In mid-March, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Since then, consumer shopping and eating habits have changed. New tracking data from IRi Worldwide show a shift in shopping habits in the United States from the perimeter of the supermarket to the center aisles. Consumers are now purchasing more frozen foods (an increase of 34%) and packaged foods (an increase of 21%). And, according to a new survey from the International Food Information Council of 1,000 adults 18 and older, 4 in 10 say they’re purchasing more shelf-stable pantry foods and buying more groceries each time they shop.
Consumers often are encouraged to shop the perimeter of the supermarket and “avoid” the center aisles. This advice can be confusing (especially now as consumers are gravitating to those middle aisles), and it can inadvertently steer them away from an array of healthful food options. While the supermarket perimeter includes things such as fresh produce—something consumers don’t eat enough of but would benefit from eating more of—the center aisles can provide a treasure trove of affordable, nutritious, and versatile foods. As a growing number of shoppers discovers the supermarket center aisles, RDs have an opportunity to educate and guide them to the most healthful choices.
I asked 10 fellow RDs to weigh in on their favorite center-aisle nutritional superstar, why they recommend it, and easy ways to prepare it at home. Below, you’ll find everything from canned beans and oatmeal to frozen produce and peanut butter.
1. Canned Beans
Liz Weiss, MS, RDN, host of the Liz’s Healthy Table podcast and blog
Whether clients choose pinto, cannellini, black, kidney, or garbanzo, canned beans work wonders in savory soups, homemade hummus, quesadillas, and even brownies. Half a cup of beans has 120 kcal, 4 g dietary fiber, and 7 g protein. Worried about sodium? Choose low-sodium or no-salt added, or drain and rinse your beans to wash away 40% of the sodium.
Liz’s favorite bean recipe: Macaroni Minestrone Soup With Cannellini Beans.
Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, nutrition consultant, spokesperson, author, and recipe developer
Nuts offer heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids. They also provide fiber and protein—and these nutrients, in addition to the healthful fats, help to keep you satiated for longer. There’s a reason nuts are a staple of the Mediterranean diet. All types of nuts are nutritious, including almonds, pistachios, walnuts, and other nuts. Nuts are incredibly versatile. You can add them to a bowl of oatmeal or a cookie recipe, or you can chop them up and incorporate into energy balls and bites, cookies, and brownies, and even stir-fries and salads.
Amy’s favorite almond recipe: Chocolate Almond Butter Protein Balls
3. Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
Manuel Villacorta, MS, RD, leading weight loss and nutrition expert, spokesperson, and author
Frozen fruits and vegetables are convenient to use, require minimal prep, are usually more affordable than fresh, and don’t spoil nearly as quickly. Frozen produce is just as nutritious as fresh, because it’s picked at the peak of ripeness and flash frozen to preserve the nutrients and antioxidants. Frozen produce is versatile too. I advise my clients to add frozen vegetables to soups, stews, and grain and quinoa dishes. Frozen fruits are great in smoothies.
Manuel’s favorite frozen produce recipe: Sauerkraut Salad With Frozen Corn & Peas
4. Canned Salmon
Since most people don’t consume the 8 to 12 oz of seafood recommended per week, canned salmon is a simple way to keep shelf-stable, high-quality protein on hand with the benefit of heart-healthy omega-3 fats and no cooking required. Compared with fresh fish, canned salmon is very economical, and since it can stay in the pantry for years, using canned seafood can help minimize food waste. Add canned salmon to avocado toast or on top of a bagel instead of lox; mix with plain Greek yogurt or light mayo for an easy salmon salad; or use for salmon burgers or in grain bowls.
Lauren’s favorite canned salmon recipe: Mediterranean Salmon Salad With Artichokes, White Beans & Lemon Dressing
5. Dry Pasta
Rosanne Rust, MS, RDN, LDN, freelance writer and blogger at Chew the Facts
Carbohydrate foods, such as pasta, have a bad reputation. Despite the anti-carb fad, complex carbohydrates don’t make you fat, and in fact are broken down slowly in the body providing sustainable energy. A reasonable serving is about 1 cup of cooked pasta. Pasta provides the perfect landscape to build more nutrition into your diet and stretch more expensive items, such as beef or seafood. Clients can get dinner on the table in under 20 minutes by adding 3 cups of spinach and a healthful protein like frozen cooked shrimp or canned tuna to cooked linguine, or they can create a fabulous comfort meal with leftover chicken, pasta, and a low-fat cream sauce.
Rosanne’s favorite dry pasta recipe: Buffalo Chicken Mac-N-Cheese
Arielle “Dani” Lebovitz, MS, RDN, CSSD, CDE, author and experience-based educator
Oatmeal is economical, extremely versatile, and loaded with good nutrition. Half a cup of plain, dry, rolled oats has 140 kcal, 4 g fiber, and 5 g protein, and it’s a good source of iron. Oatmeal cooks up quickly for sweet or savory breakfast bowls, but it also can be used to bulk up meat-based dishes such as meatballs or meatloaf, add a crispy coating to chicken tenders or a crispy topping to blueberry crumble, and you can grind it into a flour (in a mini food processor or blender) for nutrient-dense cakes, muffins, or pancakes.
Dani’s favorite oatmeal recipe: Easy No Bake Cookies
7. Canned Diced Tomatoes
Only 1 in 10 Americans meet the recommended daily amount of vegetables, and what better way to take in more by adding canned diced tomatoes to some of their favorite dishes? Tomatoes are picked at their peak of ripeness, and they’re canned within a few hours, which locks in the nutrition. Canned tomatoes are low in calories and packed with the antioxidant vitamin C and fiber. Canned tomatoes also are an excellent source of the antioxidant lycopene, shown to help lower the risk of heart disease. Canned diced tomatoes are inexpensive, and you can add them to chili, soup, mac and cheese, pasta dishes, lasagna, or use a few cans to poach fish. If clients are watching their sodium, no-added sodium diced tomatoes are available.
8. Peanut Butter
Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian
Peanut butter is high in protein, healthful fats, niacin, vitamin E, magnesium, and manganese. Plus, it has fiber, potassium, zinc, and copper. It’s shelf-stable, budget-friendly, and so versatile. Clients can use it in sandwiches, but it’s also delicious in baked goods. I use it to substitute margarine, butter, or oil in cookies, bars, and breads. It’s also delicious in savory dishes, such as Thai stir-fry, lentil patties or loaves, or in vinaigrettes for salads and slaws. Clients also can put a big spoonful in their morning oats or smoothies.
Sharon’s favorite peanut butter recipe: Stir-Fried Thai Tofu Sorghum Bowl
Quinoa contains all of the essential amino acids and is higher in protein than most other “grainy” side dishes. One cup of cooked quinoa has 8 g protein, 5 g fiber, 30% DV for magnesium, and 15% DV for iron. I cook it with broth instead of water to give it a savory, seasoned taste, and it pairs deliciously with a variety of nutritious dishes. It cooks in 20 minutes, which is half the time of other whole grains like brown rice.
Michelle’s favorite quinoa recipe: Tomato & Avocado Quinoa Salad With Cumin & Cilantro
Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD, culinary and integrative dietitian
Half a cup of lentils provides 9 g protein and an impressive 8 g fiber, which is 30% of the recommended daily fiber intake. With no need to soak, lentils cook more quickly than other pulses, making them ideal for weeknight meals. I keep a variety of lentils on hand, including green, brown, and red, and I use them for hearty soups and stews. You can add cooked brown lentils to savory rice pilaf and toss firmer black lentils into make-ahead salads with your favorite vinaigrette, grains, and greens. For a fiber boost, swap lentils for all or half of the meat in tacos.
Marisa’s favorite lentil recipe: Vegan Pumpkin Lentil Curry With Spinach
11. Powdered Milk
Sylvia Klinger, DBA, MS, RDN, founder of Hispanic Food Communications
I was raised with powdered milk, and today, it has become one of those “must have” ingredients in my home. Powdered milk is inexpensive, has a longer shelf life than fresh milk, and has the same nine essential nutrients found in fresh milk. I prefer the taste of powdered milk for drinking (but remember, I was raised with it), but you can add it to a variety of recipes, including baked goods, to boost the nutritional profile.
Sylvia’s favorite recipe with powdered milk: Cranberry Orange Scones
— Liz Weiss, MS, RDN, is a mom of two with a specialty in family nutrition. She’s the voice behind the family food podcast Liz’s Healthy Table, and the blog and website by the same name. Liz has written several cookbooks, including No Whine With Dinner: 150 Healthy Kid-Tested Recipes From the Meal Makeover Moms, The Moms’ Guide to Meal Makeovers: Improving the Way Your Family Eats, One Meal at a Time!, and the playful new coloring book series Color, Cook, Eat!. Liz hosts the Meal Makeovers video series for CNN Accent Health, which runs in doctor’s offices nationwide.