Six nutritious pantry staples to utilise as you hunker down

Karen Martini puts a new spin on pea and ham soup with lentils and a poached egg.
Karen Martini puts a new spin on pea and ham soup with lentils and a poached egg. Photo: Bonnie Savage

With many of us spending a lot more time indoors than we are used to, it also means we are doing a whole lot more cooking. And while this is nothing but a good thing, it can be easy to resort to simple pasta, rice and noodle recipes that lack the positive nutritional properties compared to a number of other pantry staples that can offer a lot more goodness. So if more time in the kitchen is your foreseeable future, here are some easy ways to maximise the ingredients you already have in the pantry, which will simultaneously maximise your nutrition.


Whether it's a can of red kidney beans or a packet of lentils, chances are you have a packet of some sort of lentil or bean in your cupboard. The best thing about legumes is that they are nutritional superfoods, packed full of protein and fibre and have a wide range of potential uses. A couple of the most popular options are as a meat alternative in Mexican dishes or for bulking up soups, but other options include as burgers when mashed and teamed with eggs and breadcrumbs; chickpeas mashed onto crackers for a filling snack; or a spicy dhal or other curry.

Polenta lends a nice hue and flavour to this retro chicken pie.

Dan Lepard uses a can of corn kernels in this rustic chicken pie. Photo: William Meppem

Canned vegetables

While canned varieties of vegies do tend to contain added salts and sometimes sugars, it is possible to find varieties with no extra sugars and minimal salts. When it can be tough or simply stressful to find fresh produce, canned vegetables can be used in a huge number of dishes – think corn and peas to bulk up spaghetti sauces and pies; tomatoes as a base to soups, Mexican and Italian dishes; and nutrient-rich canned beetroot adds flavour to salads, souprelishes and sauces.

A can with delicious tomatosoup can of tomato soup for Susie Burrell story March 2020

Look for low-sodium canned tomato soup for a lunch packed with vitamins.  Photo: iStock


For anyone who grew up in the '70s and '80s, you will already be familiar with tomato soup as a weekly staple dinner or lunch, generally consumed with stacks of white toast smothered in butter. Now, indeed, there are much healthier options than canned soup, which can be high in added salts, but there are also a lot worse. So if you do have a can or two of soup lying around, now is the perfect time to get them out. Think tomato teamed with milk for a creamy light lunch or dinner. Pea and ham when you need something more substantial, or you can even use creamed soups as a flavour base for pies and casseroles.

Penne with preserved chilli tuna.

Neil Perry's easy penne with chilli and tuna. Photo: William Meppem

Canned fish

Now we are not only talking about canned tuna here, but also salmon, sardines, oysters. Any tinned fish is a nutrient-rich, relatively cheap protein-based option to add to salads, toast and crackers. While canned tuna has flown off the shelves, keep in mind that tuna has nowhere near the amount of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats that the less-popular cans of salmon or sardines do. Flake the sardines through spaghetti or put them on toast; add the salmon to fish rissoles, in a quiche or pie. And don't forget about canned mussels and oysters – these are packed full of iron and zinc, much more cost effective than fresh seafood and still available on supermarket shelves (for now). Snack on them on top of wholegrain crackers or warm slightly to put in salads or pasta dishes. 

Cooking meal in a pot. Bottle of Extra virgin oil pouring in to pot for cooking meal. Healthy food concept. Olive oil image for Susie Burrell article : ISTOCK

Extra virgin olive oil is a nutrient-rich cooking oil. Photo: iStock

Extra virgin olive oil

Not only does fresh Australian extra virgin olive oil improve the flavour of all our basic dishes (salads, baked vegies, roasted meats), but the rich antioxidant content in extra virgin olive oil also acts as a natural immunity booster. Contrary to popular opinion, Australian extra virgin olive oil is exceptionally high quality which means it can be used without concern in cooking. Toss it through pastas. Drizzle over salads. Add it to your baking. It's also the easiest way to get your daily two to three serves of good fats to keep your immune and cardiovascular systems in tip-top health.

Alison Roman's Turmeric-rubbed chicken with spicy fried shallots.
Photograph by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions) 

Alison Roman's baked chicken recipe makes use of anti-inflammatory turmeric.  Photo: William Meppem

Dried herbs and spices

If there is one basic ingredient that can be utilised a whole lot more for potential health benefits, it would have to be our herbs and spices, of which most of us have bucket loads in the cupboard that often get forgotten about. Think chilli and cumin for a flavour and antioxidant hit, garlic and ginger to help fend off the bugs, and turmeric and black pepper for their anti-inflammatory properties. And the good news is that there are few dishes that do not benefit when some extra herbs and spices are added – cumin is a must for Indian curries and Mexican cook ups; pepper and chilli add flavour to meats and eggs; and turmeric can be added to smoothies, vegie dishes and stir-fries for a flavour boost. You can also use them in soups, stocks, stews, stir-fries, curries and bakes