83 Cheap, Healthy Foods for Meals in Minutes


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  167 comments   :  608,628 Views

People often ask me what foods they should be eating. I think they expect that as a dietitian, I'll tell them they have to eat pricey, trendy health foods to lose weight. No way! I'm passionate about spreading the word that you can lose weight and get healthy as a family while sticking to a budget. That's why I'm so excited to share today's blog with you! It's a great resource for those of you who are new to healthy cooking or who don't know what to put in your cart at the supermarket.

What a great feeling! You’re driving home from work and automatically know that you have the ingredients in your cupboard, refrigerator and freezer to whip up a meal for your family in mere minutes.   No need to waste time or money with another trip to the grocery store or fast food joint. Ah!  Sit back, relax and enjoy the music.

The foods picked for this pantry list are ideal choices for weight loss--lower in calories, yet packed with nutrition.  They are also commonly available, budget friendly, familiar to most, and liked by many.  Their flavors and textures mesh well for tasty food combinations.  These "mix and match" marvels will have you making magic in the kitchen in minutes.

I've divided my list into food groups for easier shopping and included serving suggestions, too.

Becky's Mix-and-Match Pantry Grocery List


Fresh:  apples, bananas, grapes, oranges, pears
• Side dish for a meal
• Portable snack
• Fruit salad
• Top a cereal, salad or yogurt
• Mix into a quick bread or muffin recipe

Canned (packed in water):  mandarin oranges, peaches, pears, pineapple
• Side dish for a meal
• Fruit salad
• Top a cereal, salad or yogurt

Frozen:  blueberries, strawberries, pineapple
• Mix into smoothies
• Heat and mix into oatmeal
• Top yogurt or cereal


Fresh:  bell peppers, celery, carrots, romaine lettuce, cabbage, onion, potatoes (white and sweet), baby spinach
Canned:  green beans (drained and rinsed), diced tomatoes
Frozen:  corn, broccoli, cauliflower, lima beans, peas

• Salads
• Raw with dip
• Sandwich and wrap toppings
• Sautés and stir-fries
• Side dish for a meal
Roasted or baked
• Add to soups, stews, casseroles

Meat & Protein

Beans: chickpeas, lentils, red, black, white, or pinto beans
Dried: (soak overnight, then simmer with low-sodium broth until tender)
Canned (drain and rinse to remove up to 40% of the sodium)      

• Top a salad
• Add to soups, stews, casseroles
• Puree for spreads and dips

Canned or pouch tuna and salmon (packed in water)
• Top a leafy green salad
• Mix for tuna salad
Form into patties and pan-fry

Chicken breasts, skinless
Pork loin and chops
Fish (fresh or frozen, not breaded or pre-sauced)

Grill or bake for an entrée
• Thinly slice for a stir-fry
• Grill and place top a leafy green salad
• Dice for a soup or chowder

Ground beef, 95% lean
Ground beef (cooked, then drained and rinsed to remove fat)
Ground turkey or chicken breast

• Form into burgers
• Brown for soups, casseroles, wraps, spaghetti sauce, tacos and taco salad

Omelet, frittata, breakfast casserole
• Breakfast sandwich
• Hard-cooked for salads and snacks

Lean deli meat: ham or turkey
• Sandwich or wrap
• Breakfast sandwich, casserole, omelet or frittata


Skim or 1% Milk
• Beverage
• Topping for cereals
Milk-based soups
• Thicken sauces

Lowfat (2%) Cheese
• Shred and top salads, soups and casseroles
• Slice for sandwiches and wraps

Lowfat Yogurt:
Regular or Greek
Naturally or artificially sweetened

• Base for smoothies
• Parfaits with fruit and cereal
• Dip for veggies and fruit

Whole Grains

Whole wheat bread
• Sandwiches/toast
Breakfast casserole
• French toast
Whole wheat or whole corn tortillas
• Wraps for breakfast and lunch
• Baked tortilla chips
Whole-grain cold cereal (low sugar)
• Breakfast cereal
• Top yogurt
• Crumbled for coating on meat or casserole topping

• Breakfast cereal
• Quick breads
• Fruit crisp topping

Whole wheat pasta
Brown rice

• Side dish for a meal
• Mix with soup, casserole
• Top with stir-fry

Popcorn kernels
• Air-pop, then sprinkle with herbs and spices

Oils & Fats

Olive oil
Vegetable oil:  canola, corn, safflower, soybean, or sunflower

• Salad dressing, dipping, drizzling
• Sauté, pan fry, stir-fry
Soft margarine (zero trans-fat)
• Top vegetables, toast, popcorn
Lowfat salad dressing
• Salads and veggie dip

Staples, Seasonings & Condiments

  • Artificial sweetener

  • Chili powder

  • Cinnamon

  • Flour, white and whole wheat

  • Garlic powder

  • Italian seasoning (no salt added)

  • Low-fat mayonnaise

  • Low-sodium chicken broth

  • Low-sodium soy sauce

  • Mustard

  • Pepper

  • Salsa

  • Salt

  • Sugar

  • Vinegar

Once you've stocked your pantry and fridge, there's no need for fancy recipes. Try one of these easy meals!

Menu Magic in Minutes:

  • Stir-fry:  Heat a little vegetable oil in a medium skillet.  Add diced chicken breast or pork loin and brown.  Add chopped vegetables of your choice and sauté until tender-crisp. Season with a splash of low-sodium soy sauce and dash of garlic powder.  Serve over cooked brown rice. Complete the meal with a dish of mandarin oranges and a glass of milk.

  • Casserole:  Place 4 cups cooked pasta in a 2-quart casserole dish.  Add 2 cups cooked beef, chicken, pork, or beans.  Add 2 cups green beans (drained) or broccoli (thawed and drained).  Add 1 can diced tomatoes with juice and 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Combine.  Top with 1/4 cup shredded cheese.  Bake for 30-45 minutes in 350 degree oven until hot and bubbly (and reaches an internal temperature of165 degrees).  Serve with apple slices and a glass of milk.

  • Omelet:  Cook up eggs with your choice of fillings:  veggies, shredded cheese, diced cooked meat or deli ham.  Serve with orange slices and whole wheat toast.

  • Tuna/Chicken/Egg Salad:  Mix cooked diced chicken, canned tuna or salmon, or hard cooked eggs with diced veggies of your choice (celery, onion, bell peppers, carrots, etc.) in a medium bowl.  Coat lightly with lowfat mayonnaise and mustard.  Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve on toasted bread, in a whole-grain wrap or on top of a leafy green salad.  Complete the meal with canned peaches and a glass of milk.

  • Smoothie:  Blend together 1 cup yogurt, 1 banana, 1 cup frozen strawberries, 1 cup spinach and 1/2 cup milk.  If needed, sweeten as desired with a little sugar or artificial sweetener.

  • Stuffed Potato:  "Bake" a potato in the microwave.  Slit the potato open and top with 1 teaspoon soft margarine.  Add cooked, drained broccoli, lowfat cheese and a dollop of salsa.  Serve with carrot sticks and grapes.

Which of these foods are staples in your home? What would you add to my list? Any serving suggestions?

Need more easy meal inspiration? Check out our wildly popular 10 Ways to Eat series.

Like this blog? Then you'll love "The SparkPeople Cookbook: Love Your Food, Lose the Weight."

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  • 167
    What a variety - 12/7/2017   3:52:11 PM
  • 166
    Why canned green beans instead of frozen? - 11/29/2017   7:27:16 PM
  • 165
    Great list. - 11/1/2017   7:08:16 PM
  • 164
    Well, with the exception of chocolate, that pretty much covers it all! *LOL* - 10/29/2017   1:12:18 PM
    Great list! - 9/30/2017   7:59:48 PM
  • 162
    great list.. thank you - 9/20/2017   12:05:15 PM
  • 161
    Great ideas - 9/11/2017   8:35:27 AM
    This is very helpful - 9/5/2017   2:21:14 PM
  • 159
    Thanks but I will eat real food. - 8/22/2017   11:14:47 PM
    great ideas thanks - 8/16/2017   12:37:43 AM
  • 157
    With the past, I have nothing to do;
    nor with the future. I live now.
    - Ralph Waldo Emerson - 8/5/2017   3:53:42 PM
  • 156
    Thanks for the ideas! - 8/4/2017   11:43:38 AM
  • 155
    Great list! - 8/4/2017   11:13:52 AM
  • 154
    THANKS! Love this. I am doing some already but I loved the new ideas. I will surely use them and will save me money as a single person living alone. - 8/4/2017   10:30:27 AM
    Great ideas. Quick takes the ficus off of food and alows the time and focus on the self. - 8/4/2017   5:46:24 AM
  • 152
    Great practical article Becky! - 8/3/2017   1:37:18 PM
  • 151
    I never use margerine, I just keep my REAL butter use to a minimum - 8/3/2017   9:37:04 AM
  • 150
    Tuna in water, eggs and yogurt(Not mixed together of course) are great pantry staples for protein. - 8/3/2017   8:39:44 AM
  • 149
    Great list. - 8/3/2017   6:48:33 AM
  • 148
    Funny thing about these lists, it's harder when family members don't eat what's on those lists, and despise most of the things on those lists. - 8/3/2017   1:40:28 AM
  • 147
    this was very helpful thanks - 7/30/2017   5:27:43 PM
    Thank you for this great list. I am trying to have good food choices on hand and this will help me shop! - 7/18/2017   1:19:51 PM
  • 145
    Good ideas! - 6/29/2017   7:53:43 PM
  • 144
    All good to have on hand. - 6/6/2017   7:15:02 AM
    some great ideas here --- thanks - 4/24/2017   10:14:48 AM
  • 142
    I'd add oregano and basil either fresh our dried to the list and mangoes fresh our frozen - 4/8/2017   11:35:39 AM
  • 141
    I'd add Quinoa to that list. It's a complete protein so can be the entree or a side dish, seasoned savory (mushrooms, sesame oil) or sweet (cinnamon, brown sugar) for dinner or breakfast.
    Tofu, seasoned, is versatile stuff too. - 7/5/2016   11:04:37 AM
  • 140
    A mostly good list, but I wish SP would catch up with the science and stop recommending things like skim milk and low/no fat dairy. And artificial sweeteners! No!

    Healthy fats are good for you and are not directly linked to body fat - stop perpetuating this misconception.

    Artificial sweeteners just exacerbate addiction to sweetened foods, and some of the artificial ones can be really bad for you. Natural sweeteners in moderation are much better! - 6/11/2016   9:55:41 AM
    I made my own taco seasoning mix and keep it in a jar in my pantry. No need to purchase high sodium seasoning packs. Helps your heart and your pocket book. - 2/11/2016   10:34:16 PM
  • 138
    You covered it well. I was surprised you did not include olive oil. Is that because of the cost? - 1/30/2016   10:54:54 PM
    I would say I have about 95% of these ingredients in my house. I am loving all the different things to do with different foods. It's easier to eat healthier when you're not cooking the same meals all the time. - 1/12/2016   8:54:43 PM
    By the way -nowadays you can actually buy sealed microwave bowls of precooked plain brown rice and quinoa.... Ultimate convenience! They're shelf stable. If you like them they can be purchased cheaper by the case. So there are options if you're shorter on time than on money. Also tofu can be purchased in shelf stable aseptic boxes, handy for grilling or using as a base for salad dressing, puddings, dips, eggless egg salad. - 12/26/2015   7:04:04 AM
    About needed cooked pasta and grains: I always cook more than I need when I cook grains and freeze portions in pyrex bowls with rubber lids. Heat a few minutes covered (not with the lid) in the microwave, and there you have what you need for your meal. Millet doesn't take long, about the same as white rice. One serving of pasta can be made in the microwave pretty fast: in my old 500W, i put about a cup of water in a 2-cup purex measuring cup, microwave on high for 5 minutes, add pasta to the mark (for example, 1/2 cup dry), high for 4 minutes, stir, high again for 4 minutes, stir, and repeat if needed for whole grain. Less time for non-wheat pasta. You also can let it set after the first 4 minutes and it will usually cook fine. But I also sometimes cook a batch of plain pasta and freeze portions. Same with fresh veg that I can't eat up that fast, just cook (for example, tomatoes and mushrooms or bell peppers or celery) a bit and freeze in Pyrex bowls or in foil. Then they can be added to anything. Mix avocado with lemon juice and freeze individual portions in zip bags. I flatten them so they thaw fast. Baked sweet and white potatoes can be mashed with a fork and frozen in the pyrex bowls. Bananas get frozen peeled in zip bags once they're at risk of getting too mushy, but I also keep them in the refrigerator before that. Skin turns black but the insides are fine. Nice substitute for an ice cream bar, especially if you think to poke a toothpick or stick into the pieces before freezing. Grapes and cherries and blueberries freeze well also - I spread them on a flat pan for a couple of hours and then bag individual servings. Melons likewise, in pieces, good blended with cold water also.

    Also if you freeze slices of good bread or rolls in zip type bags, you will always have bread on hand if you can't get to a store. Just a few minutes in a toaster oven and they're fine to eat. A good collection of nutritious crackers helps also along with peanut butter, nut and seed butters.
    - 12/26/2015   6:57:15 AM
  • 134
    Similar to the way we list. We seem to shop every other day so our meals can be more flexible. Shopping by the week is hard to maintain when your craves change. - 12/17/2015   10:10:05 PM
    I like the concept, but the blog is a bit misleading. These meals aren't all that quick-prep unless you occasionally spend an evening cooking a bunch of rice, pasta, chicken, etc. Notice how many of these recipes start out with COOKED something-or-other, or say to serve over brown rice without mentioning how long it takes to cook it.

    I appreciate the shopping list and the good ideas, though. - 12/7/2015   12:30:50 AM
  • 132
    I really need basic guidance like this list. I love it. (Except for the margarine. I insist on butter, but I never use a lot, just a bit.) - 12/6/2015   7:55:01 PM
  • 131
    To SUSAN29NJ, JESSICAH_89 & ELIKA625's comments: Ditto! - 12/3/2015   12:07:44 PM
    To quote, "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

    I think he means natural food with no processing, no chemicals, and no "food-like substances", such as cold cereals, fixed up margarine.

    This is really easy to do: start by going to the Farmer's Market (assuming you have one) nearest you. At the grocery store, buy organic grains, then, using the farmer's market and grains, make pasta, pizza, vegetable-based soups and salads. Very cheap, easy.

    Also, luncheon meats and the such are now known to be bad for us.

    Also, meat is suspicious AND uses inordinate amounts of water and grain and resources to bring to market. Maybe 2-3 oz of meat once a week?

    Works for me, maybe for you? - 12/3/2015   11:39:04 AM
  • FSOLO1
    I think using a small amount of butter instead of margarine is best. However, another alternative I use is the spreadable butters out now. - 12/3/2015   8:04:57 AM
  • 128
    This is an excellent article ;especially for newbie cooks.
    I'd substitute butter for margarine, and brown sugar or stevia instead of artificial sweeteners.
    I'll add quinoa, chia seeds, ground flax, olive oil, coconut oil,nuts (walnuts & almonds).
    I'd remove sausage and deli meats....too much preservatives. - 10/19/2015   8:03:07 PM
  • 127
    Low fat milk, low fat yogurt and margarine? This blog must be very old, since low fat dairy is no longer recommended. They also found that butter is better for you than margarine (even if it doesn't contain transfat). - 9/9/2015   8:08:12 AM
  • KAW2015
    This is excellent! It can be very confusing to know what staples are the best choices and how to combine them into nutritious meals. I have printed this off and will be bringing it with me whenever I am grocery shopping :D - 6/21/2015   1:38:49 PM
  • 125
    I still would add BUTTER. - 4/22/2015   9:07:47 PM
  • BIGBUG11
    no thanks - 3/17/2015   5:24:34 PM
  • BIGBUG11
    look forward to a new life - 3/17/2015   5:23:18 PM
  • 122
    Great article. Love the pairings with some new ideas with all the foods I really like too! - 2/11/2015   3:00:34 PM
  • 121
    Great list, covers all bases and gives me ideas when I need it. Thanks.
    - 1/20/2015   9:21:00 AM
  • 120
    Good article. I would add legumes (barely mentioned) and corn meal.
    Article is a couple years old. I wonder what Becky thinks about coconut oil. It is cheaper at some stores. Higher in calories. Less likely effect cholesterol. - 1/17/2015   8:42:24 PM
  • 119
    I like the list very much! I think the artificial sweetener, low sodium, and low fat items may be on there for the benefit of folks who are battling secondary health issues, like high cholesterol and high blood sugar. It's just a general guideline. So, there's no need to be so critical. Buy whatever fits your budget and meets your nutritional values. Completely changing the way you eat is a journey. BTW-I'm sure delicious seeds and nuts aren't on the list because if you're like me, you can't eat just one ounce at a time. Binge trigger!!!! Whew! - 1/4/2015   12:06:58 PM
  • 118
    Took this list with me to the grocery stores today!! Got most of what's on here, in addition to other things I prefer. Great list, thanks for helping me restock my kitchen!! - 1/1/2015   6:33:20 PM

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