These Are mbg's Food Director's 5 Must-Have Pantry Staples For Easy Weeknight Meals

Photo: Nadine Greeff

As the food director of mbg and a healthy cookbook author, I’ve devoted my life to food, so people assume that I can be found in the kitchen most nights whipping up a five-course meal. I’ve had friends apologize when they serve me store-bought hummus or sheepishly present a simple pasta dish at dinner parties, and to them I always say: If only you saw how I actually eat. 

Like most working professionals, I’m tired when I get home from a long day.  I want food on the table (and by table, I often mean coffee table, with the new season of The Good Place queued up) five minutes ago.  However—however—because of my day job and deep love of all things gastronomy, I want that food to taste damn good, too. Over the years, I’ve developed a few simple hacks to getting a nourishing, delicious meal on the table fast—and many of them center around consistently keeping a few pantry staples on hand.
Here are the five must-have pantry items I swear by, and how to use them in a pinch:

Eden Organic Garbanzo Beans

Photo: Eden Organic + mbg Creative

Garbanzo beans (or chickpeas, as they're more commonly known) are one of my most beloved foods. They're packed with protein (with a whopping 14 grams a cup) and are crazy versatile. I'll stir-fry them up with some greens and tamari or pop them into a curry base for quick vegetarian Indian fare. Tossed in a food processor with garlic, tahini, and olive oil, they quickly become hummus, which, combined with some fresh raw vegetables, is a perfect light, snacky dinner. I love the Eden Organic Garbanzo Beans because the cans are BPA-free, and the legumes themselves are pressure-cooked, which significantly lowers their lectin content and makes them much easier to digest. Garbanzo Beans, Eden Organic ($2.15)

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Simply Organic Garlic & Onion Powders

Photo: mbg Creative + Simply Organic

OK, OK, I know that even the concept of using garlic and onion powder instead of fresh garlic and onions would make many food professionals cringe, but hear me out. Yes, chopping an onion and mincing some garlic doesn't take that long—but on a super-tired evening, those five minutes (and more importantly, the dirty cutting board and knife after) can be enough to convince me to hit up Seamless. I also think that the concentrated, umami-rich flavor of garlic and onion powder, while nothing like their fresh counterparts, is gastronomically interesting. My favorite way to use them is heating a high-heat oil in a large skillet, then tossing in a bunch of roughly torn, sturdy greens (think kale, chard, or collards) and a generous amount of fine-grain sea salt. I let the greens cook over medium-high until they're wilted and a bit crispy-brown on the outside, then toss in a lot of garlic and onion powder and cook for a few minutes more (they burn fairly readily at high temps, so keep their cook time fairly short). Alone, it's the best side dish you've ever had, and with some chickpeas or pastured rotisserie chicken tossed in, it's a 10-minute meal. Garlic & Onion Powders, Simply Organic ($7.99 each)

Chosen Foods Avocado Oil

Photo: Chosen Foods + mbg Creative

While I'll also reach for grass-fed ghee or virgin coconut oil when I cook, avocado oil has quickly become my No. 1 staple. It has a smoke point of 520 degrees Fahrenheit, ensuring it won't oxidize and add toxins to my food when I'm cooking at the high temps I use to get a flavorful dinner on the table fast. It has a refreshingly low price point (I buy mine at Trader Joe's for under $7) and is packed with the same healthy fats that have made avocados a health-world staple. But, truly, it's become my go-to because, unlike its saturated-fat-rich counterparts, it's blissfully liquid at room temperature, meaning I can drizzle it on roasted vegetables, turn it into a salad dressing, or easily measure it into teaspoons and tablespoons. It also has the most neutral flavor of any of the oils, perfect for any type of cuisine you feel like cooking up. Avocado Oil, Chosen Foods ($9.97)

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Pacific Foods Organic Vegetable Broth

Photo: Pacific Organic + mbg Creative

Vegetable broth is the secret to turning any vegetable—fresh or frozen—into an insanely delicious soup in less than five minutes, and Pacific Organic makes a great one with no artificial colors or flavors. Just chop up an onion and saute it on medium high in a tall-edged pan or wide pot with your vegetable of choice, whether it's frozen broccoli or zucchini from the farmers market. When the vegetables get brown on the outside, cover them with vegetable stock and simmer until fork tender, then whiz it all up in the blender with salt and pepper to taste. Bonus points if you blend in some fresh herbs (thyme and basil scream summer and work with most vegetables) and a hit of acid (lemon or lime juice) to brighten the flavor. I like to top mine with pan-toasted pepitas or hulled hemp hearts for an additional dose of protein. Organic Vegetable Broth, Pacific Foods ($3.79)

TruRoots Organic Ancient Grain Penne Pasta

Photo: TruRoots + mbg Creative

Sometimes, you just have to have pasta. There's nothing on the planet that comes close to its chew or its flexibility, or the way it can transport you back to that time you spent three days exploring Florence with Alejandro... Contrary to popular opinion, pasta is also a smart base for an easy healthy dinner—you can wilt greens into a store-bought sugar-free marinara sauce, or toss the noodles with the sauteed greens from the garlic and onion tip above, blasting the whole thing with some lemon zest and juice to finish it. While sometimes I'll go for the artisanal, gluten-filled real stuff (and even then, I try to pick ancient grains, when they're available), TruRoots is my virtuous staple. Made with a blend of quinoa, brown rice, and amaranth, it has a richer, nuttier flavor than most gluten-free pastas, and it retains its shape instead of becoming a mushy ball. I tend to go for the penne, but the twisty fusilli are perfect for pasta salads or when you feel like having a little party in your mouth. Organic Ancient Grain Penne Pasta, TruRoots ($3.69)

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