Home cooks know this fundamental truth about the pantry: it can make or break you. If you keep it stocked with staples, you can pull together a fast, no-brainer dinner in just minutes, even without a recipe. (Stir-fry, anyone?)
A well-stocked pantry can also cut down your weekly grocery costs. This is especially true when it comes to spices, shelf-stable basics, and ingredients for simple sides. When it’s time to finalize your plans for the week in the eMeals app, you will soon find that a pantry that’s ready for kitchen action means you buy fewer ingredients.
A pantry takes time to build, however. It’s not important that you go out and buy all these staple ingredients right now. Instead, it’s a good idea to buy as you need for recipes, and then keep them stocked as they run low. Think of these staples as your ongoing insurance against the drive-thru or dinner boredom.
This list isn’t one-size-fits-all. Not every family will eat these foods, and not every cook wants to use them. Use this list as a guide, however, to shape the way you fill your pantry, freezer, and fridge. Soon, you’ll find it’s easy to put together your meal plans when you’ve got a pantry that’s got your back.
1. Canned, diced tomatoes
When you see canned tomatoes on sale, stock up. They’re used in dishes from soup and stuffed peppers to spaghetti and pasta bakes. Add a can to marinara sauce, ground beef, and pasta, and you’ve turned a dinner dilemma into a dinner success. Organic varieties often have less sodium than traditional ones, so check the label if you’re counting your milligrams.
This tiny seed is one of the quickest cookers in the “whole grain” category. You can boil, fluff, and serve in under 20 minutes, and it’s endlessly versatile. Sweet or savory, quinoa can be used in a variety of dishes, from breakfast casseroles to grain salads. It also stores well if you prep and cook your meals ahead of time; it doesn’t turn hard like rice or soggy like pasta. A bag lasts at least a year if stored properly, but we doubt you’ll let it sit on your shelf that long.
3. Boil-in-bag brown rice
Brown rice is a must-have pantry staple for busy cooks because you don’t have to worry about getting the proper ratio of rice and water. Just bring a pot of water to a boil, plop in the bags, and let it burble until tender. Brown rice can be the base of sushi bowls, burrito bowls, stir-fries, and more. Plus, you only have to add some herbs and oil or butter to turn brown rice into a healthy, whole-grain side.
4. Canned beans
Navy beans, black beans, chickpeas, and more—they’re all great to keep on hand for easy dinners or as simple substitutes when the chicken didn’t thaw. These inexpensive ingredients are packed with protein, so you can turn family favorites, like enchiladas, into budget-friendly and meat-free options. You can also add the beans to your food processor with oil and some spices to create spreads for sandwiches, wraps, or burgers. Blend until very smooth, and you’ve got hummus for an easy side for sandwiches.
5. Canned tuna or salmon
The fresh variety of these fish can be costly, especially if you’re many miles from a coastline. The canned varieties still pack many healthy benefits at drastically lower cost. You can use these shelf-stable staples to add healthy fats to salad, pasta, or stuffed peppers. Make tuna salad, and serve with crackers for an easy lunch. Add canned salmon to an omelette to elevate brunch. Mix with egg, breadcrumbs, mayo, and herbs for seafood cakes.
6. Frozen vegetables
Most frozen vegetables are pre-washed, pre-cut, and ready for cooking right out of the bag. (Some are even cooked in the bag to save you a dirty dish or two.) Keep a variety of frozen vegetables on hand to save you loads of time and speed up dinner prep. Broccoli becomes the perfect stir-fry addition. Edamame, once thawed, is great to add to a pasta toss or salad. Corn adds a whole-grain boost to casseroles or soups. Served alone or with some fresh herbs, these vegetables also make simple sides.
Eggs—they’re not just for breakfast. Eggs envelope a number of ingredients for a clean-out-the-fridge frittata or omelette. Fried eggs add serious flavor and mouthfeel to pasta, or can be added to avocado toast for a protein boost. Hard-boiled, the egg is a simple, high-protein snack, or can be chopped for a salad topper.
8. Corn tortillas
Beyond tacos, corn tortillas are a versatile ingredient and can act as noodles in a casserole, thicken soups and stews, and more. With a can of black beans and enchilada sauce, you can make enchilada casserole. Sandwich cheese between two tortillas for a quesadilla. Plus, corn tortillas are gluten-free, whole-grain, and store in the fridge for longer use in your cooking.
9. Mini pita
Skip delivery pizza and make personal pizzas at home on small pita. Each person gets their own pita, adds sauce and toppings, sprinkles with cheese, and bakes until done. You can also cut them in half, smear with hummus, and use it as a sandwich holder. When the pita starts to harden or turn stale, rip it into chunks, toast, and add a little extra crunch to salads.
Almost any ingredient goes well with pasta, which is why it’s essential to keep some in your pantry. Have a pint of cherries tomatoes, bacon, and some cheese? You’ve got dinner! Keep an assortment of noodles (angel hair, spaghetti, or fettuccine) and shapes (elbow, penne, or farfalle) on hand.
11. Pasta and simmering sauces
You can do more than add pasta sauce to pasta—though that’s perfectly acceptable—when you keep jars of flavorful sauces on hand. Sauté a few chicken breasts with pepperoni, add marinara sauce, top with mozzarella, and broil until bubbling. This pepperoni-marinara dinner is an instant family favorite. Add frozen vegetables to simmering sauces, and serve atop boil-in-bag brown rice for an almost-effortless meat-free dinner.
12. Pre-made pizza crust
If mini pitas aren’t your family’s pick for pizza crusts, looks for the single-serve or larger pre-made crusts and add a few to the freezer for crazy nights. They thaw quickly and crisp up in the oven.
13. Jarred roasted red bell peppers
Once you know the beauty of Romesco Sauce, you’ll never be caught without a jar of roasted red bell peppers. The combination of roasted sweet peppers, toasty nuts, and pungent garlic is a beauty few can deny. Whip some up and keep it on hand to add to simple proteins, like chicken or pork. Stir into canned soup for a kick of flavor. Spread inside a mini pita with shrimp or pork, lettuce, and onions, for a quick Mediterranean lunch.
14. Frozen shrimp
Shrimp thaw in just minutes, so they’re easy to whip out the moment you walk in the door, thaw, and cook up a simple pasta dish, a topping for salad, or even a flavor-packed quick paella. Look for shrimp that are not washed or stored in a salt solution—the label often says they’re “easy peel”—as they’re often much higher in sodium than fres-caught-then-frozen varieties.
15. Nut Butters
Nut butters are a great way to add major flavor and protein to simple dishes. Grilled beef skewers needs just a hit of peanut dipping sauce—coconut milk, peanut butter, sugar, and lime juice—to go from basic to major wow. Spread nut butters in a mini pita with turkey, carrots, cucumbers, onion, and a hit of Sriracha for an Asian-inspired sandwich. Whip some into pumpkin or butternut squash purée to add body and flavor to soup bases. And yes, of course, it’s always to have on hand for the beloved PB & J.
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