In an ideal world, we would all have the time to plan, shop, and prep our meals and snacks for the week. The reality is, most of us runners are short on time due to training, work, and family commitments; nutrition often becomes an afterthought. Enter pantry staples: Stocking up on the right time-savers can help you reach your fueling and performance goals. Quick, go-to options can help build a meal or save time in the kitchen, all while helping you nourish your body.
When thinking about the healthy pantry staples to buy, try breaking down your pantry into what your body needs as a runner. The three macronutrients—carbohydrates, proteins, and fats—should form your foundation, and adding some color with fruits and vegetables can increase your overall micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) consumption.
Healthy Pantry Staples: Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates most efficient fuel for our bodies when we run, and they play a key role in energy production, hormonal balance, injury prevention, sleep, and recovery. When considering carbohydrate staples for the pantry, having a mix of simple vs. complex carbohydrates can ensure you have variety to meet your needs. Simple carbohydrates are broken down quickly in the body and can be a good way to fuel up before or after a run, while complex carbohydrates break down more slowly in the body, keeping your blood sugar more balanced. Neither are “bad” for you; our bodies use both for energy.
Staple Carbs to Keep On Hand
- Dry Oats: Whether used as a pre-run snack of oatmeal (quick-cook only due to lower fiber content; high fiber before a run can send you running for the nearest bathroom), an addition to smoothies, or to make your own granola, oats are a versatile pantry item that can help you reach your carb needs.
- Granola: Some granolas can really pack a punch if they contain nuts, seeds, and dried fruit. This can be helpful for runners that need an easy way to get in more overall nutrition to support their training. Look for a granola without too many added sugars (10 grams or less). Bonus points if it also has protein and fat. Purely Elizabeth and Kind Healthy Grains Granola are convenient options found in most grocery stores.
- Dried Fruit: A convenient, portable carb option that can be a great addition to oatmeals, trail mixes, or just by itself. Be cautious of sulfur dioxide that is used as a preservative—it may cause dizziness and headaches in those that are sensitive.
- Pre-Cooked Grains: If you’ve tried to cook that perfect batch of rice or grain before, you know it can be tricky and time consuming to get it just right. This is where keeping frozen or shelf-stable pre-cooked grains can come in handy. Pop in the microwave to have your carbs ready to add to any meal in moments. Brands like Seeds of Change or Tasty Bite offer a variety of options to choose from, but if you are watching added sodium, be sure to check the nutrition facts.
- Frozen Waffles: A convenient pre-run option, frozen waffles pack a carb punch. Look for whole-grain options like those offered by the Nature’s Path brand and bonus points for Kodiak Cakes, which contain carbs and can help keep blood sugar more balanced.
- Frozen Fruits and Vegetables: Fruits and veg add a negligible amount of carbs, but are important to get the added antioxidant, vitamin, mineral, and fiber benefits that they provide. Try to choose a wide variety of colors to help increase the diversity of micronutrient intake and ensure that you are covering all of your bases to keep you healthy and running strong. Keep in mind that frozen fruits and vegetables are frozen at peak ripeness!
Healthy Pantry Staples: Proteins
Used for the building blocks of the body, protein is broken down into amino acids and used as a support system for neurotransmitters, immune cells, and rebuilding muscles that are damaged during physical activity. Differences in the protein content of the food typically stem from whether it is a plant or animal based source of protein. Most often, animal based sources of protein contain more protein in a smaller volume of food. Protein needs for endurance runners are higher than the general population, so ensuring you are getting enough is key to recovery and injury prevention.
- Shelf-Stable Tofu: A plant based protein option that can be used in smoothies, stir-fries, scrambles and wraps, tofu can be tossed in just about anything to increase the protein content. Make sure you keep a variety of textures in your pantry–silken to firm–to increase the versatility.
- Shelf-Stable Nut Milk: Most commonly used as a base to a smoothie, nut milks can allow for you to easily get in nutrition post run. Choosing a nut milk that has protein in it (most contain a large percentage of water) is key. Ripple pea milk fits the bill nicely and comes in a shelf-stable version.
- Canned Beans: Great as an add-in to a meal or for the base of a bean salad, canned beans get in extra carbs and protein. When choosing your beans, look for BPA-free cans to avoid possible health risks like increased blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
- Canned Tuna/Salmon or Tuna Packets: A quick snack or addition to any meal, salmon and tuna provide you with the protein you need and bonus omega-3 fatty acids for inflammation-balancing properties. For environmentally friendly options, look for wild-caught, sustainable companies, like Wild Planet.
- Chickpea Pasta: With both carbs and protein, chickpea pasta like Banza can be a good base for meals or side dishes. Just watch the fiber content before a big run or you might have to make some bathroom stops along the way.
- Protein Powder: While a food-first approach is always preferred, having a protein powder available to mix up a quick shake, increase the nutrition in your overnight oats, or even add a boost to your soup can be helpful. Gnarly Nutrition or Garden of Life Sport are both Certified for Sport tested, which can ensure a purer end product free from heavy metals.
Healthy Pantry Staples: Fats
Not only do they make food taste better, fats are essential for proper hormone function and fat-soluble vitamin (vitamins K, A, D, and E) absorption. As a macronutrient, they contain twice the energy (calories) as protein and carbohydrates in a smaller volume of food, making them a convenient choice for meeting the higher energy demands of a runner. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids can be good choices to stock the pantry with due to their anti-inflammation properties.
- Olive or Avocado Oil: Used as a dressing, sauce, or cooking base, oils like olive and avocado anti-inflammatory mono- and poly-unsaturated fatty acids in them. Great choices include Chosen Foods or Primal Kitchen for avocado oil and California Olive Ranch for olive oil.
- Nut/Seed Butter: A perfect addition to a meal or snack, nut and seed butters pack a big nutrition punch with their fat and protein combo. Look out for added sugars and preservatives. Try Big Spoon for some fun flavors or 88 Acres for some tasty, allergen-friendly seed butter options.
- Jarred Pesto: Having a good pesto on hand can not only provide inflammation balancing fats, but pack a lot of flavor into a meal. For a traditional take, choose Kitchen & Love Organics; for something more alternative, try Freak Flag’s Kale or Tomato Pesto.
RELATED: The Trail Runner’s Pantry
Meal Ideas with Go-To Pantry Items
Keeping your pantry stocked with all of the macronutrients can help when trying to throw together quick meals and snacks. The main principle to keep in mind is to choose an item from each category, which will result in a meal that is delivering the energy, vitamins, and minerals to help keep you going strong.
- Smoothie with frozen fruit, frozen spinach, protein powder, oats, nut butter, and nut milk
- Kodiak Cakes with peanut butter and frozen berries (if you have syrup, drizzle a bit on for extra carbs)
- Tofu bowl with pre-cooked grains, sautéed frozen veggies, and pesto
- Three-bean chili with sourdough bread
- Chickpea pasta with tomato sauce, sautéed veggies, and cannellini beans
- Tofu stir-fry made with frozen veggies and pre-cooked rice