almonds Mediterranean diet recipe walnuts Weight Loss Specialist Newsletter Nutrition nuts oatmeal olive oil

Get Your Clients Cooking!

Stacey Penney
Stacey Penney

As fitness professionals, we are almost certain to get questions from our clients regarding nutrition and food choices. Help your clients prepare healthier meals with these eight essential pantry items that pack a flavorful and healthy punch!

Do your clients cook? Or perhaps they need a kitchen primer on healthier ingredients? Here are eight essential pantry items that can help your clients change-up their favorite recipes, or discover new ones, with some minor ingredient adjustments. This list is a general list that most clients can benefit from. It is not meant to encompass the unique diet approaches such as paloe, vegan, kosher, or other dietary restrictions. It’s a starting point to become more comfortable with healthier alternative ingredients they may not have used in the past.

Olive Oil

Extra virgin please! Olive oil has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer, reduced blood pressure, bolster the immune system, maintain bone health, act as a digestive aid, and even prevent age-related cognitive decline. Olive oil, a monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA) is also a staple of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. MUFAs lower heart disease risk by decreasing total and LDL cholesterol without altering HDL levels. Some research also shows that MUFAs may also benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control to reduce the risk of diabetes (1,2).

Extra virgin olive oil is from the first pressing of the olives. It is the least acidic and has a smooth taste, ideal for uncooked dishes or added at the end of cooking for hot dishes. Extra virgin also has the most overall health benefits when compared to virgin olive oil. Virgin olive oil, also derived from the first pressing of the olives, has a higher acidity level than extra virgin olive oil (as well as lower phytonutrient levels and a less delicate taste). According to the standards of the International Olive Oil Council, extra virgin olive oil has a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 0.8 grams per 100 grams whereas virgin olive oil has a free acidity of not more than 2 grams per 100 grams (2). Use olive oil in place of butter or other cooking fats in marinades or sauces, and when sautéing or stir frying. Store in a cool location to preserve flavor and shelf life.

By the Numbers:
1 tablespoon: 119 calories, 13g fat (2g saturated)

Dried Fruits

Great as a snack or an addition to almost any dish, dried fruits add fiber while also retaining most of their nutritional value. The draw-back is that they’re high in calories and sugar. Sugars may be those naturally occurring in the fruit, but sometimes additional sugar is added during processing. Label reading is key with dried fruits since some are more calorie dense than others or have added ingredients that can impact the nutritional content. Dried fruits to consider stocking in the pantry include cranberries, raisins, cherries, blueberries, mangos, apples, prunes, apricots, papayas, and pears. Fruit chips (i.e., banana, apple) are different than dried fruits as these are fried in oil. Keep dried fruits in a sealed container and store in a cool location.

By the Numbers -it depends on the fruit!
On average: ¼ cup delivers between 90-120 calories, 2-3 grams of fiber

Apple Sauce (unsweetened)

Apple consumption is linked with reduced risks for cancer, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and diabetes, along with reduced cholesterol levels and weight loss (3,4). Using apple sauce in place of fats (such as butter or shortening) in baking recipes will decrease the amount of saturated fat and increase the fiber value. Sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error to get the right amount for a recipe. Try the recipe replacing a third to a half of the fat with apple sauce to see how it turns out. Increase the dry ingredients (i.e., flour, oatmeal) slightly if the batter is too wet. If processed with ascorbic acid, which prevents the apple sauce from turning brown, it will also offer 89% of daily vitamin C needs.

By the Numbers:
1 cup unsweetened apple sauce: 100 calories, 27g carbohydrates, 24g sugar, 3g fiber


Besides keeping vampires at bay, there is some evidence that garlic reduces cholesterol and blood pressure. Garlic can interact with medications such as warfarin and aspirin, increasing the anticoagulant effect (1). Garlic has also been linked to weight loss, antibiotic effects, diabetes treatment and reduced cancer risk. Interestingly, the body may take a few days to fully process and remove garlic by-products, so don’t be surprised if you notice a garlic smell when sweating (the more you eat, the more you secrete!). Use garlic in savory dishes, as a spread, or anywhere garlic flavor would enhance the dish. Garlic can be pressed, mashed, chopped, minced or roasted whole. When buying fresh garlic, look for a garlic head (the segments inside are the cloves) that is firm with a tight, papery skin. Store garlic in a cool, dry place.

By the Numbers:
One clove garlic, 4 calories, 1g carbohydrate


A filling start to any morning, oatmeal is high in soluble fiber and low in fat. It lowers LDL cholesterol, aids in blood glucose control, reduces the risk of diabetes and heart disease, aids in weight control (feelings of satiation with all that fiber!), and can even be used for a facial (1). Add oatmeal to baking recipes or top a warm bowl with fruits and spices for a filling breakfast. You can even add a few tablespoons to a fruit smoothy for an added fiber and protein boost. (If you are considering steel cut oats, they do require a bit more preparation than traditional rolled oats.)

By the Numbers:
½ cup (raw) 150 calories, 3g fat (.5 gr saturated), 27g carbohydrates, 1g sugar, 4g fiber, 5g protein


Almonds, pecans, and walnuts, Oh My! Nuts are part of a heart-healthy diet. Since nuts are high in unsaturated fats, eating them can help lower LDL cholesterol levels. They are also a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids that are associated with lowering triglycerides, raising HDL levels, improving blood circulation and lowering blood pressure, while also reducing hyperinsulinemia and insulin resistance (1). Nuts provide a source of vitamin E and L-arginine, helping to keep artery walls healthy (5). Moderation is key when eating nuts as they are high in fat and calories, but are a better choice than most nutrient lacking snack foods. Easy to store, easy to pack, nuts can be incorporated into meals and snacks for a fiber, protein and flavor boost.

By the Numbers:
1 ounce serving

- Pecans 196 calories, 3.9g carbohydrates, 2.7g fiber, 20.4g fat (1.7g sat), 2.6g protein
- Almonds 163 calories, 6.1g carbohydrates, 3.5g fiber, 14g fat (1.1g saturated) 6g protein
- Walnuts 185 calories, 3.9g carbohydrates, 1.9g fiber, 18.5g fat (1.7g saturated) 4.3g protein


Natural sweetness. Honey can provide a pre-event energy boost for athletes, sooth a sore throat, increase antioxidant capacity, and even provide nighttime cough relief for upper respiratory symptoms in children (but don’t give to infants under one) (6,7). Use it as a sweetener or to bind ingredients together (maybe some homemade granola with dried fruit, nuts and oatmeal?). Store at room temperature. If crystals form, which is natural, let the container sit in warm water and stir or put in a microwave safe dish to warm.

By the Numbers:
1 tablespoon 60 calories, 17g carbohydrates, 16g sugars

Balsamic Vinegar

Vinegar, in general has many health benefits. Recent research has focused on appetite control, prevention of fat buildup, improving calcium absorption, and of particular interest with the continual rise of diabetes, the antiglycemic properties and treatment possibilities (8). Distilled white vinegar can be used for a variety of cleaning applications, but we’ll stay focused on taste and balsamic vinegar. Produced through a grape fermentation process, balsamic vinegar adds a sweet yet acidic flavor, best used in marinades or dressings. Store in a sealed container and take advantage of this ingredients long shelf life.

By the Numbers:
1 tablespoon: 14 calories, 3g carbohydrates, 2g sugar

Need a quick meal using most of the above items? Try the Spinach Feta Cranberry Pecan Chicken Salad with a Honey Garlic Balsamic Dressing


1 Bag Baby Spinach (4 cup prewashed bag)
2 cups Chicken Breast, cooked, chopped, chilled
½ cup Fat Free Crumbled Feta Cheese (approx. 3 oz)
¼ cup Dried Cranberries
¼ cup Pecans, chopped (light toasting optional)

In a large bowl layer above ingredients starting at the top of the list.


2 tablespoons Honey
1/3 cup Olive Oil
1 Clove Garlic, finely minced
3 tablespoons Balsamic Vinegar
Pinch of Salt

Combine ingredients in sealed container, shake, pour over salad and toss.

Serves 4
Nutrition per serving (approximate):
435 calories, 26g fat (3 saturated), 20g carbs, 2g fiber, 32g protein


  1. Insel PM, Ross D, McMahon K, et al. Nutrition. 4th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2011.
  2. International Olive Council. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2013. <>.
  3. Boyer J and Rui HL. Apple phytochemicals and their health benefits. Nutr J 2004;3:5 doi:10.1186/1475-2891-3-5
  4. Nagasako-Akazome Y, Kanda T, Ohtake Y, et al. Apple polyphenols influence cholesterol metabolism in healthy subjects with relatively high body mass index. J Oleo Sci 2007;56(8):417-28.
  5. "Nuts and Your Heart: Eating Nuts for Heart Health." Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 04 Feb. 2011. Web. 05 Feb. 2013. <>.
  6. Cohen, HA, Rozen, J, Kristal H, et al. Effect of honey on nocturnal cough and sleep quality: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. Pediatrics 2012 Sep;130(3):465-71. doi: 10.1542/peds.2011-3075. Epub 2012 Aug 6.
  7. Honey Nutrition Research & Information. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2013. <>.
  8. "Vinegar Research News." The Vinegar Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2013. <>.

Tags: almonds Tags: Mediterranean diet Tags: recipe Tags: walnuts Tags: Weight Loss Specialist Tags: Newsletter Tags: Nutrition Tags: nuts Tags: oatmeal Tags: olive oil

The Author

Stacey Penney

Stacey Penney

Stacey Penney, MS, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, CNC, is the Content Strategist with NASM and AFAA. A 20+ year veteran of the fitness industry, she's worked with the top certification and continuing education groups. At NASM and AFAA she drives the content for American Fitness Magazine, blog and the social media platforms. Stacey received her degree in Athletic Training/PE from San Diego State University and an MS in Exercise Science from CalU, plus credentials in Health Promotion Management & Consulting (UCSD), Instructional Technology (SDSU), group fitness and yoga. Previous San Diego Fall Prevention Task Force Chair, she’s developed continuing education curriculum for fitness organizations in addition to personal training, writing, and co-coaching youth rec soccer.