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What to Cook From Your Pantry

A chef shares tasty, easy recipes with shelf-stable ingredients

spinner image beautifully plated dish of nachos topped with ground turkey black beans salsa and sliced jalapenos
Photo Courtesy Devin Alexander

As someone who has maintained a 70-pound weight loss for decades and helped thousands of others shed pounds, I always recommend everyone eat as much fresh food as possible. That said, I acknowledge we need to do everything we can to stay healthy during the current pandemic — and that it is possible to eat pretty darn well with pantry-stable food.

The key thing to watch, when opting for canned over fresh proteins and veggies, is the sodium content; take a look at the labels and you'll see that canned foods can have an exorbitant amount of salt. Below, I've provided options for cooking from lower-sodium shelf-stable items that won't raise your blood pressure. Hopefully, finding a happy medium of relying on your pantry but having access to some fresh food is achievable as we strive to stay safe and well.

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Lean & Loaded Nachos

People are always surprised to hear that I eat nachos. But the ones I eat are actually a balanced meal with a whopping 36 grams of protein, 36 grams of complex carbohydrates, and 5 grams of fiber. I sometimes add greens to the top, too! Either way, they're delicious and won't expand your waistline.

A couple of tips: If you don't know how to seed a tomato, visit me at — where I show you how to do it easily in a video!

Always wash your hands after touching jalapeños, or wear rubber gloves when handling these peppers. They won't burn your hands, but if the oils remain on your hands and you touch your eyes, it could be painful.


  • 4 ounces 99 percent-lean ground turkey (or use canned chicken or shrimp)
  • 1 teaspoon salt-free Mexican or Southwest seasoning
  • 1/8 teaspoon reduced-sodium salt substitute (use a pinch of salt if not available)
  • Olive oil spray
  • 1 ounce lightly salted baked tortilla chips (ideally with no more than 4.5g of fat and 50mg of sodium per serving)
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons no-salt-added canned black beans, rinsed, drained well and heated
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped seeded tomato (skip the tomatoes and drizzle the dish with jarred chunky salsa if tomatoes aren't available)
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons jarred salsa con queso or jarred nacho cheese sauce (preferably natural and no more than 3g fat per 2 tablespoon serving), heated
  • 2 tablespoons very thinly sliced jalapeño (use jarred if not available)
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro leaves, if desired and available

If you're using ground turkey, place a small nonstick frying pan over medium heat. When hot, mist it with spray. Add the turkey and cook, breaking it into chunks until it is cooked through.

Place turkey from above in a small bowl; or, empty canned chicken or shrimp into the bowl. Then, using a fork, mix your turkey, chicken or shrimp with seasoning and salt substitute until well combined. If using canned chicken or shrimp, just toss it in the seasoning, being mindful not to break up the chicken too much.

Place the chips in a single layer, evenly covering a dinner plate. Top them evenly with the beans, tomatoes (or salsa), then the seasoned turkey (or tossed shrimp or canned chicken). Drizzle the cheese sauce evenly over the top. Top with the jalapeño and cilantro, if using. Enjoy immediately.

Makes 1 serving: 350 calories; 8g fat, 3.5g saturated fat, 0.1g trans fat; 75mg cholesterol; 330mg sodium; 930mg potassium; 36g carbohydrate; 5g fiber; 4g sugars; 36-g protein; 465mg phosphorus

spinner image a pita cut in half showing cubed chicken lettuce and tomatoes inside
Mitch Mandell

Olive Chicken Salad Pita

Olives are a rich source of vitamin E and also contain good fats. They make a great spread or healthy addition to a dressing or salad, provided you enjoy them in moderation (given their high-sodium content). Here, instead of mixing chicken with mayonnaise, I mix it with an olive tapenade. Not only do you get a punch of flavor, but it makes a yummy, simple chicken salad to throw into the pita.


  • 4 ounces lean, natural, grilled chicken breast, cut into small (about 1/3-inch) cubes (or use canned chicken)
  • 1 tablespoon all-natural olive tapenade
  • Handful of baby mixed green lettuce leaves, or more to taste (or any lettuce, cucumber slices, or defrosted broccoli in a pinch), if desired
  • 2 (1/8-inch thick) large tomato slices (or a small handful of rehydrated sundried tomatoes)
  • 1 (7-inch diameter) all-natural, whole wheat pita pocket (ideally one with less than 2g fat and at least a few grams of fiber)

In a small mixing bowl, toss the chicken with the tapenade.

Cut a third of the pita circle off to open it.

Stuff the remaining pita pocket with the chicken. Add the lettuce (if using) and tomatoes.

Serve immediately or wrap and refrigerate it until ready to enjoy.

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Makes 1 serving. Each sandwich has 297 calories; 31g protein; 23g carbohydrates (<1g sugars); 9g fat, <1g saturated fat; 66mg cholesterol; 5g fiber; 452mg sodium

Reprinted from: The Biggest Loser Quick and Easy Cookbook by Devin Alexander (c) 2012 by Universal Studios Licensing LLLP. The Biggest Loser (TM) and NBC.


Warm Pumpkin-Pie Cream of Wheat

If you love pumpkin pie, it's likely you'll make this dish a staple, especially since most of us are seeking comfort these days! Though the crunchy, high-fiber cereal is not needed, it adds a nice contrasting texture that really satisfies. With only about 26 calories and a trace of fat per tablespoon, you can't go wrong adding it.


  • 1⁄4 cup canned pumpkin
  • 2 packets zero calorie natural sweetener
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Pinch of ground ginger, or to taste
  • Pinch of ground cloves, or to taste
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 packet (1 ounce) instant Cream of Wheat cereal
  • 2⁄3 cup boiling water
  • 1 tablespoon crunchy, high-fiber, low-sugar cereal, such as Grape-Nuts (optional)

In a microwaveable serving bowl, combine the pumpkin, sweetener, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and salt. Stir to mix. Microwave on low power, checking every 15 seconds, for 30 to 45 seconds, or until warm.

In a serving bowl, stir together the Cream of Wheat and boiling water.

Stir in the pumpkin mixture. Sprinkle the crunchy cereal on top, if desired.

Makes 1 serving: 121 calories, 4g protein, 24g carbohydrates, trace fat (trace saturated), 0mg cholesterol, 4g fiber, 319mg sodium

Reprinted from The Biggest Loser Cookbook by Chef Devin Alexander and The Biggest Loser Experts and Cast. © 2006 by Universal Studios Licensing LLLP, The Biggest Loser and NBC Studios, Inc., and Reveille LLC. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098.

Maryland Crab Cakes

If you don't have a good nonstick baking sheet, line your baking sheet with nonstick foil, if available, to prevent the cakes from sticking.

Please note that the crab cakes are delicate, so handle them carefully when breading them and removing them from the baking sheet to avoid any crumbling.


  • Olive oil spray
  • 1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat, drained, if necessary
  • 2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice (or bottled in a pinch)
  • 1 cup all-natural, whole-wheat panko-style breadcrumbs (wheat or gluten free bread crumbs if not available)
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped dill leaves, divided (2 teaspoons dried in a pinch)
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped tarragon leaves, divided (2 teaspoons dried in a pinch)
  • 1/4 cup minced shallots (substitute 1/2 cup finely chopped onions, 1/2 cup finely chopped green onion, or 2 tablespoons dried shallots in a pinch)
  • 3 tablespoons reduced-fat, all-natural sandwich spread (use mayonnaise in a pinch)
  • 2 teaspoons prepared horseradish
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 ounces finely shredded, low-fat almond mozzarella cheese or low-fat mozzarella (or part-skim mozzarella or grated parmesan in a pinch)

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Lightly mist a medium, nonstick baking sheet with spray.

In a small mixing bowl, gently mix the crab with the lemon juice, being careful to keep the lumps of crab intact as much as possible.

Put the panko breadcrumbs in a small, resealable plastic bag and seal it, being sure to remove all air from the bag. Using the flat side of a meat mallet, pound the panko into fine crumbs. Transfer the crumbs to a medium, shallow bowl. Mix in half of the dill and half of the tarragon.

In a second small mixing bowl, using a small whisk, mix the remaining dill and tarragon, shallots, sandwich spread, horseradish, and cayenne until well combined. Then, using a spatula, gently mix in the crab and the cheese — again, careful to keep the meat in lumps (don't shred it). Divide the mixture into eight equal portions. Then form one into a mound that is 2 inches in diameter. Carefully roll it in the panko to cover the cake, and place it on the prepared baking sheet.

Repeat with the remaining cakes and panko (note some panko will remain), placing them on the baking sheet side by side so they do not touch. Place the baking sheet in the freezer for about 10 minutes (this helps the cakes keep shape). Lightly mist the tops with spray. Bake the cakes until the breading is crisp and they are heated through, about 12 to 14 minutes. (If the cakes lost shape at all in the oven, gently use a spatula to reshape them as soon as they are removed). Then let them rest for 3 minutes before serving. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings; 8 cakes. Each (2 cake) serving has 209 calories; 27g protein; 15g carbohydrates (<1g sugar); 4g fat, 1g saturated fat; 88mg cholesterol; 2g fiber; 531mg sodium

Reprinted from: The Biggest Loser Flavors of the World Cookbook by Devin Alexander (c) 2011 by Universal Studios Licensing LLLP. The Biggest Loser (TM ) and NBC.

Chicken and Shells in Vodka Sauce

I mention below to cook the pasta according to package directions. That said, in my view, the boiling times on most packages tell you to cook the pasta at least 1 or 2 minutes longer than I would ever cook it. So consider testing for yourself. Just set your timer for a few minutes less than instructed, then strain out a piece of pasta or two and run it under cold water to sample it. When it's done to your satisfaction, strain pasta and add it to your recipes.

If shopping, be sure to buy at least a pound of asparagus. Per the instructions, you want 12 ounces to be the trimmed weight.

  • 8 ounces dry whole-wheat pasta shells (use penne or rotini if shells aren't available)
  • 4 4-ounce trimmed boneless, skinless chicken breasts (use 1 pound canned chicken breast or frozen or canned shrimp as alternatives)
  • Olive oil spray
  • 1 teaspoon + 1/8 teaspoon salt-free garlic seasoning, divided
  • Sea salt and fresh black pepper, to taste
  • 12 ounces trimmed medium asparagus spears (or frozen asparagus or frozen or canned peas, drained)
  • 1/8 teaspoon olive oil
  • 2 cups all-natural, low-fat vodka pasta sauce, heated
  • 4 tablespoons shredded parmesan cheese, divided (preferably fresh; grated from the pantry as a backup)

Preheat a grill to high if grilling chicken or shrimp.

Cook the pasta according to package directions.

Meanwhile, mist the chicken (or shrimp) with the olive oil spray and season it with 1 teaspoon seasoning, salt and pepper.

Toss the asparagus (if using) in 1/8 teaspoon olive oil and the remaining 1/8 teaspoon seasoning.

Grill the chicken 4 to 6 minutes per side until no longer pink inside (if using, or grill the shrimp 1 to 2 minutes per side if using), while grilling the asparagus 3 to 6 minutes (depending on thickness of the spears), rotating once until it is tender. Transfer the asparagus and chicken to a cutting board. Let them stand for 3 minutes, then slice them into bite-sized pieces. Alternatively, heat the canned chicken and peas on the stovetop.

In a large serving bowl, toss the pasta, sauce, chicken and asparagus (or peas) or divide it among four serving bowls. Top evenly with the parmesan. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings; about 9 cups. Each serving (about 2 heaping cups) has 428 calories; 39g protein; 52g carbohydrates (5g sugars); 8g fat, 2g saturated fat; 85mg cholesterol; 9g fiber; 309mg sodium

Reprinted from: The Biggest Loser Quick and Easy Cookbook by Devin Alexander (c) 2012 by Universal Studios Licensing LLLP. The Biggest Loser (TM ) and NBC.

Devin Alexander is a New York Times best-selling cookbook author. Find more of her recipes at

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