10 Grocery Staples to Improve Your Cooking

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Processed foods get such a bad wrap. But is processed, convenience food always bad? I don’t think so. There are many healthy processed foods that can deliver a huge leg up in the kitchen, and deserve a spot on any healthy grocery list! This article dives into my top 10 favourite convenient grocery staples and and how I use them.

butter lettuce in a large bowl of water.
Technically, even washing lettuce is processing it!

Fresh food vs processed food

Fresh food is lovely and delicious. BUT, unless you live in a mythical wonderland, you cannot possibly traipse around your backyard and pick out all the ingredients for a meal at any time of the year—fresh off the vine or tree. And let’s face it—having tomatoes, avocados and cucumber flown all over the world in February is not exactly fresh, nowhere near as delicious as something from your garden, and certainly not environmentally friendly.

Food preservation helped humans survive the ice ages. It makes grains like rice, wheat, and corn stable and edible for months and even years after harvest, and allows us to store fruits and vegetables easily, especially in modern homes.

And while we’re on the subject… you know that thing that happens to food when you chop it, cook it, ferment it, or blend it up into a smoothie? That’s called processing! And it’s ok!

Grocery staples list

1. Dried and canned beans

Beans are one of the best convenience foods and a must-have grocery staple.  Dried beans are the most inexpensive, and if you have a pot (regular, crock or instant), you can absolutely cook your own. But really, canned beans of all sorts (garbanzo beans, kidney beans, pinto beans etc.) are some of the best processed foods in the grocery store. Use them rinsed or not, in casseroles, beans salads, stews and dips. For the easiest 10-minute dinner using canned beans, check out the video below. It’s a weeknight lifesaver.

You can also use the bean liquid (aquafaba) in your chili, or use it to make egg free meringue or homemade vegan mayo. (Really, you have to do it at least once to see how cool it is!) And if you cook your own beans, go ahead and toss them in the freezer to re-preserve them for months.

2. Canned tomatoes

I still think about the hot, sweaty summer hours I spent blanching, peeling and canning tomatoes with my mom.  There was nothing like canning fresh tomatoes to bring sunshine to the depth of winter. I’m not much of a canner these days, but if I ever decide to do any canning again, I’ll be canning tomatoes. (Even though I’m sure they won’t be as good as they were back then.)

Canned whole tomatoes, diced tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato sauce. The grocery store shelves are loaded with them because they are, like beans, something that can be made really well in industrial quantities. The quality of canned tomatoes is excellent and the time and energy saving (see sweaty comment above…) compared to fresh tomatoes, is massive. Plus, you can use canned tomatoes to make a variety of easy tomato soups, which are always a hit for the whole family. Try this Spiced Tomato Coconut Soup or quick Tomato Tortilla Soup.

Tomato sauce with tuna and red onion

3. Canned fish

Salmon, tuna, sardines, all of these are great sources of protein and flavour and are not available fresh to most people most of the year. Canned fish offers a quick way to add some satisfying protein and fat to a salad, pasta, or sandwich. It can be used in so many ways! Here are a few canned fish recipes to get you started:

A love letter to canned fish

4. Dried herbs and spices

Sure you can keep a few fresh herbs growing on the windowsill, but spices like cinnamon, paprika or cardamom, can only be found dried (at least where I live).

And while I love fresh herbs, keeping a bunch of parsley in water on my countertop is the best I can manage these days. I also always have a big jar of dried parsley on hand in the cupboard. Pro tip: certain herbs, like oregano, dill, and rosemary are great when dried. But herbs like chives and cilantro are much better fresh.

For an easy tip on keeping fresh herbs fresh in your fridge, jump to 11:35 in the video below!

5. Frozen vegetables

I will always be grateful to Nigella Lawson for bringing back frozen peas. They are the next best thing to fresh peas (in some cases they’re even better), and even veggie-hesitant kids will eat them by the bucketful if you let them. Frozen corn, spinach and edamame are also awesome grocery staples.

The beauty of frozen vegetables is that they are often frozen much “fresher” than the stuff you buy in the produce aisle. That’s because they’re harvested and frozen within a very short time frame, rather than spending a week being transported all over the world before they land on your grocery shelves.

One of my favourite ways to use frozen peas and corn is to make them into corn or pea fritters. These have been such a hit with everyone I’ve made them for, and kids love them too!

6. Frozen fruit

Berries! I mean, really. Compare a local, fresh-frozen raspberry to a “fresh” raspberry flown in from across the world in the middle of winter. There is no comparison. Frozen fruit is such a good investment. You can throw them into your smoothies, whip up a quick fruit crumble, or fold them into some homemade yogurt with a sprinkle of granola for an easy breakfast.

And if you are in a position to harvest fresh local berries while they’re in season, check out the video below for some tips for freezing them properly so you can reap the rewards of your freezer all winter long!

Serving up some hot tips on freezing food.

7. Canned fruit and veggies

Okay so I’m a baby-boomer. We grew up with a lot of canned food and sure, some of it was gross, but quite a few of those foods stood the test of time.

Canned pumpkin is one of my favourites and I have some in my cupboard right now. It is awesome for pumpkin muffins, oatmeal, pancakes, and of course—pumpkin pie.

Canned corn is delicious too (so sweet!) and another one of those kid-friendly veggies. Apple sauce is another brilliant ingredient and works really well right out of the can. Just be sure to check the nutritional information to make sure your applesauce has no added sugar.

A chickpea and tomato stew simmering in a saucepan.
Chickpeas, tomatoes, and frozen peas, coming together for a super quick dinner

8. Bottled citrus juice

A little lemon juice adds brightness and zing to so many recipes. Whether you prefer the squeezy plastic version or the organic, non-preservative one, it is fantastic to have on hand. Fresh lemons are great, of course, but we’re talking about convenience food here!

9. Pickles, olives, and condiments

Pickling and fermenting are some of the oldest preservation methods in the world. Pickled and fermented foods are salty, and briny, and they really add a punch to your food. Add capers or olives to a slow braise to wake things up—like in these braised chicken thighs, or throw some homemade chutney into your next grilled cheese sandwich. Game changer! And if you’ve never made quick pickles, they’re a great way to clean out your fridge and extend the life of pretty much any vegetable.

The gooiest grilled cheese and chutney sandwich

10. Cheese, wine, coffee, chocolate, nuts, olive oil, seeds, dried fruit, dried pasta…

The list goes on. While I can’t imagine a life without fresh food, I acknowledge that preserved foods have been a key part of our diet for millennia. They are grocery staples for a reason, and I think they deserve some respect!

How to make dinner using only grocery staples!

When we are in a time crunch and there is “nothing” in the fridge, I simply throw a few of these grocery staples in a pan and we have a great dinner in minutes. The ingredient lists are almost completely preserved food, with no added sugar or salt, and they all make for wonderful eating.  These are great little guidelines that you can use to improv and improve on!

For each of these ideas, If you have time, dice and sauté some red onions, celery and garlic. If not, add dried onion powder, garlic powder, celery salt. Other leftover veggies or meat can be tossed in. We really enjoy these over a bowl of steamed broccoli or green beans, usually topped with cheese.

1. Quick Middle Eastern Chickpea Stew

Add a can of diced tomatoes, a can of chickpeas, and a handful of sliced dried apricots and/or raisins to a sauté pan. Add cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, mace, thyme or zataar to taste. Cook for 5 minutes and serve over brown rice or pasta, or enjoy alone topped with toasted sesame, sunflower seeds or crushed cashews.

2. Tex Mex “Quick Chili”

Add a can of diced tomatoes, a can of kidney beans, and a can of corn (or frozen corn) to a pot.  Throw in some chili powder, a squeeze of ketchup and any spicy stuff your family likes. Serve over rice or pasta or sloppy joe style on buns or even tortillas if you have them.  Add cheese, sour cream, avocado, etc.

3. ‘Express’ Italian Saucy Beans

Throw a can of diced tomatoes, a can of white beans, and some frozen spinach and/or peas into a sauté pan. Add garlic, basil, parsley, oregano, capers, olives etc and use as a pasta sauce or serve over rice or with garlic bread.

Hot Tip – Did you know you can toast seeds in a small bowl in the microwave?  Put them in for 30 seconds or so, whisk, and repeat until you get the level of toastiness you prefer. Careful – the bowl gets super hot!

Got your own great recipe for using grocery staples or preserved foods? We’d love to hear about them! Leave your best tips in the comments. Happy dinner making!

About the author

Hi! I’m Paula’s mom, Glenda. Don’t you love it when she rants about food in her YouTube videos? It may come as no surprise that I have a few food rants in my back pocket as well. This was one of them, all about convenience foods. I hope you found it useful!

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