5 Heart-Healthy “Pantry Meals” for Busy Families

Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

One of the complaints we hear about meal planning is that it’s impossible to predict our lives with that kind of precision: Who will be home? At what time? What will they be in the mood for? Will there be leftovers from last night? My solution: Pantry meals!

What are pantry meals?

Pantry meals are simply anything you can put together without a special trip to the store. Of course, that depends on what you typically stock in your pantry, fridge, and freezer.

When meal planning, instead of picking something to make six or seven nights in a week, consider planning just two to four meals and supplementing with leftovers and pantry meals. Way more flexible.

For example, my kids love classic tuna casserole and they can make it too. So you’ll always find cans of tuna, mushroom soup, and egg noodles in our pantry. Once or twice a month, when things get crazy, we pull the tuna casserole chute and solve dinner and kids’ next-day lunch with one quick meal.

(Don’t judge! Some days convenience and comfort win even in a dietitian’s home.)

Five of our favourite heart-healthier pantry meals

Of course, tuna casserole every week isn’t ideal, healthwise, so here are a few favourite pantry meals with more whole grains and beans and a bit less sodium.

  1. Super Fast Black Bean Quesadillas  – One of our family’s favourites. BONUS: My kids like these cold in their lunch the next day too. Slip in some cooked vegetables if you have them. And the recipe says to mash the beans with a potato masher, but I just blitz them in the food processor with the salsa. (#lazycook) Rinse it before it dries and cleanup is a cinch.
  2. Black Bean Salsa Soup – This one can be on the table in 15 minutes. Yay! Don’t skip the lime juice.
  3. Pantry Burritos – Another of our favourites. My husband will often do this if I’m not home, because it’s so easy and he knows he’ll find the ingredients.
  4. Turkey Chili with Barley – One of our favourites from the incomparable Julie van Rosendaal. A bit of a project, but a pressure cooker speeds things up, and it makes lots and freezes well if you take lunch to work and warm it up in the microwave.
  5. Electric chickpeas – A light salad – great for summer lunch.

More ideas

Of course that’s just a start. You can make lots of things with a well-stocked pantry:

  • Tuna sandwiches/melts
  • Egg sandwiches/burritos
  • Grilled fish (from frozen), say with quinoa and frozen peas
  • Beans, brown rice, salsa, and cheese – doesn’t get much easier
  • Pasta with ground turkey and canned no-salt-added tomatoes… the list goes on.

Stock your pantry, but with a plan

Cookbooks sometimes suggest you stock certain items in your pantry — canned beans, canned tomatoes, pasta, etc. — which is great, if you’re one of those people who can throw a meal together with random food on hand. Me, I like a good recipe, so I list these in my recipe collection tagged “pantry” and they’re printed in a binder we keep in the kitchen, so anyone can make them.

The ingredients for them are on my pre-printed shopping list, so we can make them without specifically planning for it. Want a short-cut to that?

Pantry meal driven shopping list

If you want to set your pantry up to make every recipe in my collection above, here’s a shopping list: 

  • Tortillas (ideally whole-grain)
  • Canned black beans (ideally no-salt-added) (x2)
  • Canned kidney beans (same)
  • Canned white beans (same)
  • Canned chickpeas (same)
  • Canned tomatoes (ideally no salt added)
  • Salsa
  • Chicken broth/stock/base (ideally low-sodium)
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Olive oil
  • Brown rice (ideally cooked, which you can freeze!)
  • Barley
  • Lime juice
  • Frozen corn
  • Frozen spinach or kale (not a big block but a bag of frozen spinach crumbles)
  • Ground turkey (freeze it)
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Cheese
  • Dried herbs and spices – The recipes use a variety of common spices. I assume you have most, but wouldn’t hurt to check.

Feel free to copy and paste those into a document and make it your own. Add other things you want to always have in your pantry (/freezer /fridge). Now you have a start for your own pre-printed grocery list. If you’re buying food every week for a family, they make life so much easier!


If you don’t have one of these ingredients on hand, see if you can substitute something. For example, go for quinoa instead of brown rice in the burritos.

And the recipes call for some fresh ingredients, which I say are optional – minced green onion on the black bean soup, avocado with the burritos. If you have them, great, but if not, improvise!

Veggies please

These aren’t all complete meals – most can use a bit of a veggie boost. Serve with a salad or raw veggies if you have them. But if you don’t, at least you’re getting some similar nutrients (fibre, potassium) from the beans and whole grains.

And don’t overlook frozen veggies – they’re processed at the peak of ripeness and therefore nutrition, and mixed into burritos or chili, they taste just fine.

What about you?

What are your favourite heart-healthyish pantry meals? What can you throw together after being away on vacation for 2 weeks? Share your favourites in the Facebook post.

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