If you're like many shoppers, you spend most of your time (and money) in the sprawling nonperishables aisles—the center-of-the-store shelves lined with pasta, rice, canned foods, crackers, cookies, cereals, flour, spices, and condiments. But with all those choices, it's easy to end up with a pantry stuffed with foods you forget to use. We enlisted Allison Slade, a Denver-based certified nutrition therapist, to act as tour guide, explaining the best things to stock in your cupboard. Zero in on the healthiest and most versatile pantry items with these no-fail shopping secrets and product picks.

Soup and pasta aisle

Product picks>>
Pacific Natural Foods boxed soups
"I'm more into boxed soups than canned," says Slade; they're convenient to store, and the packaging also is recyclable. Try Pacific's Creamy Butternut Squash with a dash of nutmeg. Use their vegetable broth as a base for any soup recipe.

Quinoa pasta
Packed with protein and fiber, quinoa pasta makes an excellent alternative to wheat pasta. Quinoa products are usually gluten free, says Slade, but check labels to be sure.

Hidden gem>>
Precooked polenta tubes
"These are great for moms and people who are on the go," says Slade. Try these easy preparations.

  1. Dice and pan-fry with vegetables and herbs.
  2. Slice and bake with spaghetti sauce, minced garlic, and spices.
  3. Slice thickly and press into miniature pizza crusts; let kids add their favorite toppings.
  4. Cut into crouton-size cubes, season, and pan-fry for a salad topping.

Fruit and nut spreads aisle

Choose unsweetened and organic
For jellies and jams, look for "no sugar added" on the label, Slade says; she recommends Organic Bionaturae 100% Fruit Spread. Because fruits readily absorb pesticides, buy organic spreads.

Product pick>>
Santa Cruz Organic Apple Sauce
No-sugar-added sauce in jars and handy single-serving packages. Zippy flavors, too, including apple-blackberry and apple-apricot. Great for bag lunches.

Hidden gem>>
Nut butter
A jar of almond butter, while a bit pricey, makes a delicious protein and healthy fat source. You can also add it to cake or cookie batters, gaining valuable essential oils in the mix.

Cookies, chips, and cracker aisle

Know what you're buying Pass over any snacks with trans fats, refined grains, or corn syrup—"stuff you want to avoid," says Slade. Look for fruit-juice-sweetened cookies made with real fruit and whole grains; crackers and chips should offer wheat alternatives, less sodium, and healthy oils.

Product picks>>
Mary's Gone Crackers
Organic, wheat-free, and gluten-free, in several flavors, including onion and caraway. Best of all, they're sugar free and low-carb. Nice for party dips.

Lundberg Rice Chips
With flavors like Fiesta Lime and Santa Fe Barbecue, these thin, crispy bites are a tasty alternative to potato chips. They also make a great crumbled topping on casseroles and veggies.

Newman's Own Organic Fig Newmans and Jennies Coconut Macaroons
As an occasional treat, these cookies pass muster for great ingredients and taste.

Condiments aisle

Watch for dicey ingredients Traditional condiments are notorious for sneaking in sodium, sugar, and MSG, so read labels carefully. Many natural options make fantastic flavor boosters and even contain important nutrients.

Product picks>>
Nutiva Organic Extra-Virgin Coconut Oil
Cholesterol-free, unrefined coconut oil provides essential fatty acids and lauric acid, which supports healthy metabolism. Try Nutiva as a high-heat cooking oil, a shortening substitute, or a replacement for butter on vegetables. "A lot of people have an aversion to a strong coconut taste, [but Nutiva] tastes more like butter," Slade says.

Bragg Apple Cider Vinegar
Among this food's therapeutic claims: A tablespoon a day aids digestion, soothes irritated skin, and relieves dry throats. "Make sure it has a lot of 'mother' in it, which is the dusty stuff at the bottom," says Slade. "That's where many of the nutrients are." Drink it straight up if you dare, or use it in salad dressings.

Baking aisle

Product picks>>
Bob's Red Mill gluten-free baking products
Limiting gluten and wheat may help you avoid developing an intolerance, says Slade. This company's popular gluten-free items include coconut flour (great for desserts), garbanzo bean flour, all-purpose baking flour, and even chocolate cake mix.

Madhava Agave Nectar
"Agave affects blood sugar, but not as much as refined sugar," notes Slade. "Use it like honey, but remember it's less sweet and more watery." It also doesn't crystallize the way honey can, so it stores better.

Hidden gem>>
A plant-based sugar alternative, stevia doesn't cause blood sugar to spike and fall, making it a great choice for diabetics. Available in powder or liquid; experiment to find a brand you like.