21 Ingredients Every Busy Parent Needs on Hand for Quick, Healthy Meals

You’re spending plenty of time making sure baby is getting all the nutrition they need from breast milk or formula — but what about you?

man reaching for ingredients in fridge

As great as it might be to plan healthy dinners down to the last spinach salad and quinoa pilaf, when you have a new baby, sometimes meal planning for the adults in the house just isn’t feasible.

While you’re busy with diapers and feedings and trying to get something resembling sleep, being responsible for dinner can feel like an insurmountable obstacle.

Rather than mapping out detailed dinners, it may be wiser to take a more casual approach. (Let’s be honest, when you’re so tired you put the milk away in the pantry, complicated meal planning just isn’t in the cards.)

Simply stocking your pantry and fridge with a variety of healthy ingredients can supply you with the building blocks you need to pull together a home-cooked meal fast.

We’ve got you covered with 21 convenient go-to items, plus recipe ideas, storage tips, and large batch preparations to last throughout the week. Load up on the following staples to keep your kitchen healthy-meal-ready with a new baby on board.

1. Canned chickpeas

Why they’re a good choice: Chickpeas, also called garbanzo beans, aren’t just for making hummus. These high-fiber heroes are packed with protein and iron, making them a smart addition to dinner foods like soups, salads, and Mexican dishes.

Since canned chickpeas are already cooked, they don’t require much preparation. Plus, like other canned goods, these little legumes have a lengthy shelf life.

Weeknight recipe: Grape tomatoes, corn, cabbage, and avocado round out these super-speedy chickpea tacos.

Large-batch idea: Get prepped for weekday lunches by making a large batch of this smashed chickpea salad sandwich, perfect for healthy sandwiches and wraps.

2. Canned black beans

Why they’re a good choice: A single cup of cooked black beans contains 15 grams of fiber — a nutrient many Americans sorely lack — plus a healthy dose of protein, magnesium, folate, and manganese.

With a texture that holds up well to cooking (but can also go creamy when mashed) black beans are a versatile ingredient to have on hand. The canned variety can last in the pantry for months, if not years.

Weeknight recipe: Jump on the alternative burger bandwagon with these delicious (and surprisingly fast) black bean burgers.

Large-batch idea: Double up on a batch of smoky black bean and sweet potato soup and freeze half. You’ll thank yourself when you can pull it out on a chilly night to simply reheat and eat.

3. Boneless, skinless chicken breast

Why it’s a good choice: The workhorse of the weeknight dinner, boneless, skinless chicken breast, belongs in any new parent’s fridge.

It cooks quickly (4 to 5 minutes per side on the stovetop) and can slip comfortably into just about any dinner recipe. A single serving also packs 53 grams of protein — a bonus for breastfeeding moms who need more of this macronutrient.

Weeknight recipe: Chicken piccata may sound gourmet, but it only takes 30 minutes to pull together this healthy recipe with familiar ingredients like lemon juice, chicken broth, and onion.

Large-batch idea: Lighten your load by getting a big batch of pulled barbecue chicken in the slow cooker on a Monday before work. Eat it in sandwiches, on pizza, or in a salad as the week goes by.

4. Precooked chicken strips

Why they’re a good choice: Does it get any easier than precooked chicken? This easy meat makes for ultimate convenience when you’re short on time.

For the healthiest choice, just be sure to purchase strips without added breading or flavorings, and watch out for sodium content, as preservatives can increase salt.

Weeknight recipe: With just 4 ingredients, this chicken pasta casserole whips up in a flash.

Large-batch idea: Make Mexican twice in one week by doubling up on the filling in these chicken enchilada stuffed peppers. Use the recipe as written for peppers, then roll the rest in tortillas and bake as traditional enchiladas.

5. Eggs

Why they’re a good choice: There’s a reason scrambled eggs are among the first foods most of us learn to make. This humble kitchen staple takes no time to cook and works well at breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Plus, eggs contain B vitamins, vitamin D, and a pop of protein in a low-calorie package.

Anytime recipe: There’s no precooking required in this easy spinach quiche — just whisk together a short list of ingredients, pour into a pie shell, and place in the oven. While this tasty creation bakes, you can tend to baby or get some much needed rest.

Large-batch idea: Meal prep isn’t just for dinner! For a healthy grab-and-go breakfast, bake a couple dozen muffin tin frittatas, then freeze extras. Load them with veggies for an extra burst of nutrition early in the day.

6. Frozen fish

Why it’s a good choice: You’ve probably heard that it’s a good idea to add more fish to your diet — and it’s true! Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish have been linked to better brain and heart health, and many varieties contain important micronutrients like iodine, potassium, and selenium.

With all these benefits, it’s especially nice that fish isn’t difficult to prepare. At high temperatures, many fish can go from freezer to table in under 20 minutes. (Baked fish recipes often don’t even require thawing.)

One consideration: Pregnant and breastfeeding women should look for fish that’s low in mercury, like salmon, tilapia, or trout.

Weeknight recipe: This Parmesan tilapia calls itself “fish for people who don’t like fish.”

Large-batch idea: Grill up two batches of this tilapia with paprika — one for an easy dinner with a couple of sides, another to save and use in tacos with fixings like salsa, avocado, and sour cream.

7. Canned tuna or crab

Why it’s a good choice: Precooked canned seafood boasts a comparable nutrient profile to their fresh counterparts. Crack open a can after a long day and whip up a tuna pasta, tuna burger, or crab cake dinner, stat.

Weeknight recipe: Accompanied by a side dish or two, tomato tuna melts are a low-calorie, low-carb dinner on the fly.

Large-batch idea: Leftover crab cakes from a weeknight meal make a tasty next-day sandwich when served on crusty bread and topped with lettuce and tomato.

8. Couscous

Why it’s a good choice: When you’re a new parent, speed is king at dinnertime.

Thankfully, couscous takes just 3 to 5 minutes to cook in either the microwave or on the stovetop. It also offers 6 grams of plant-based protein per cup and is rich in the antioxidant selenium.

Weeknight recipe: Side dish in 10 minutes? Yes, please! Couscous with sun-dried tomato and feta is a quick-and-easy Mediterranean delight.

Large-batch idea: When making couscous as a side to go with chicken or fish, make more than you need. Then toss the extra with chopped veggies and an olive oil vinaigrette for a lunchtime grain salad.

9. Quinoa

Why it’s a good choice: Quinoa has earned its reputation as a health food. It supplies high amounts of fiber, protein, and B vitamins, plus plenty of iron — a nutrient postpartum moms may be deficient in.

These benefits make its slightly longer cooking time of 15 to 20 minutes worthwhile.

Weeknight recipe: While you may be used to cooking quinoa on the stovetop, it also does well in a slow cooker. Prep this slow cooker turkey quinoa chili in the morning (or in the evening while baby sleeps), then set and forget until dinnertime.

Large-batch idea: Quinoa fried rice is a healthy, delicious way to reuse leftover cooked quinoa from a large batch made earlier in the week.

10. Whole wheat pasta

Why it’s a good choice: Ah, pasta, the answer to many a last-minute “What’s for dinner?” query.

Quick cooking and loaded with fiber and B vitamins, whole wheat pasta is a no brainer for your post-baby pantry.

Weeknight recipe: One-dish meals are a new parent’s friend. Try this one pan pasta with linguine, spinach, tomatoes, basil, and Parmesan.

Large-batch idea: When making spaghetti with marinara, double up and refrigerate half (drizzled with olive oil to prevent clumping). You’ll be all ready to make Thai peanut chicken pasta another day.

11. Whole wheat tortillas

Why they’re a good choice: Sometimes you just need a switch from the usual sandwich bread. Tortillas jazz up lunch in the form of meat, veggie, or salad wraps. At dinner, they bring the fiesta as the base for enchiladas and burritos.

Be sure to choose whole wheat tortillas, as whole grains provide more fiber and other nutrients than white or refined grains.

Weeknight recipe: There’s no reason a hearty wrap can’t serve as dinner. Try this quick Greek salad wrap when you’re running on fumes.

Large-batch idea: Make a few extra southwest veggie quesadillas for dinner and you’ll have a healthy lunch to pack for work the next day.

12. Canned tomatoes

Why they’re a good choice: Tomatoes are loaded with vitamin C, potassium, and lycopene, an antioxidant associated with reduced risk of cancer and heart disease. Plus, they’re a favorite with kids and adults alike in pizzas, pastas, and meat dishes.

When you can’t get them garden fresh, canned tomatoes lend their flavor and nutrients to many easy weeknight dinners.

Weeknight recipe: Beans, veggies, cheese, and toasted baguette make this stewed vegetable gratin a hearty vegetarian meal.

13. Frozen vegetables

Why they’re a good choice: Most frozen vegetables are harvested at the peak of freshness, so they often contain more nutrients than fresh veggies purchased out of season.

When dinnertime gets hectic, it’s nice to know you can pull peas, carrots, spinach, or corn out of the freezer and toss them in a casserole, pasta, or soup.

Weeknight recipe: This simple chicken stir-fry relies on a mix of frozen vegetables to add flavor and nutrients.

14. Apples

Why they’re a good choice: As fruits go, this lunchbox classic is one of the longest lasting.

Stored in the refrigerator, apples can last up to 2 months. So stock up on Galas, Fujis, or Granny Smiths for chopping up in wraps or stewing with meats.

Weeknight recipe: Let the slow cooker do the work in this sweet and savory Crock-Pot chicken and apples.

15. Dried fruits

Why they’re a good choice: While dried fruits may not have the hydrating power of their fresh counterparts, they actually have higher nutrient content, ounce for ounce.

Choose dried cherries, cranberries, figs, and apricots to increase flavor and fiber in salads, grain bowls, or baked goods.

Weeknight recipe: 5-minute arugula fig salad is not only mouth watering with toasted almonds, peppery arugula, and sweet dried figs — it’s also super healthy and fast.

16. Greek yogurt

Why it’s a good choice: With its thick texture and high protein content, Greek yogurt is great to have on hand for use in baked goods, or as a lighter substitute for sour cream in sauces or toppings.

Weeknight recipe: Greek yogurt takes the place of heavy whipping cream in this lightened-up Greek yogurt Alfredo sauce.

Large-batch idea: A larger batch of Greek yogurt biscuits can do double duty as a side dish for multiple meals. Freeze any biscuits you won’t use in the first day or two after baking.

17. Feta cheese

Why it’s a good choice: Feta is one of the lowest calorie cheeses, and since it doesn’t have to be melted to work seamlessly in many recipes, it’s a convenient choice for quick meals.

Weeknight recipe: 15 minutes is all it takes to get this Mediterranean salad on the table.

18. Olive oil

Why it’s a good choice: How many recipes start out with, “In a large skillet, heat olive oil…?” A lot!

Not only is olive oil the flavor foundation of many go-to weeknight meals, it also boasts benefits for heart health.

Storage tip: Don’t keep olive oil next to your stovetop. Instead, store in a cool, dark place, as light and heat make it spoil faster.

19. Balsamic vinegar

Why it’s a good choice: Balsamic vinegar brings its tangy taste to endless variations of salad dressings and marinades. It may also offer health benefits like lowering cholesterol and supporting weight loss.

Out of soy sauce? Use balsamic vinegar as a substitute in a pinch.

Storage tip: Like olive oil, balsamic vinegar does best away from light and heat. Store in the pantry to keep it fresh longer.

20. Herbs and spices

Why they’re a good choice: For a quick pop of flavor, you can’t go wrong with dried herbs and spices. These inexpensive ingredients enhance taste without adding fat or calories.

Storage tip: Go through your spice rack at least once a year to check expiration dates. While herbs and spices do last for ages, you may find something that needs to get tossed.

21. Broth and stock

Why they’re a good choice: Beyond the usual soups, meat and vegetable broths or stocks are a helpful starter for sauces and casseroles. Choose a low-sodium variety, as broth tends to run high in this micronutrient.

Storage tip: After you’ve opened a container of broth or stock, store it in the refrigerator for 5 days to a week, or freeze for 6 months.

Research shows that cooking at home is associated with consuming a healthier diet overall — a major plus for the sometimes-stressful transition to parenthood.

Start with these basic ingredients and you’ll have a wealth of go-to items for healthy meals, even on the most time crunched days with baby.


Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a nutritionist, freelance health writer, and food blogger. She lives with her husband and three children in Mesa, Arizona. Find her sharing down-to-earth health and nutrition info and (mostly) healthy recipes at A Love Letter to Food.

Next Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent News