7 Brain-Friendly Staples to Keep on Hand

These common pantry foods contain nutrients that may help protect memory, increase energy, reduce anxiety, research suggests


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A well-stocked pantry makes cooking and planning meals easier. With proper handling, the foods listed here will still be good a year from now, and they could last even longer if you have space in your fridge or freezer. An added bonus: They are good for you. “Each food listed here benefits your brain — but don’t think about them in isolation,” says Penny Kris-Etherton, distinguished professor of nutrition at the Pennsylvania State University. “Incorporate them into a generally healthy eating pattern that will benefit both your brain and your body.” Having a well-stocked pantry doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also make sure to include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet — and these days the stores seem to have plenty of produce, even when some items are in low supply.

“Food comforts the soul as well as nurtures the body,” says Rosemary H. Balsam, associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine. “We can help ourselves during these trying times by remembering that.”

1. Canned Pumpkin

This vibrant vegetable contains two naturally occurring compounds — lutein and zeaxanthin (L/Z) — that filter damaging blue wavelengths of light and may help protect the eyes, research has found. But they could even do more than that. In recent years, researchers at the University of Georgia wanted to know if they also protected the brain. The researchers studied both younger and older adults to judge the effect of L/Z supplements on the brain. At the end of a year, members of both groups who took the supplements had better memory and better problem-solving skills.

How long do they last?

In your pantry: Unopened cans last 1 to 2 years.

In your fridge: In a sealed container, 7 days.

In your freezer: In a sealed container, 3 to 5 months.

2. Nuts

Walnuts, almonds, cashews, pecans. These popular nuts add flavor to cakes, salads, breads and sauces — and more. Some research suggests that they may enhance memory, concentration and thinking. A large-scale study from UCLA, for example, concluded that less than a handful of flavorful walnuts each day was linked to such benefits, regardless of age, gender or ethnic background. They’re crunchy, they taste good, and they’re filling.

How long do they last?

In your pantry: Unopened packages of both shelled or unshelled nuts last for 6 months past printed date; opened packages will last that long if stored in airtight containers to keep out moisture.

In your fridge: A year past printed date in an airtight container.

In your freezer: Up to 2 years past printed date in an airtight container.

3. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

No wonder extra-virgin olive oil has stood the test of time and remains a staple in Mediterranean kitchens. In one study, men and women who added this liquid gold to their everyday meals were better able to organize their thoughts and had better memory. The researchers suspect that specific compounds in olive oil may stimulate the growth of new brain cells. Other researchers note that the omega fatty acids found in olive oil may increase mental focus and slow the decline in thinking skills that come with age. Splash some olive oil on a piece of grilled fish or use it in a simple salad dressing. Then relax and enjoy.

How long does it last?

In your pantry: Either unopened or opened, a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil (the highest grade of olive oil) will last for 2 to 3 years past its “best by” date.

In your fridge: Don’t refrigerate olive oil.

In your freezer: Don’t freeze olive oil.

4. Peas and Beans

Peas and beans, members of the legume family, are a rich source of folate, a vitamin that may potentially help prevent dementia later in life, according to some studies. Although an outright deficiency is rare, getting too little is linked to fatigue and trouble concentrating. Legumes also provide a healthy serving of thiamine (vitamin B1) that helps turn food into energy. A shortfall has been linked to irritability and fatigue. Including enough peas and beans in your diet is easy. You can use this versatile group of foods in practically everything from soup and stews to salads.

How long do they last?

In your pantry: Unopened cans last for a year past their “best by” date. Opened cans should be used immediately. Transfer the contents of an open package to an airtight container.

In your fridge: 5 to 6 days in an airtight container.

5. Oats and Other Grains

Oats and their cousins rice, cornmeal, barley and wheat are all members of the grain family. Quinoa, although not a full-fledged relative, is prepared like a grain. It’s gluten-free, high in protein and higher than most other grains in fiber. It’s also one of the few plant foods that is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids that our bodies cannot make on their own. Your body breaks down the complex carbs in these whole grains into glucose for energy. Whole grains are also rich in B vitamins that work to reduce inflammation in the brain, potentially helping to preserve memory. This group of eight vitamins may also reduce anxiety and improve mood, according to some research.

How long do they last?

In your pantry: Containers of 1-minute and 5-minute oatmeal will last for 2 to 3 years beyond its “best by” date.

Store whole grains that you use at least once a month at room temperature. If you use them less frequently, pop them in the freezer. Store dried beans at room temperature.

6. Seeds

Pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds are among the most popular seeds in the United States, and both of them add pizzazz to even the simplest food. Lightly toasted pumpkin seeds are rich in tryptophan, a compound the body converts to serotonin, a substance that has been found to calm the mind and lower anxiety, according to some research. Sunflower seeds provide magnesium, a mineral that seems to lift the fog of depression in some people and may help relieve anxiety. Keep a dish of either (or both) of these brain-healthy seeds ready for those times your thoughts turn to a candy bar.

How long do they last?

In your pantry: In an airtight container or bag, pumpkin seeds last 1 to 2 months and sunflower seeds last 2 to 5 months past their “best by” date.

In your fridge: Both last a year past their “best by” date in an airtight container or bag.

In your freezer: Both last a year past their “best by” date in an airtight container or bag.

7. Coffee and Tea

What better way to start the day than with a mug of coffee or a good, strong cuppa? The aroma is delicious, the warmth is comforting — and your energy level perks right up. Plus, there’s a big bonus: Some research suggests that drinking a moderate amount of coffee or tea each day may help protect against memory disorders and impaired reasoning. Some studies have found this is the case with coffee and with black, oolong and green tea brewed from tea leaves. What about decaf? The answer’s not in yet, but researchers are working on it. So stay tuned.

How long does it last?

In your pantry: Unopened ground coffee lasts 3 to 5 months past its “best by” date.

  • Opened ground coffee lasts 3 to 5 months past its “best by” date.
  • Packaged tea lasts for 6 to 12 months past its “best by” date.

In your freezer: Unopened ground coffee lasts 1 to 2 years past its “best by” date.

  • Opened ground coffee lasts 3 to 5 months past its “best by” date.
  • Packaged tea lasts for 1 to 2 years past its “best by” date.

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