needs no special storage instructions, but the cooked kind needs to be refrigerated. (You can keep it there for 3-5 days.) Cooked pasta can also be frozen, but might come out mushy when reheated.

Health benefits

Whole wheat spaghetti has a sizable dose of fiber, which helps regulate digestion, may promote healthy weight maintenance, and can help reduce cholesterol.

Prep suggestions

When you need a grain in a casserole, stir-fry, or grain salad, try fluffy, nutty quinoa. It makes a nice change from the usual rice. Simply boil quinoa in a 1:2 ratio with water or broth, then simmer about 20 minutes or until tender.

Save it for later

Once you’ve cooked and fluffed quinoa for one meal, it can go on to provide carb-y substance in other meals, too. Store it in the fridge in a sealed container for up to 1 week and pull it out whenever you’re ready to reuse it in salad (like this intriguingly fruity one) or stuffed grilled zucchini.

Health benefits

Take your pick of quinoa’s numerous health benefits! Its fiber helps keep you full, can promote weight loss, and promotes healthy bowel movements. Then there’s its substantial protein content, its anti-inflammatory flavonoids, and its high levels of magnesium, manganese, copper, and other micronutrients.

Prep suggestions

In your efforts to stock your pantry for healthy meals, don’t forget breakfast! In under 2 minutes in the microwave, quick-cooking oats become a palette for morning add-ins like sliced banana, peanut butter, blueberries, pepitas, or protein powder. No two bowls need ever be alike.

Save it for later

A bowl of leftover oatmeal isn’t likely to appeal the next day — but even a small amount of extra dry quick-cooking oats can get put to good use. Sprinkle some into muffins or add it to meatloaf for sturdiness.

Health benefits

Oats take their place in the pantheon of so-called “superfoods” for good reason. Their soluble fiber has been linked to reduced cholesterol, while their beta glucan can help stabilize blood sugar. Meanwhile, diets rich in whole grains (like oats) may lower the risk of colorectal cancer.

Prep suggestions

Veggie, chicken, beef — not sure which broth to choose? You may want to try bone broth, an all-purpose choice that works well with all sorts of flavors. (Though all are made from animal bones, some bone broths are also steeped with additions like herbs, spices, and vegetables.)

Bone broth can create hearty soups and savory sauces, and it’s a great alternative to water for cooking rice and quinoa. Feel free to substitute it in recipes that call for other types of broth, like beef taco soup, chicken a la king, or even mac and cheese.

Save it for later

After opening, you can keep bone broth in its original packaging in the refrigerator for 4-5 days. Or freeze it by pouring it into ice cube trays for easy small portions.

Health benefits

Though bone broth may not be the miracle food some people claim, it does have promise for promoting health.

Because it’s made by simmering animal bones, it contains collagen, glucosamine, and chondroitin,which could reduce joint pain. Other potential benefits include improvements in digestive health, sleep, and brain function.

Prep suggestions

Sweet potatoes’ earthy flavor pairs well with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, and their culinary versatility shines in global cuisine from Mexican to Indian dishes. Add cooked diced sweet potatoes to tacos, curries, or pasta. Or pop them in the oven whole as a reliable baked side dish.

Save it for later

In a zip-top bag, leftover mashed sweet potatoes will keep in the fridge for 3-5 days. Save them for a novel, nutritious addition to smoothies or muffins.

Health benefits

The ample potassium in sweet potatoes keeps nerves and muscles firing properly, while their soluble fiber helps lower cholesterol and steady blood sugar.

Prep suggestions

Keeping a bag of spinach in the freezer is a surefire route to healthy, easy meals. Egg dishes like quiche and frittatas, spinach lasagna, and even smoothies are all just waiting for the veggie goodness of frozen greens.

Save it for later

Frozen spinach that’s been cooked can stay refrigerated for 3-5 days.

Health benefits

Spinach is famous for its high levels of iron, the mineral that helps oxygenate blood. But it’s also quite high in fiber and the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which support eye health.

Prep suggestions

Pizza, pasta, salads — fresh tomatoes make their way into so many best-loved meals. Keeping smaller grape tomatoes on hand lets you create your tomato-y favorites with less slicing and dicing.

Save it for later

One delicious way to hang onto leftover grape tomatoes even longer: Roast them! Bake the fruits with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of salt and pepper at 400°F for about 40 minutes, stirring halfway through.

Estimates vary on how long roasted tomatoes will keep in the fridge (some say up to 2 weeks). Use your senses to assess whether they’re still good for use.

Health benefits

Grape tomatoes are a well-rounded fruit in more ways than one! They contain the antioxidant lycopene, famous for its role in reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer. Plus, they’re a significant source of folate, potassium, and vitamins C and K.

Prep suggestions

How many recipes start with a drizzle of olive oil? Too many to mention — but we’ll list a few! Tasty ideas for EVOO include dipping sauces (like this garlicky kale and spinach dip), a dinnertime hash (like this one with pastrami), or an appetizing crostini.

Save it for later

When it comes to storing olive oil, you really only need to know one thing: Keep the oil in a cool, dark place in a dark or opaque bottle. It’ll stay good for up to 2 years.

Health benefits

Olive oil’s monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) have lots to offer for health. Research has associated MUFA consumption with reduced risk of overall mortality, cardiovascular disease mortality, cardiovascular events, and stroke. No wonder EVOO is a staple of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet!

Prep suggestions

Onions equate to a savory flavor boost in just about any recipe. Sauté them in a little olive oil as the foundation for rice pilaf or French onion soup, or include their caramelized sweetness in a blend of roasted vegetables.

Save it for later

Onions will keep on the countertop for weeks, but once you’ve removed their skin and sliced into them, it’s best to store them in a zip-top bag or other sealed container in the fridge. Leftovers can garnish hamburgers, falafel, or wraps.

Health benefits

Some research shows that onions have antimicrobial properties, helping to defend you against infections.

Prep suggestions

Apples have long been a lunchbox staple, but lunch isn’t the only meal they’re good for. Consider diced apple as an oatmeal add-in, fry apples to complement pork chops, or make a quick fruit salad to accompany breakfast for dinner.

Save it for later

One of apples’ top selling points is their longevity. In the refrigerator, they can last up to 6 weeks!

Health benefits

Vitamins C, potassium, fiber, and antioxidants like quercetin, catechin, and chlorogenic acid mean apples are a boon for overall health. Studies have associated eating them with decreased BMI, cardiovascular disease risk, type 2 diabetes, overall mortality.

When you have healthy tools at your disposal, you can toss together meals that require minimal effort and fill you up with wholesome nutrients. Stock the kitchen with these 15 basics to take the mental gymnastics out of mealtime.


Sarah Garone is a nutritionist, freelance writer, and food blogger. Find her sharing down-to-earth nutrition info at A Love Letter to Food or follow her on Twitter.

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