THE BLOG
10/23/2014 08:31 am ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

5 Essentials You Need in Your Pantry

Could your pantry be the key to improving your diet and helping you peel off pounds? Yes, according to researchers from Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab. That's because kitchens ready for cooking mean you'll prepare more of your food at home. And compared to take out or restaurant fare, home-cooked meals usually have fewer calories, less saturated fat and added sugars, and more fruits and veggies. One study even showed that families had more than double the risk of being overweight or obese if they reported eating at least one dinner away from home each week.

Here are five pantry essentials that I always have on hand to whip up healthy meals at a moment's notice:

Whole Grains (brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, oats, quinoa, barley, bulgur)
Whole grains can help you make healthy meals in minutes. Quinoa with chickpeas, roasted red peppers and a dressing is one of my favorites. Diets rich in whole grains may reduce the risk of heart disease, certain cancers and help you maintain a healthy weight. Make sure you have plenty of them in your kitchen cupboard when time is tight and you want to eat right.

Healthy Oils
For baking, salad dressings, and sautéing I use canola oil or extra virgin olive oil, which have more healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats than other fats like butter. Canola oil is light, clear and has a mild flavor that doesn't interfere with the taste of baked goods. When I'm looking for more flavor for salad dressings or sautéing, extra virgin olive oil is my favorite. For Asian dishes, I love sesame oil, which is also lower in saturated fats and adds a rich flavor.

Canned Foods
I always keep my pantry stocked with canned veggies, legumes, tuna, tomatoes and other staples because canned goods help me save prep time and ensure that I'm getting healthy, homemade meals on the table more often. What's more, canned foods are picked and packed at the peak of ripeness, so they have as much -- or sometimes even more -- nutrients than fresh.

Dried Herbs and Spices
One of the easiest ways to add flavor -- without any added sugars, calories or fat -- is with dried herbs and spices. Ounce per ounce, dried herbs and spices pack in more antioxidants than most other foods. A study of more than 3,000 common foods found that dried herbs like cloves, allspice, oregano, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, basil, sage and rosemary were some of the most concentrated antioxidant powerhouses among all foods. Be sure to look at the expiration date on your spices to ensure that they still potent.

Broths and Condiments
Chicken stock or broth is a must have for making delicious soups on a moment's notice. Look for low-sodium versions to keep sodium in check. Condiments like vinegar (balsamic, cider, and white), soy sauce (again, go with a low-sodium version), mustard (Dijon, yellow, spicy brown and honey), cocktail and hot sauce will help you add flavor while minimizing calories.