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December 3, 2018

A Peek Inside a Dietitian’s Pantry — Erin Burke, MS, RDN, LDN

By Erin Burke, MS, RDN, LDN


When it comes to planning and preparing healthy, balanced meals, a well-stocked pantry is essential! I enjoy cooking, but some nights just call for quick and easy meals that are “tried-and-true”. I always make sure I have ingredients for these meals on hand and am always experimenting with different meals to find other quick and easy staples to mix in. Currently, I keep a running list in a binder that I can refer to if I need some quick inspiration. As soon as I run out of one of my staples, it goes right on my shopping list, which is kept on my fridge.

What’s in my pantry?

I have not had a look in many other pantries, short of my parents’ when I was growing up! I always feel like we have too much “in stock”, but I will say we rarely throw anything out — nor do we ever struggle to put a meal together — so, I’d say it is a good balance.

I have one large pantry, as well as a small lazy Susan where I keep most snack foods and treats. I will start with the pantry first. The top shelf is where I store all my oils, vinegars, and backup baking ingredients that I have accumulated over time. I keep a smaller bottle of olive oil and vinegar as well as cooking spray near my stove for more convenient day-to-day access. You will find:

  • Olive oil for dressings, sauces, and lower-temperature cooking
  • Avocado oil for higher temperature cooking such as stir fries
  • Vegetable oil for baking
  • Coconut oil (helps provide a “shine” to homemade frostings)
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Rice vinegar for homemade stir fry sauces and dressings
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Distilled vinegar (mainly for cleaning rather than cooking)
  • Backup flour and some gluten-free baking ingredients


Just below that are more commonly used baking ingredients. I don’t bake all the time, but I always make sure to have some staples on hand in case a craving strikes! On this shelf you will find:

  • All-purpose flour (also helpful for thickening stews, soups, and sauces)
  • Whole wheat flour
  • Rolled oats for whole-grain muffins, breads, and oatmeal. You can also grind this up into a flour or use as breadcrumbs
  • Corn meal for pizza nights. It helps my dough slide on and off the baking stone.
  • Granulated sugar, powdered sugar, and brown sugar
  • Cocoa powder for baking or adding to oatmeal
  • Baking powder (and baking soda which is kept in the fridge)
  • Shredded coconut
  • Canned pumpkin and jarred applesauce for healthier baking swaps
  • Various chocolate chips, candies, sprinkles, and nuts

Go-to items

I try to make sure my most-used pantry items are at eye level for easy reaching. These include most of our dinner go-tos. On these shelves I will always have pasta, rice, beans, and some form of tomato sauce or canned tomatoes. Currently I have:

  • Several varieties of pasta
  • Long-grain brown rice (and often, packets of 90-second microwave brown rice). If I make rice, I make a large batch to use throughout the week. I will freeze any extra in freezer bags to be defrosted for a quick side dish another day.
  • Whole wheat bread crumbs
  • Canned beans to be added to any quick chili, salad, burrito, or tacos
  • Canned tuna and salmon for sandwiches, wraps, or salmon cakes
  • Backup condiments (ketchup, mustard, Hershey’s syrup for post-run chocolate milk – MY FAVE!)
  • Chicken or vegetable stock and/or broth. This is great for adding extra flavor to grains, adding to sauce to thin it out, or using as a soup base.
  • Jarred tomato sauce for quick and easy pasta nights
  • Salsa, canned tomatoes, jarred pimentos, and/or tomato paste
  • Canned soup to go along with sandwich and/or salad nights
  • Bag of dried lentils or beans which taste much better than canned beans. I cook these in the pressure cooker on the weekend and then use throughout the week. Like the rice, I will freeze any leftovers to be used in the future.
  • Snack bars for grab-and-go snacks
  • Potatoes go in here if I have them

Lazy Susan

In my Lazy Susan, I keep my onions and garlic (I try to store these away from potatoes, since the gases given off by the onions can cause the potatoes to sprout) as well as various cereals, snack foods, and treats. This list is highly variable and whatever is on sale.


The variety of spices I keep on hand also helps put together any combination of meals. I always have the following on hand:

  • Taco seasoning
  • Crushed red pepper and ground cayenne pepper
  • Chili powder
  • Onion and garlic powder
  • Italian seasonings (basil, oregano, thyme mainly), bay leaves
  • Cinnamon, pumpkin spice, and other baking spices
  • Cumin
  • Coriander
  • Turmeric and garam masala
  • Soy sauce, sesame oil, sesame seeds
  • Everything bagel seasoning from Trader Joe’s

My spice door started as a spice shelf… and then the spices took over. If you are starting to build your spice collection, I recommend buying one new spice each time you go shopping. Or, in my case, regularly experiment with new recipes and flavors!

What about cold and perishable foods?

Our fridge rotates a bit more regularly; however, there are still some things that we cannot go without. These include:

  • A gallon of milk and often a backup as well
  • Ground coffee
  • Eggs
  • Whole wheat bread, tortillas, pita, and/or bagels
  • Cheese (shredded, brick, or sliced; there is always some kind of cheese)
  • Greek yogurt, either plain as a sour cream substitute, or flavored for snacks
  • Vegetables of some sort, often mixed greens and bell peppers. I like to have bell peppers as a snack or sliced up to go on top of pizzas. Greens are also easy to add to any meal for extra nutrients.
  • Various condiments (barbecue sauce, ketchup, marinades, salad dressings, mustard, hot sauces…)
  • Fruit, which will vary with the season, sales, and preference. Right now we have bananas, grapefruit, and pears.

Our freezer, on the other hand, doesn’t change too much. In here we have:

  • Frozen pancakes or waffles for breakfast (I love the Kodiak Cakes brand)
  • Backup bread, bagels, and/or tortillas – I stock up when they are on sale
  • Frozen meats, including chicken, lean ground beef, and sausage
  • Leftover prepared beans, rice, or stews/soups/curries
  • Frozen cooked chicken
  • Steam-in-bag vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower, and stir-fry mix

Having a well-stocked pantry is important to me since I like to have some flexibility during the week. If I planned to have fresh meals every night, life will most certainly get in the way and those fresh foods would spoil. I know most of my patients can relate to this! As a result, many of my weeknight meals involve instant or precooked rice, pasta, beans, and frozen vegetables. These can easily be saved for a future meal, whether it is a day or a month out.

Finding balance

I like to think we have a good balance between “healthy” foods and “treat” foods. We always have fruits and vegetables on hand, and we always have chips/crackers and something sweet in the pantry. As far as treats go, we love Oreos! Many times, I have patients tell me that they cannot keep treats around because they “cannot control themselves” if they are in the house. My first tip is to lighten up on the rules. When we tell ourselves we cannot have something, we want it even more! If we truly have the freedom to eat treats when we want them, they will lose their power over us.

If you are struggling with your relationship with food, or you would like some assistance planning your own pantry, reach out to set up an appointment with an Avance Care registered dietitian by calling (919) 237-1337, option 4.

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