When in need of pantry inspiration, ask the experts! We polled a few dietitians and nutritionists about the must-have items that are almost always in their cupboards — and how you can turn these staples into quick, nutritious meals. Here are their favorites:

The expert: Melissa Ireland, MS, RD, certified sports dietitian and consultant for Pepperdine Athletics

1. Canned sardines/salmon: Canned salmon and sardines are at the top of the list for Ireland, who cites their portability and convenience as a reason to have them on hand. They can act as a quick snack or be the star protein atop a salad or alongside quinoa and steamed vegetables for lunch or dinner. They are a source of vitamin D and calcium, necessary for maintaining strong bones and preventing stress fractures in susceptible athletes. They also are a great source of lean protein to meet daily energy demands and aid in muscle repair — and these fish provide essential omega-3 fatty acids, which help calm inflammation and also have a role in keeping your heart healthy.

2. Chia seeds: Small but mighty, chia seeds pack a lot of nutrition in every spoonful. You can blend them into smoothies, add them whole to juices or coconut water — or you can use them to make chia seed “pudding” by mixing a couple of spoonfuls with your favorite nondairy milk and refrigerating overnight. These seeds are a plant-based source of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA, which the body converts to EPA and DHA, usually found in fish. Chia seeds are also high in fiber and — unlike flaxseeds, which need to be ground to unlock the nutrients — can be added directly to your food for a nutrient boost.

3. Instant oats: A quick, nutrient-dense and energizing carbohydrate source for athletes on the go, plain instant oatmeal makes a great early morning pre-workout meal or healthy bedtime snack in lieu of cake or cookies. (Regular oats work just as well. In summer, try overnight oats: Mix oats with milk or yogurt, and refrigerate, then top with fresh fruit and nuts in the morning.) Oats, in both instant and regular forms, are a low-glycemic food that provide slow-burning fuel, helpful for many athletes.

4. Canned beans: This ready-to-go source of plant-based protein is great for busy athletes who don’t have time to cook all meals from scratch. Ireland suggests adding them to a salad for a well-balanced meal. You can also put them on top of a baked sweet potato with salsa and cheese or make them into hummus to eat with crackers or bite-size veggies. Alternately, dried beans can be batch-cooked and placed in containers for easy homemade meals during the week. Though not as convenient as canned beans, they still provide the same slow-digesting carbohydrates and satiating fiber.

The Expert: Sonja Goedkoop, RD, lead dietitian at Zesty

5. Salsa: This refreshing Mexican condiment is more than just a dip for chips, says Goedkoop. She always keeps a jar of salsa around for a light, flavorful addition to homemade Mexican food, as a topping for a quick egg dish or even in place of dressing on a salad. Salsa is packed with nutritious ingredients like vitamin C-rich tomatoes and is a great alternative to traditional high fat or sugary sauces.

6. Quinoa: Goedkoop prefers quinoa to rice due to its fluffy texture and quick cooking time. It is a whole grain and one of the only plant-based foods that contains all nine essential amino acids, making it a good source of protein. It makes a great side dish, or you can make it an entire meal by mixing in beans, herbs and fresh vegetables.

7. Balsamic vinegar: One of Goedkoop’s kitchen must-haves, balsamic vinegar can be used in so many ways. In addition to making a simple salad dressing when combined with olive oil, it also adds a mildly sweet flavor when drizzled over roasted veggies — and it brings flavors together when added to soups or sauces. Balsamic vinegar is a low-calorie, low-sugar alternative to traditional dressings.

The Expert: Leandra Rouse, Nutritionist and Health Coach

8. Dates: Rouse’s favorite whole-food alternative to sports drinks, bars and gels, dates are small and lightweight, so they can easily be carried in a pocket for a long run or bike ride. Dates are also a nutritious way to sweeten your foods — add a couple to smoothies, or chop them up and use in baked goods or raw energy bites. Dates are high in simple sugars and carbohydrates that are essential for endurance sports, and they are also packed with fiber and nutrients like potassium to protect against muscle cramps.

9. Raw cashews: Rouse sings the praises of versatility in raw cashews, another of her pantry staples. These nuts can act as a substitute for cream and milk in many recipes, particularly helpful if you (or a family member) is lactose intolerant. After soaking for at least 15 minutes, they can be blended with water to make cashew milk for lattes and cereal or with lemon juice and water to make a cashew “cream” that can be made sweet or savory.

The Expert: Amyjo Johnson, Nutritionist

10. Legume pasta: Johnson stocks a variety of pasta made from legumes (lentils, beans, etc.). Pastas like black bean spaghetti and chickpea penne are gluten-free options, but, more importantly, they’re packed with long-lasting energy as well as more protein and fiber than regular pasta. She also likes to feed this type of pasta to her kids for a sneaky boost of nutrition.

11. Whole-grain couscous: Quick-cooking millet couscous is also a favorite of Johnson’s.  Prep some vegetables while the couscous is cooking, add olive oil and lemon juice, and you can have a meal ready in about 10 minutes.  


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