It’s always a good idea to have a supply of shelf-stable canned foods in your pantry, but this is especially important when grocery shopping is difficult (for instance, due to illness or bad weather) or risky (as in the Covid-19 pandemic), or if your power goes out for an extended period of time.
If you have abundant home storage space and a robust budget, you may want to indulge in some luxury items (imported marmalade or razor clams?), but most of us should probably stick with basic canned foods that pack the most nutritional bang for the buck. Here are our top picks (look for low-sodium or no-salt-added versions):
- Canned sardines and salmon. These fish provide about 25 grams of protein per 4-ounce serving and are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. They are also good sources of calcium if the bones are included (heat processing renders the calcium-rich bones soft enough to eat), with 250 milligrams or more of this essential mineral per serving. In addition, because sardines are low on the food chain, they have fewer contaminants (including mercury) than large fish like tuna and are thus safer to eat more often than canned white tuna, for instance. There is concern, however, about overfishing of Pacific sardines; Seafoodwatch.org recommends buying ones that carry an MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) label. Most canned salmon is wild salmon, which has been found in the past to be lower in PCBs and other contaminants than farmed salmon, plus canned wild salmon is easy to find, available year-round, and far less expensive than fresh wild-caught salmon. Be aware, though, that canned “Atlantic salmon” is farmed salmon.
- Canned beans (navy, kidney, black, garbanzo, etc.) and canned lentils. These legumes provide inexpensive plant protein (6 to 9 grams per half-cup) and a lot of fiber (6 to 10 grams per half-cup). Though protein needs vary based on age, activity level, and health status, eating just that small serving of navy beans, for example, is enough to meet nearly 20 percent of the protein requirement (54 grams) for a 150-pound person. Be adventurous. Why not try beans you’ve never had before—perhaps cranberry, pink, or even white kidney (cannellini) beans?
- Other canned foods to stock up on include tomatoes (whole, peeled, diced, paste) for making pasta sauces, chili, and other one-pot meals; lentil, bean, and minestrone soups; vegetables (from corn and carrots to green beans and peas); and unsweetened, water-packed fruit such as peaches, pears, apricots, and pineapple. Some canned foods work even better than fresh in recipes—canned pumpkin for making pumpkin pie is one example. Canned pumpkin can also be used in soups, sauces, lasagna, and dips.
This article appears in the July 2020 issue of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.