Friends marvel at how I can whip up a delicious, healthy meal, even when my cupboard seems bare. My secret? Having a few key ingredients on hand that are nutrient-rich and versatile. Here are my essential staples:
Olive oil: Olive oil is a fruit juice, but it’s one that I can’t do without. It’s a rich source of monounsaturated fat, vitamins K and E, lutein and beta carotene, and olive oil is loaded with clot-fighting polyphenols. Research shows olive oil can help regulate blood pressure, fight cancer, aid digestion and promote healthy aging, so I incorporate it into meals whenever I can. Its flavor brings meals to life. In addition to using olive oil to sauté, bake and roast, some of my crowd-pleasing recipes include olive-oil poached fish and my bruschetta with strawberries, ricotta and arugula.
Tuna fish: Tuna is the unsung hero of the pantry. It’s inexpensive, nutritious and can easily be incorporated into breakfast, lunch or dinner. From a nutrition perspective, tuna is incredibly heart-healthy, thanks to its omega-3 fatty acid content. Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death among women, taking five times more lives annually than breast cancer, so enjoying as few as two tuna sandwiches weekly can be a profound preventive measure against a ravaging disease. Tuna has the added benefits of being low-calorie and high-protein, so it adds value to meals. I combine tuna with beans and serve it atop greens with fresh herbs and olive oil. I use it in quesadillas, pasta salad croquettes and melts. And my classic tuna sandwich is made modern with avocado slices and Greek yogurt in place of mayonnaise.
Pasta and rice: Pasta is a blank canvas with which you can create an economical, healthy meal. Whether whole grain or conventional, pasta tossed with fresh sauces or vegetables can pack a significant amount of vitamins, minerals and fiber into a small serving. It’s all about the preparation. I mix fettuccini with a simple kale and pumpkin seed pesto for a vitamin A- and E-rich meal. I make farfalle with beets and roasted Brussels sprouts for a dish rich in fiber, vitamin C and iron. The same principle applies to rice; you can easily infuse it with nutrition, and whether you choose brown, black, Basmati or white rice, it can become as healthy as you want to make it. For a change of pace, try a vegetable risotto, rice primavera, chilled rice salads or arancini.
Beans and legumes: Today, many people are trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets, and beans are ideal. Beans are similar to meat, poultry and fish in terms of their iron and zinc content; they’re an excellent source of fiber, folate and potassium, and they make sense for your wallet, being an inexpensive source of nutrition. You can turn beans into burgers, mix them into salads, blend them into spreads or hummus, toss them into pasta or add them to eggs and omelets. The options are truly endless.
Tina Ruggiero, M.S., R.D., L.D., is a nutrition expert and award-winning author. Her new book, “The Truly Healthy Famly Cookbook,” is available now.