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Pantry Essentials for the Diabetic

What are pantry essentials for a diabetic friendly menu or anyone on the diabetic exchange diet? Well, I’m glad you asked.

pantry essentials

I used to believe that buying in bulk was only for large families. That was before I began eating like a diabetic constantly strapped for time. So, when I overhauled my eating and cooking habits, after I built out my kitchen essentials, I turned my focus to my pantry. I asked myself, “How can I prepare quick, healthy meals without blowing my grocery budget and without constantly running back to the grocery store?” The answer was clear: Shop online for pantry essentials to buy in bulk. (And, as always I do not receive compensation for product endorsements. These are the products I actually use.)

Shop smart and store smart.

The two most important principles to keep in mind while stocking your pantry essentials is to shop smartly and store smartly. This means only buy in bulk items that have a long shelf life. Then, store your pantry essentials in a manner that allows you to SEE everything and KNOW when to re-order. With these two principles your pantry essentials will be used without running out of a critical item. And, any of my crunched-for-time compadres out there, pantry essentials delivered to your front door is life changing.

What are my diabetic pantry essentials?

(Okay, so I won’t list ALL of my essentials. That post would be crazy long. But, here are my top, must-have picks.)


#1: Pasta. Yes, a diabetic diet can include pasta. We just can’t eat ALL the pasta at once. Remember portion control (1-1 1/2 cups of cooked pasta is plenty and comes in around 42 grams of carbohydrates) and to carefully consider what you put on the pasta. The combination of pasta with a fattening sauce can spell trouble for glucose levels. This brings us to…

Diced tomatoes

#2: Canned tomatoes. Canned tomatoes should be in every pantry all the time. But, if you follow a diabetic diet, diced tomatoes are a must-have pantry essential. With diced tomatoes, there is no need to purchase spaghetti sauce or marinara with so much added sugar that you might as well pour ketchup over your linguini. Homemade marinara with diced tomatoes can be prepared in minutes and you control the sugar and sodium levels. Therefore, you’ll have a better chance at controlling your numbers.

canned mushrooms

#3: Canned Mushrooms. Four or five times per year I buy a twelve pack of canned mushrooms. Giorgio canned mushrooms are my favorite. I add them to any recipe I want to bump up the veggie content. Pasta dishes, burgers, meatballs, sautéed and piled atop pork chops, quesadillas…I eat a lot of mushrooms. Here’s why: mushrooms add to the fiber content of a meal which means you will be full longer without piling on the calories.

canned sweet peas - pantry essential

#4: Canned peas: I keep canned peas on hand because of their versatility. As with canned mushrooms, if you want to beef up the veggies in a dish, add a can of sweet peas at the end of the cooking process. (Waiting until the end will keep the peas from turning mushy.) Pasta salads, salad greens, chicken casseroles, and beef stew can all benefit from a can of sweet peas.

Canned beans - pantry essential

#5: Canned beans: On particularly crazy days I often throw a 1/2 cup of leftover rice, pinto beans, low fat cheese, and salsa into a bowl and zap it in the microwave for a quick and easy 300-calorie lunch. But, with Mexican being my favorite flavor profile, I use canned beans several times a week. My preference is pinto beans for their mild, slightly salty flavor but kidney beans and black beans (canned, of course) are great choices as well. Add a half cup of beans (approximately 100 calories) to any reason if you want to make a healthy meal more filling. Beans really are the foundation of a “stick to your bones” kind of meal. And if you have them on hand, you can make your own Mexican feast while controlling fat grams and sodium levels. Good luck achieving either with Mexican takeout.

canned tuna

#6: Canned tuna: This old pantry essential needs no explanation, but I’ll give one anyway. Canned tuna is great in casseroles, on salads, or made into a sandwich spread. A great source of protein, canned tuna has only 50 calories in two ounces. Mix two ounces with a table spoon of mushroom and slather on two pieces of whole grain bread, and sit down to an under 300 calorie lunch. But, make sure to purchase the tuna in water, not oil, to keep the calorie count low.

Now that you’ve shopped smartly, let’s store smartly.

Have you ever cleaned out your pantry and found food items you didn’t know were in there but had to be tossed because they were past their expiration date? Have you ever bought an item you thought you lacked only to find a brand new unopened package of said item a week later? I have. But, how was I to know the item was in there? It was buried under stacks of random boxes and bags or hiding behind a wall of canned goods. I was in serious need of smart storage.

Messy pantry
This is a cry for help.

Some background on my mad storage skills.

My husband was active duty military for 15 years. Over that decade and a half we lived in 11 different houses. The pantries in these houses ranged from non-existent to shallow closet pantries to walk-in dream pantries. With each move, I had to configure the pantry to work for our lives no matter how small. And, once I started ordering bulk items, I needed a storage system that allowed clear viewing of all items.

pantry organized with clear bins

Clear viewing saves time and money, both in grocery shopping and when I ask, “What’s for dinner tonight?” I am much more likely to throw together an easy pasta dish or Mexican feast if I can see what pantry essentials I have on hand.

What are my smart storage items?

riser for canned goods

Because I am a big believer in canned vegetables, I needed a way to store and display all those cans. The Copco 2555-0189 Non-Skid 3-Tier Spice Pantry Kitchen Cabinet Organizer stores my canned goods and gives me the ability to see how many cans I have of each item. I own three of these—two for cans and one for condiments, vinegars, and oils. It comes in 10-inch and 15-inch widths so you have options according to your available horizontal space.

large, clear bins

To store pasta boxes, bags of rice, and random spice packets, I chose large clear bins. A bin helps sort and hold items of various shapes and balance. The clear material allows me to see when an item falls to the bottom and risks being buried. I use a variety of bins, depending on the section of my pantry. The mDesign Plastic Storage Organizer Container Bins store items on my short shelves.

stackable, clear bins

Where I have more available horizontal space than vertical space, I use the mDesign Large Household Stackable Plastic Food Storage Organizer Bin. The openings are large enough so that I can stack them and still reach in and retrieve an item. The modular esthetic of these bins also means I can adjust my storage configuration as my needs evolve.

Don’t forget about the door.

Over-the-door storage unit

In one apartment five years ago, my pantry was a very shallow two-foot wide closet. Every inch had to be carefully used. I couldn’t waste space on condiments and spice packets and random half-empty bags of rice, but, being dangerously low on cabinet space as well, I was lost as to where to store them. Staring at the pantry door, it hit me, “Look at all that unused vertical space!” So, I purchased an over the door hanging organizer. I’m still using it today. In all those pockets I keep rarely used spices, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, baggies, all sorts of items.

organized pantry

Organizing a pantry can seem as daunting a task as following a diabetic diet, but with careful planning and the right essentials, you can set yourself up for success.

Jodie Cain Smith is the award-winning author of The Woods at Barlow Bend.