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Pantry Raid!

Teach clients to clear all the landmines from their food supplies.

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For fitness professionals looking to increase their impact inside and outside the gym, talking nutrition with clients is essential. And what better place to start than with a pantry raid? Whether at the client’s house, through a demo in the studio or gym or by video or a virtual tour, fitness professionals can help clients move closer to their health, weight and fitness goals by coaching them through a pantry cleanout and restock. Adding this new service is sure to increase client satisfaction and help grow your business. Even more, helping clients make smarter nutrition choices, on top of helping them adopt an effective exercise program, will go a long way to inspiring permanent lifestyle change.

Pantry Raid Essentials

A successful pantry raid has these three steps:

  • a survey of what is in the pantry (and why)
  • a plan for how to clean out, reorganize and restock, including a grocery list of must-have items
  • a system for keeping the pantry stocked with essentials that make it easy to choose healthy snacks and prepare healthy meals

Step 1. The Pantry Survey

Surveying a client’s pantry provides insight into that person’s typical eating patterns, nutritional strengths and areas that need improvement. For example, a client whose pantry is filled with packaged snacks like chips and cookies is probably struggling to moderate caloric intake. After all, every time the client opens the pantry door, simply seeing the food is a cue to eat it. Also watch out for trouble foods like these:

  • fat-free items, which frequently have more sugar and calories than the “full-fat” versions
  • unnaturally colorful items, which are loaded with artificial colors and ingredients
  • quasi-healthy items such as multigrain bread, which often doesn’t have whole grain as its first ingredient
  • foods labeled “natural” or “made from real fruit”; these terms tend to be food marketing jargon that doesn’t translate to higher nutritional or health value
  • anything that has a superlong ingredient list with items that are impossible to pronounce

Getting Started

Start the survey by removing all the food from the pantry and placing it on the kitchen counter. When the client can see all of the items at once, it’s much easier to remake the pantry into a more organized, neat and simple space. The survey offers an opportunity to learn why the client has chosen each food item. Are the cookies intended for the kids? Who ends up eating them? Do the kids really need “special” (junk) foods?

Encourage the client to identify trouble foods and find ways to remake the pantry into a healthier place. Does the client buy packaged, flavored rice because brown rice “doesn’t taste as good”? Use this opportunity to show how herbs and spices can boost flavor without all the sodium or the long list of unpronounceable ingredients in the packaged item. For instance, simply adding a touch of cilantro and lemon can turn bland rice into a flavorful complement to a chicken, beef or fish dinner.

Also help the client identify strengths. Which products in the pantry are healthy? What tips would help the client use those products easily in dinner recipes or turn them into healthy snacks? For instance, most nuts make a great afternoon snack (in small quantities); they also add crunch to a salad and provide a delicious crushed topping for chicken or fish dinners; they can even add texture to a pasta sauce.

Step 2. The Makeover

This is the time to clean out, reorganize and restock. With all of the client’s pantry items in an easy-to-see place, go through them one by one to determine whether they stay or go.

  • Is a food stale or outdated or a can dented? Throw it out.
  • Has the product been in the pantry for over a year? How confident is the client that the item will be eaten before its expiration date? If the food is more likely to take up space in the pantry than to be eaten, but it hasn’t reached its expiration date and is healthy enough to keep around, the client might consider donating it to a local food pantry.
  • Is sugar first or second in the ingredients list on a packaged food item (ingredients are listed on the label in order, from most to least)? Ask how the client would feel about tossing those items. If a client is unwilling to throw the items away (or if there are some items that the client needs to use occasionally, such as brown sugar or granulated sugar), then plan to restock them in hard-to-reach places so that at least they are not as visible. In the next pantry cleanout, see if the willingness to get rid of problem foods has increased.
  • Go through the same process with the high-sodium products. Does a single can of soup provide more than half the client’s daily sodium needs? Are the supposedly “healthy” low-fat crackers loaded with salt? Help the client read labels to determine which foods are truly healthy and which are not. Smart phone apps such as “Fooducate,” which grades a food’s nutritional value after a scan of its barcode, can make this easier.

Once the client has decided which foods stay and which ones go, the next step is to reorganize the pantry so it’s easier to find items and know when to restock. Pantry reorganization can take many forms. Some people prefer to organize items in baskets and canisters, while others rely on shelf helpers and plastic storage containers. Help the client arrange the pantry so the healthiest foods are at eye level in the front, while the less-healthy foods are far from sight.

Restocking With Healthy Must-Haves

Now it is time to restock with just the good stuff (ideally). While the specific items may vary based on a client’s preferences, the following are four categories of pantry must-haves:

  • Vegetables and fruits. Canned products can be just as healthy as their fresh counterparts. Advise clients to purchase low-sodium variations of vegetables and rinse them with water before cooking. With canned fruit, go for a variety canned “in its own juice.” Dried fruits are nutrient-dense additions to a pantry.
  • Nuts, seeds, beans and other proteins. Unsalted or reduced-salt walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, pistachios and cashews are excellent additions to any pantry. Clients should avoid beer nuts, high-salt mixed-nuts packages and macadamia nuts. Beans are nutrient powerhouses. While dried beans take longer to cook, they taste better than canned beans and they have more nutritional value. Foods such as canned tuna, salmon and sardines are loaded with protein and omega-3 fatty acids, among other nutrients.
  • Pastas and grains. Whole-grain and high-fiber pastas and grains like brown rice, couscous, bulgur, oatmeal, barley, buckwheat and quinoa can go a long way in boosting health, owing to their high fiber content and B vitamins. Clients should try to limit purchases of white pasta and white flour, as the nutritional value is limited.
  • Herbs, spices and oils. A well-stocked pantry should contain a mix of spices, dried herbs and oils to help liven up dishes. A few simple combinations can add a cultural flair to the standard protein dishes and whole-grain sides.

    Spices and dried herbs generally have a shelf life of 1-2 years. Check the flavor and color of spices to see if they are still fresh enough for cooking needs (spices that are too old won’t be very flavorful, but they won’t make anyone sick).

Creating Grocery Lists and Meal Plans

Clients may not have all of the needed items on hand at the time of the pantry raid. Your part may include working with the client to develop a weekly grocery list and general meal plan. Choose healthy (and simple) recipes from the client’s favorite cookbook, or ask the client to peruse several recipe books or websites before the pantry raid so you have a solid restock plan. By being proactive and arranging the pantry based on the items the client needs, you’ll help the client avoid the trap of standing idle in front of a pantry full of processed and packaged foods and choosing to eat the chips simply because “they were there.” Then, for future meals, the client will have the essential items available to create a healthy meal in a hurry.

Step 3. The Long-Term Benefits

The restocking step of the pantry raid needs to be ongoing. As a client develops a weekly grocery list and family meal plan, a quick scan of a well-organized pantry will help identify what items are running low and which ones are available to sustain the family for another week.

Fitness professionals are on the ground level in helping people to lead their healthiest, most fit lives. While workouts and exercise programs are key, it is also within the fitness pro’s scope of practice to assist clients in optimizing nutrition and changing problematic behaviors. One high-impact and practical way to accomplish these results is to help clients successfully raid and restock their pantries.

A Sample Pantry Check List


  • diced tomatoes
  • corn
  • green beans
  • marinara sauce (only tomatoes and herbs/spices on the ingredient list)
  • black olives
  • sun-dried tomatoes
  • fruits
  • peaches
  • pears
  • pineapple
  • mandarin oranges
  • dried fruits

Nuts, Seeds, Beans and Other Proteins

  • walnuts
  • almonds
  • pine nuts
  • pistachios
  • cashews
  • chia seeds
  • natural/organic peanut butter, or other nut butter
  • black beans
  • cannellini beans/white beans
  • kidney beans
  • garbanzo beans/chickpeas
  • canned salmon
  • canned tuna
  • canned sardines

Pastas and Grains

  • brown rice
  • couscous
  • bulgur
  • oatmeal
  • barley
  • buckwheat
  • quinoa
  • popcorn
  • whole-grain cereal, low-sugar (such as Cheerios)

Herbs, Spices, Oils, and Flavor-Enhancers

  • dried garlic
  • curry powder
  • cinnamon
  • dried parsley
  • dried oregano
  • cumin
  • saffron
  • olive oil
  • balsamic vinegar
  • reduced-sodium chicken broth

Recipes from Pantry Staples

Spice Combinations for a Cultural Flair

Indian. 1 t dried garlic + 1 t dried onion + 1 t curry powder + 1 t cinnamon +2 T olive oil
Asian. 1 t dried garlic + 2 bunches scallions + 1 T sesame seeds + 1 t dried ginger + › C soy sauce
Italian. 1 t garlic + 1 t dried basil + 1 t dried parsley + 1 t dried oregano + › C marinara sauce
Middle Eastern. 1 t ground dried garlic + 1 t dried onion + ┬╝ C fresh mint + 1 t ground cumin + pinch saffron + lemon juice + ┬╝ C plain nonfat yogurt
Mexican. 1 t cumin + 1 t dried onion + 1 t dried oregano + › C fresh cilantro + 2 T olive oil

Each of these marinades can be used to spice up a basic protein such as chicken or fish. Simply marinate for at least 2 hours in the refrigerator and then grill or bake.

Remove the “wet” ingredient (such as olive oil, soy sauce, marinara or yogurt) in each marinade and add the spices to a whole grain (such as quinoa, couscous, barley or brown rice) for a tasty side dish.

Basic Quinoa

1 C of dry quinoa
2 C of water

Bring water to boil in pot. Add quinoa, and lower heat to low-medium. Cover and let cook for 20 minutes.

Basic Whole-Wheat Couscous

1 C of dry couscous
1› C of water

Bring water to boil in pot. Add couscous, cover pot and turn off heat. Let stand for 10 minutes and then use fork to fluff couscous.

Basic Barley

1 C of barley
2 C of water

Bring water to boil in pot. Add barley, and lower heat to low-medium. Cover and let cook for 30 minutes. Drain excess water from barley.


  • Add any of these grains to a salad for a heartier meal.
  • Cook grain in chicken broth or vegetable broth, instead of water, for a tastier dish.

Recipe Key: t = teaspoon; T = tablesoon; C = cup.

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD

"Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDN, FAAP, is a board-certified pediatrician and obesity medicine physician, registered dietitian and health coach. She practices general pediatrics with a focus on healthy family routines, nutrition, physical activity and behavior change in North County, San Diego. She also serves as the senior advisor for healthcare solutions at the American Council on Exercise. Natalie is the author of five books and is committed to helping every child and family thrive. She is a strong advocate for systems and communities that support prevention and wellness across the lifespan, beginning at 9 months of age."

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