How to Spring Clean Your Pantry for Success

by Elle Penner, MPH, RD
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How to Spring Clean Your Pantry for Success

Spring is the season of opening windows, airing out and organizing. Don’t let your pantry and cupboards miss out. Spring cleaning provides an opportunity to make your kitchen a place full of healthy choices. Use this dietician-approved list of things to toss (or donate to your local food bank) and non-perishables to keep on hand to set yourself for success, whether your goal is weight loss or just eating less junk.


Healthy or not, expired foods may not be safe to eat and certainly won’t taste their best. Instead of just tossing them into the trash, empty the food contents into a compost bucket or trash, and recycle the packaging.

If you come across an item that’s either getting close to or just recently passed its eat-by date, leave it out on the counter and plan a meal to use it ASAP.


Look at the list of ingredients. If you see a type of oil preceded by the words “partially hydrogenated,” you’ve got trans fat on your hands. (For example: “partially hydrogenated soybean oil.”) If a product has less than 0.5g per serving, it doesn’t need to be on the Nutrition Facts label, but that doesn’t mean the food doesn’t contain it.

Some common trans fat-filled foods include: microwave popcorn, shortening, cake mixes and frostings, pancake and waffle mixes, non-dairy creamers, packaged cookies, crackers, processed meat sticks, some canned chilis and packaged pudding.


Foods high in added sugar are notorious for adding inches to waistlines. Look at the ingredient list. If sugar is one of the first few ingredients, added sugar is a big component. Some of the usual culprits include breakfast cereal and pastries, packaged desserts, baking mixes, packaged pudding, granola bars, fruit snacks, canned fruit and even some dried fruits and packaged nuts.


Pretzels, potato chips, cheese doodles, rice cakes — these foods do very little to satiate hunger or nourish your body. I think we gravitate to them purely for their salt and crunch factors. If they’re not in the house, it’s a lot trickier to eat them mindlessly.


Traditional couscous, white rice and white pasta have been stripped of nutrition through processing and provide little more than refined carbohydrates. Donate these items to a local food pantry or, if you prefer to use them up, incorporate them into a meal with plenty of vegetables and legumes.


Much like decadent desserts, salty foods are OK once in awhile, but having a cabinet full of them is asking for trouble — especially if you have high blood pressure or have been told to cut back on sodium. Food manufacturers add salt because our tastebuds love the stuff, and it acts as a preservative. When it comes to foods like nuts, soups and sauces, opt for the low-sodium version — you can always add a little more if needed, which is still usually less than the amount found in the regular version.


Beans are incredibly versatile and give meals and snacks a boost of protein and fiber. With just a handful of additional ingredients, beans can be whipped into spreads or dips, like homemade hummus, a quick vegetarian chili, bean burger patties, soups and more.


As your stash of white, refined grains dwindles, replace it with more nutritious and fiber-rich whole grains. I always have a stash of whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, barley and whole-wheat couscous in my pantry. I also keep healthy breakfast grains, such as old-fashioned or steel-cut oats and wheat bran, on hand to sprinkle onto yogurt and fresh fruit.



Though typically a breakfast food, I will admit cereal for dinner isn’t the worst meal in the world. Fiber plays an important role in digestive health — it keeps things moving, helps with satiety and prevents big blood-sugar spikes after a meal.


I always have one 32-ounce container of each in my pantry, which comes in handy for making a quick soup or adding a little flavor to grains like quinoa and couscous. Grab the low-sodium kind, and be sure to store it in the refrigerator after opening.


Canned tuna and salmon are great sources of protein (and calcium in salmon’s case) and can quickly be turned into a number of nutritious meals for a busy weeknight dinner or a last-minute lunch. Sardines are also an excellent protein choice.


Walnuts, almonds, pecans — whatever type of nut you prefer —  are all good sources of healthy fats, protein and fiber. Vacuum-packed bags will maximize shelf life. When choosing nut or seed butters, keep in mind that the healthiest ones have the fewest ingredients — just nuts and maybe some salt. Because natural nut butters don’t contain shelf-stable trans fats or preservatives, check the label to see if they should be refrigerated after opening.



Great for enhancing flavor without adding sodium, herbs and spices have also been making headlines for their powerful antioxidant abilities. They don’t last forever, though, so buy only the ones you’ll use and buy them in small quantities. Rotate them out every 612 months.


Dark chocolate and dried fruit without added sugar are more nutritious than cookies and candy. A small handful of dried fruit or a square of chocolate can quickly take the edge off of that sweet tooth. Granola bars can make a great snack or a quick grab-and-go breakfast, just look at the ingredient labels and choose ones that provide the most fiber and least amount of sugar and other additives.


  • Okapi

    So you’re telling us to throw out the dried fruit because it’s too sugary, then telling us to buy dried fruit for a healthy snack? Which is it?

    • MyFitnessPal

      Hi there! Some dried fruits have added sugar, others don’t. It varies by brand and variety so I’d recommend checking the ingredient list and choosing the ones without. Hope that helps! -Elle

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    • sayruh906

      For example, Craisins have added sugar, but plain old raisins don’t. 🙂

    • ccranston

      🙂 she said “Dried fruit without added sugar.” Some prepackaged dried fruit contain a lot of added sugar to make them “taste better”. also the dried fruit bars are loaded with sugar. best to make your own dried fruit if you can – I shop at farmers markets towards the end of the day and lot of times I end up getting discounted prices. My kids LOVE dried apples and strawberries.

  • Adrian Milliner

    “lately herbs and spices have also been making headlines for their powerful antioxidant abilities” – er, which of of the many thousands of “herbs and spices?” nonsense generalisations like this don’t help your credibility.

    • ccranston

      Some of the ones I can think of off the top of my head are:
      anything in the Chile (capsicum) family – so paprika, chili flakes, chili powder, chipotle… are great; tumeric; fennel; cumin; cinnamon; garlic (fresh, or powdered, but not garlic salt); ginger … Actually, most of the spices that you will find in traditional asian and east indian-type cooking will have a lot of great health benefits – there are so many of them, that it is easy to customize to your palate.

    • Michele Garrison

      Oregano, basil and Italian herbs also kick butt! do some research on the herbs and spices you like – you really cannot go wrong with any, but some are more beneficial than others.

  • Judy Rockwell Norris

    Where do you shop to get the whole grains and what kind of Dark chocolate do you recommend? Thanks.

  • Betsy

    Any suggestion for cracker/chip/crunchy snack replacements?

    • Michele Garrison

      I love the Quaker rice cakes – the chocolate and Ranch are the favorites in my house, and the cheddar cheese ones are really good as well. They taste like they are MUCH higher in calories than they really are.

      • Erica

        Another article on the site says to limit rice cakes as they are just another refined carbohydrate. But if you must eat them spread them with a protein and some fruit

      • Hannah

        I also love the rice cakes by Quaker our favorite is the apple cinnamon, and we eat them as a side with green apples. Really tasty!

  • WBChunks

    I’m a sucker for a cheeky bowl of cereal late in the evening.

    What do you recommend that isn’t loaded with Sugar?


    • Marca

      Try to have a bowl of cereal with less than 10 gms of sugar, more than 5 gms of fiber and 5 gms of protein. If you stick to a normal serving size (1/2-3/4 cup) and use skim or unsweetened almond milk, you’ll have a great evening snack.

  • Doodle

    Always keep bulgur at hand, extremely filling grain!

  • Plvotaw

    Don’t toss, take everything to your local food pantry……… Feed the hungry!!!!!
    I just cleaned out my pantry also called my neighbors, and let them know I was going to the share and care food pantry and would pick up anything they had to share. Do a good thing.