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Dietitians share their top picks for stocking your pantry this fall

Winter's coming, and so, it seems, is another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are the staples nutrition experts say you should stock up on now.
Food items on pantry shelves
“Instacart search data shows that consumers are already planning ahead and starting to stock up on items that trended earlier this year at the start of the pandemic,” said Laurentia Romaniuk.Don Farrall / Getty Images

As Covid-19 cases continue to climb and tensions mount around the presidential election, people are rushing to supermarkets to stock up on essentials.

“We are seeing the start of the second wave of panic,” Chris Mentzer, the director of operations for Rastelli Market Fresh in New Jersey, recently told TODAY.

Research conducted by Mindshare, a global media marketing agency, in October 2020, found that 31% of American consumers said they were likely to increase their spending on grocery items. Instacart is already seeing a surge in spending across various grocery sectors, including pantry goods.

“Instacart search data shows that consumers are already planning ahead and starting to stock up on items that trended earlier this year at the start of the pandemic,” Laurentia Romaniuk, Instacart senior product manager and trends expert, told TODAY. “This month we’re seeing canned soup and chicken broth surge as people begin to stock their pantry with shelf-stable, cold-weather favorites.”

Regardless of the unusual circumstances 2020 has doled out, having a well-stocked pantry makes preparing healthy, nutritious meals a lot easier. Plus, if shortages do occur this fall or winter, your cupboard won’t be bare. Here are the six healthy staple items that registered dietitians say you should keep on hand.

  • Canned and jarred veggies and fruits
  • Canned and dried beans
  • Whole wheat and legume pastas
  • Canned and tinned fish
  • Whole grains
  • Shelf-stable milk or non-dairy milk fortified with vitamin D

1. Canned and jarred veggies and fruits

They may lack crunch, but these vegetables and fruits aren’t short on nutrients. In fact, Kathy Siegel, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Triad to Wellness Consulting and author of the “The 30-Minute Clean Eating Cookbook,” told TODAY, in some cases, “they could be higher in nutrients than (fresh) vegetables that have been left sitting out for a while.”

When shopping for canned or jarred veggies and fruit, choose as you would with fresh produce “a variety of colors for all those phytonutrients,” advised Siegel. Additionally, look for no- or low-sodium options, especially when considering canned tomatoes. Though they’re high in lycopene, an antioxidant that helps ward off illness (lycopene also gives tomatoes their red color), they can be loaded with sodium. When shopping for a jarred tomato sauce, said Siegel, “look for a brand that has a short ingredient list, such as tomatoes, olive oil and spice — and look for a low-sodium brand such as Victoria’s.”

When picking out canned and jarred fruits make sure they’re packed in their own juices and not syrup or any other kind of added sugars. Siegel added that fruits high in vitamin C, like mandarin oranges and pineapple, are a good choice during cold and flu season.

2. Canned and dried beans

If you want a plant-based protein that’s shelf-stable, inexpensive, full of fiber and teeming with nutrients like B-vitamins, iron, potassium and zinc that can help keep you healthy through the winter, look no further than beans. Canned varieties (of all kinds) are fine, but they often come packed with extra sodium, so seek out low- or no-sodium options.

Dried beans are essentially free of sodium (as long as you don’t add any salt to them). They also tend to be even less expensive, come in bulk, and in Siegel’s opinion, they taste much better than canned beans, though she added that Eden Foods makes unsalted canned beans that she likes. “Throw beans in a pasta dish,” she said, “and you have your carbs, along with your protein and your fiber from the beans. Use low-sodium tomato sauce and you’ve got lycopene, too.”

3. Whole wheat and legume pastas

“On top of fiber, whole wheat pasta will offer more selenium, an important antioxidant nutrient,” said Kelly Jones, a board certified sports dietitian. “But, having variety with legume pastas means extra protein, so you don’t need to worry about adding a protein source to the meal. They’ll also often have more iron and calcium, helping you simplify your meals while still getting adequate nutrition. The additional fiber provided also helps to promote a favorable balance of gut bacteria, which is known to support a healthy immune system.”

If you’re not familiar with legume pastas, give one of Jones’s picks a try. “Explore Cuisine’s edamame spaghetti is the most rich in protein, offering 25 grams, the amount you’d get in four ounces of chicken,” she said. Jones also recommended the brands Banza and Tolerant, but added that Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have their own store versions of legume pasta.

4. Canned and tinned fish

Fish is an excellent source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, but Jones cautions shoppers not to overdo it with albacore tuna. Albacore contains nearly three times as much mercury as skipjack tuna, which is what’s used in most “chunk light” canned tuna, she said. Over time, mercury can build up in the body and cause health problems.

If you must have your albacore, Jones recommended the brand Safe Catch, which tests for mercury levels. Otherwise, opt for a chunk light tuna, or better yet, canned salmon, which Siegel pointed out is just as versatile as tuna but lower in mercury. Anchovies and sardines are also great low-mercury options to add to a salad, pizza or pasta.

5. Whole grains

When buying cereal or rice products, look for those that feature whole grains like sorghum, barley, oats, brown rice and quinoa, since they’re loaded with fiber and nutrients.

“Whole grains contain the entire kernel, the bran, germ and endosperm,” said Siegel. “They’re packed with nutrients including antioxidants, B vitamins and fiber, along with iron, zinc, copper and magnesium — all important nutrients for a healthy immune system.”

Additionally, there’s always oatmeal and plain cereals. Just opt for the whole-grain ones that are low in sugar.

6. Shelf-stable milk or non-dairy milk fortified with vitamin D

Whether you’re going for a shelf-stable milk or a non-dairy, plant-based alternative, it’s a smart idea to make sure the product contains a good amount of protein and vitamin D. “When stocking up on milk and alternative items, be sure the options you’re selecting actually include protein and are fortified with nutrients such as vitamin D, since studies have shown an association with vitamin D deficiency and increased risk of severe symptoms of COVID-19,” said Jones.

Dairy milk is a good source of protein, but counting on plant-based milks as a source of protein can be tricky. For example, while nuts are high in protein, nut milks aren’t. “Typically almond milk, cashew milk and the like are very low in protein, but some are fortified with pea protein, and soy milk is (a good source of protein and) a very effective alternative to cow’s milk. Brands such as Silk — and even many generic store brands — are fortified with vitamin D.”

Do not overbuy

While the desire to stock up amid such uncertainty is understandable, experts advise against buying more than you need to sustain yourself and your family for a week or two. When you overwhelm supermarkets with demand, you risk contributing to the very shortage you might fear.

“If everyone continues their normal shopping patterns — from the retailers to the consumers — we should be able to avoid out-of-stock issues throughout the store,” said Rastelli Market Fresh's Mentzer. “Personally, for my family, we are practicing what we preach. We are not stockpiling or hoarding, and we are following the same guidelines that we are asking our customers to follow with our vendors. We are all in this together.”