A Peek in My Pantry: 5 Must-Have Items

Happy National Nutrition Month!  Yes, that's a real thing.  Let's celebrate with a pantry party!  These are the five flavorful, budget-friendly foodstuffs I ALWAYS have on hand for easy, nutritious meal prep. 

Bringing weeknight meals together in record time requires a little bit of planning.  I plan most  perishable item purchases on a weekly basis, depending on the sale at my local Stop and Shop.  But pantry items are treated with the same care as the inventory I managed during my foodservice rotations - serious business.  

Canned tomatoes in all their forms, beans, lentils, and a variety of vinegars aren't included here.  Of course those items are worth stock piling!  But these five are every bit as crucial.   

1.  Teddie Natural Smooth Unsalted Peanut Butter 

I dare you to find a better tasting natural peanut butter.  It's made just outside of Boston with only one ingredient: roasted peanuts.  Store it cap side down to minimize the need for stirring.  More on Teddie here.  Peanuts are technically a legume, not a nut, and in spread form, I prefer their taste over almond butter.  My family and I all eat peanut butter once a day in some form or another - in a baked good, as a base for spicy garlic-ginger sauce, in a smoothie, on a sandwich, or just on a spoon.  If you're curious about when to start feeding your infant peanut butter, check out this article and open a discussion with your pediatrician - research suggests starting early may have a preventive effect against allergies later in life.  

2.  Tunas Tahin

No, it doesn't contain fish!  This particular brand of Tahin(i) is made in Turkey, and the intricately-decorated lid may or may not be a nod to Byzantine art.  Either way, looking at it makes me happy.  You may have read that tahini contains calcium, and it does, but the sesame paste's contribution toward your recommended daily allowance for the mineral is pretty negligible - a little more than 5%.  See here for more nutrition facts.  So why do I keep it around?  

It's a great base for creamy salad dressings, an alternative to butter spread on toast and in some baked goods, and a delicious way to turn Greek yogurt into a savory treat.  Oh, and let's not forget its role in MAKING hummus - it simply ISN'T unless it's made with tahini.  

 I treat tahini the same way I do peanut butter and nuts - the fats are healthy, but should still be consumed in moderation with respect to how it fits into an overall sensible eating pattern.  

3.  Chipotles En Adobo

Ground chipotle, New Mexican chili powder, cayenne, and red pepper flakes all have a home in my spice rack - along with Texas Pete, of course!  But when I need to kick things up ANOTHER notch, I turn to these spicy, smoky canned peppers.  Don't be put off by the sodium content on the Nutrition Facts Label.  Although they contain salt, you won't be using an entire jar for one recipe.  I generally avoid adding extra salt when I'm cooking with these anyway, since they're so flavorful on their own.  Plus, I appreciate that these peppers are packed in nothing but tomato, salt, spices, and a bit of oil.  Read here for my favorite ways to use chipotles en adobo.  

4.  King Oscar Sardines

My love affair with canned sardines began at a Newport wedding in 2011.  They weren't in the menu, but rather woven into the groom's speech, as he praised his new bride's ability to whip up a drool-worthy dinner out of nothing but these oily little fish and some pasta.  (Now THAT'S how you get a ring on it.)  Obviously I rushed home and began experimenting.  

Sardines are indeed a savory addition to pasta - along with parsley, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, lemon, cannellini beans and parmesan.  Talk about a pantry meal made easy!  They're also a great way to work a serving of fish into your week on the cheap.  Let's hear it for omega-3s!  

Look for King Oscar Sardines packed in Olive Oil - in the BOX - not wrapped in plastic.  They're the meatiest.  Check out their recipe collection for more inspiration.  

5.  High-Quality Unsweetened Cocoa Powder

I was a Hershey's girl all the way, until my husband came home with a $7 box of fancy-pants cocoa powder from a specialty store.  I don't recall the brand name, but I do remember the luscious aroma drifting from the box every time I reached for it - and that was often.  Currently I have Guittard Cocoa Rouge in my cabinet, and it's every bit the sensuous experience.  If you love mocha in the morning, use a hand-held milk frother to blend cocoa powder into two tablespoons of half n half before adding strong coffee.  You won't be missing added sweeteners, and you're also getting 3g of fiber.  Now THAT'S a win.