When time gets tight and your grumbling belly calls for dinner, you're probably tempted to order take-out. Instead, stock your pantry with these healthy, waistline-friendly staples to back up the fresh fruits, veggies, and protein that make up most of your diet. You'll be able to make many good-for-you meals and snacks in no time—just call it healthy fast food.
Canned beans. Whatever your pleasure—kidney, black, garbanzo, navy—canned beans are a quick way to sneak more fiber and protein and up the satisfaction factor of any meal. Look for BPA-free cans and choose no- or low-sodium brands when possible. (Or at least rinse well before eating.)
Raw almonds. Packed with good-for-you, satiating fats, new research from the USDA shows that these nuts contain 32% fewer calories than originally thought.1 One ounce supplies just 129 calories.
Dried fruit. Toss dried plums, apricots, cranberries, and raisins into oatmeal, rice pilafs, and atop salads for a dose of filling fiber and antioxidants. Cup for cup, though, dried varieties can boast four times the calories as fresh, so stick to a 1/4-cup serving. Make sure to avoid dried fruits with added sugar.
Easy-to-cook grains. Precooked brown rice needs only a minute in the microwave; quinoa cooks in 15; bulgur and whole wheat couscous takes five, and whole-grain pastas are ready in eight minutes. New research in the Journal of Nutrition suggests that swapping traditional refined grains for these whole grains can lead to a slimmer middle.2
Nut butter. For the most wholesome option, look for almond, cashew, or peanut butter made with only nuts and maybe salt (added sugar and oil isn't necessary for taste or texture). Stick to a one- or two-tablespoon serving to mind calories. Blend into smoothies, oatmeal, and sauces.
Spaghetti sauce. Bursting with disease-fighting lycopene and fat-fighting vitamin C, use tomato sauce in a pinch to simmer with chicken, top on pizza, and, of course, pour over whole-grain pasta. Look for no-sugar-added varieties.
Salsa. Spooned over fish, chicken, eggs, or steamed veggies, salsa is a less processed alternative to jarred pasta sauce that supplies a savory, south-of-the-border taste for few calories. It's also a great way to increase your uptake of healthy veggies like onions and peppers.
Coconut oil. Not only adds a subtle warm, nutty flavor, coconut oil can stand up to the heat of cooking and baking without breaking down and forming unhealthy compounds like other oils. It's rich in lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid that may have a favorable effect on cholesterol.3 Look for cold-pressed coconut oil.
Extra-virgin olive oil. Drizzle monounsaturated fatty acids–packed extra virgin olive oil on salad or veggies after they're cooked to help your body absorb even more healthful antioxidants, advises a new study from Purdue University.
Reduced-sodium broth. Whether chicken, vegetable, or beef, broth adds loads of flavor for few calories. One tip: cut nearly 120 calories by sautéing veggies in two tablespoons of broth versus one tablespoon of oil.
Spices. Zest up dishes for zero calories—and add a weight loss boost, too. Among others, black pepper, turmeric (an ingredient in curry powder), and cinnamon all have fat-blocking potential, recent research finds.4
Lentils. With fiber and protein, legumes digest slowly—so you'll stay fuller, longer and won't fall victim to blood sugar spikes and dips that drive hunger. Short on time? Buy precooked lentils to toss with salads, rice pilafs, and soups.
Hot sauce. A low-calorie way to add a hit of spice to dishes. Hot peppers contain a compound called capsaicin that not only provides that characteristic burn but also can temporarily raise your metabolism so you can torch a few extra calories at dinner.
Sea salt. With minimal processing, sea salt packs trace minerals and a crunchier texture. Though both sea salt and table salt contain about the same amount of sodium, when used in moderation (a sprinkle is all you really need) sea salt can punch up the flavor of foods.
Cupboard-friendly vegetables. Onions, garlic, and potatoes keep best in a cool, dark place like your pantry. With a long shelf life5 (whole garlic bulbs and onions can last three months if stored properly; potatoes up to a month), you can use them up before they go bad.