Not all healthy meals require fresh foods. For seniors, stocking the freezer, fridge, and pantry with staples can make healthy eating easier, especially for those with mobility issues who can’t always make it to the store.
Truly, older adults can eat healthy by stocking their pantry with staples that make sense for them personally. Read on to find the top healthy eating pantry staples for seniors.
How to Pick Pantry Staples
As a senior, stocking the pantry can seem like a tall order. Choosing healthy food that meets your needs (such as preventing or treating high blood pressure or heart disease) can seem complicated.
Fortunately, you can keep many versatile foods on hand to meet your needs. With a few guidelines, you’ll be confidently stocking up on staples in no time.
Making a nutritious meal starts with picking nutrient-rich foods. And generally, it’s best to select items containing low levels of added sugar and sodium (salt).
You’ll also want to consider your personal goals when selecting staples. For example, are you on a specialty diet such as gluten-free or heart-healthy? Are you looking to lose weight or gain weight for health reasons? The answers to these questions can help you find pantry staples that make sense for you.
5 Healthy Eating Pantry Staples for Seniors
The following foods fit easily into many recommended eating patterns for seniors, such as the Mediterranean diet or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (the DASH diet).
1. Nuts, Seeds, and Legumes
Beyond being packed with protein, healthy fats, and fiber, many nuts, seeds, and legumes can be bought in bulk. They are considered relatively shelf-stable, and certain varieties can be stored for up to 6 months (in an airtight container). As always, you’ll want to look on the label for storage instructions, but storing these foods in a fridge or freezer may be able to extend their shelf life by up to 6 or 12 months.
Alternatively, nut butters and blended nut and seed butters are a good choice. From sandwiches to Thai-inspired stir-fry, these butters can last around 2-3 months (once opened) on the shelf and 3-4 months in the fridge. It’s recommended to store “natural” peanut butters—containing no sugar or oils—in the fridge as this practice prevents the ingredients from separating.
Legumes, a category including lentils, beans, and peas, can also make an excellent pantry staple. Sealed in bags, beans can last up to around a year without losing vitamins and minerals. Like nuts and seeds, cold temperatures can prolong the shelf life of legumes.
Don’t forget that canned or frozen legumes are also an option! For example, frozen edamame makes a quick snack, and a can of black beans can bulk up chili or burgers in a pinch.
2. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra-virgin olive oil, affectionately referred to as “EVOO” by many, is often considered the king of plant oils (and for good reason). The benefits from EVOO are evidence-based, meaning science supports consuming this healthy oil as part of a healthy diet each day.
Like other fats, EVOO has 9 calories per gram but is linked to improving human health and preventing common chronic diseases. Generally, consuming 1-2 tablespoons daily is recommended, although this depends on what other fat sources you consume throughout the day.
Other than health benefits, EVOO boasts a surprisingly neutral flavor. This means it pairs well with many cuisines and particularly pairs well with foods from the Mediterranean diet.
Since fats can go rancid, safe storage is key for keeping your oil nutrient-rich. After opening, EVOO generally lasts 3-5 months in the pantry or another dark location. It’s usually recommended to keep your oil between temperatures of 65°F and 75°F, which typically means storing them away from heat sources like the stove.
3. Whole Grain Basics
Nothing makes last-minute meals easier than whole grains. Like nuts and seeds, most grains stored in airtight containers can last 6-12 months in the pantry. Certain grains, like brown rice, can be stored in the freezer for up to a year.
Whole-wheat pasta is also a versatile ingredient to have on hand. Unless stored improperly, dried pasta can be kept for years. Quality begins to decline around 1 year after being opened, and unopened pasta maintains quality for about 2 years.
In any case, you’ll want to ensure your grains are stored in an airtight, dry container to prevent spoilage. Other popular options to consider stocking your pantry with include:
- Wheat berries
Corn is also considered a whole grain due to its kernel structure. Plain popcorn can be a healthy snack, and frozen or canned corn can be added to various meals within minutes.
4. Fruits or Vegetables
Due to their anti-inflammatory properties and antioxidants, fresh vegetables are praised as crucial to any healthy diet. What many people don’t know, however, is that frozen and canned varieties can be just as nutritious. Many canned or frozen kinds of produce are preserved at their nutritional peak, meaning they may maintain as many vitamins and minerals as fresh fruit or vegetables.
Canned fruits, especially acidic ones, can last around 12-18 months. Popular picks like tomato sauce and fruit cocktails are included in this category, but as mentioned above, it’s best to select canned foods with a limited amount of added sugars or salts. Less acidic canned foods, such as vegetables, may last up to 4 years.
Frozen fruits and vegetables are also very versatile. Unopened foods are thought to maintain nutrition for up to 12-18 months, and opened packages can be used repeatedly for up to 8 months if kept constantly frozen. Depending on what meals you frequently eat, frozen staples like stir-fry vegetable medleys, steamable pea and carrot mixes, or berry medleys for smoothies may make meals easier.
5. Full or Low-Fat Dairy
You’ll want to have full- or low-fat dairy fully stocked in your kitchen based on your weight goals. Dairy provides much-needed nutrients like protein and calcium. Full-fat dairy is appropriate for seniors gaining or maintaining weight, while low-fat may be more appropriate for populations looking to limit calories.
Canned evaporated milk can be a healthy choice. It’s often called unsweetened condensed milk and is a concentrated form of milk with much of the water removed. As the “unsweetened” implies, there’s no added sugar.
Due to its thick, creamy texture, unsweetened condensed milk is often added to casseroles and desserts. It’s generally available in a range of fat levels, from reduced fat to whole milk. Depending on the brand, you should be able to use canned evaporated milk for up to a year after the “best by” date, although it should be consumed for best quality around 3-6 months.
If you’re allergic or sensitive to dairy, alternatives like canned coconut milk are also popular picks. They act as a replacement for dairy in many recipes and can last unopened in the pantry for up to 5 years. They may also be available in cartons (like chicken broth), typically lasting up to 2 years when unopened.
What about dairy in the freezer? Milk can last months in the freezer, sealed in an airtight, freezer-safe container. However, remember that this method may change the texture of the milk after it thaws. Baking staples, like butter, can also be stored for around 4 months in the freezer.
Bottom Line On Pantry Staples for Seniors
Support a healthy diet by selecting the right pantry staples for you personally. Bulk-bought legumes and grains can save you money, and canned and frozen foods are also an option. In fact, these forms may allow you to always keep fruit, vegetables, and dairy on hand.
Klemm S. Food Storage Safety Tips for the Cupboard. Eatright.org. Published April 2020.
Klemm S. Freezing 101. Eatright.org. Published March 2020.
Palmer S. Healthful Fats: The Skinny on Unrefined Plant Oils. Todaysdietitian.com. Published June 2019.