Easy Pantry Meals are lifesavers when you can’t make it to the grocery. These are my top tips for living from your pantry (and fridge…and freezer), with links to all our favorite recipes.
My heart goes out to the people in our global community who have been and continue to be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. This post is my way of trying to make sense of it all in one of the few ways I know how—with food.
Even were there not a pandemic raging in the world outside my door right now, there are still times when I don’t want to grocery shop.
The coronavirus crisis is keeping most people indoors—either voluntarily, or by government order. The scene at the local grocery seems eerily post-apocalyptic. Restaurants are mostly shut down, except for those with a drive-through or that deliver. This means that more and more people are relying on their pantries for dinner. Here, I answer common questions about stocking your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. I’ve also packed this post with links to my favorite recipes starring pantry items!
What should I keep in my pantry?
I really hate reaching for a take-out menu when I don’t have time to shop, so I have always kept a well-stocked pantry. It’s a great fall-back for easy meals. Eating from your pantry is also much healthier than eating out—and it’s more budget-friendly.
Because we buy a lot of our products in bulk, our kitchen pantry wasn’t big enough. So, we converted the hall closet into a second pantry. I make sure to have a good variety of basic staples, and to rotate my stock as I shop. These are what I usually keep on hand for my family of 5:
Pasta and Noodles
Many of my easy pantry meals begin with pasta. I like to have a variety of pasta shapes available. Some shapes hold sauces better, for example, while others are better in soups. If possible, I buy the lower glycemic index, high protein variety. But any good-quality pasta will do. Don’t buy imported pasta, though: Alton Brown once pointed out that many Italian pasta houses use durum wheat (used to make semolina flour) from South Dakota. Why pay extra?
- Spaghetti – I usually have 4 boxes on hand. Spaghetti is a versatile workhorse that can be used with marinara sauce, olive oil-based sauces, and much more.
- Linguine/Fettuccine – these pastas are flatter and have more surface area to cling to lighter sauces.
- Penne/Rigatoni – I generally keep 2 boxes of penne or rigatoni (or other tube pasta) in stock. Both pastas have ridges that help more robust tomato sauces stick. It’s also great with dishes involving chunks of vegetables or meats.
- Macaroni/Cavatappi – 2 boxes. I make a lot of macaroni and cheese, and a lot a variations on macaroni and cheese. Most of my recipes involve a single pot, with the pasta cooked right in the sauce (for a sampling, check out Mastering Easy One-Pot Meal Recipes).
- Ditalini/acini di pepe/orzo – ditalini is a tiny tube pasta that is perfect for soups like pasta e fagiole (recipe coming soon!). Acini di pepe and orzo are also great for this purpose. I’ve also used orzo in place of rice in risotto-like dishes (for example, Asparagus Orzotto). I usually have one box of tiny pasta in my pantry.
- “Special occasion” pastas: I keep only a box or so of these stocked.
- Lasagna – In my house, lasagna is a Sunday dinner-caliber meal. I usually keep one box handy. Check out my Easy Lasagna Bolognese and Baked Lasagna Bowls!
- Farfalle – This pasta is perfect for sauces with sliced sausages, for example.
- Orecchiette – A cup-shaped pasta shape that’s great for holding sauces.
- Pho Rice Noodles – I keep at least four 16-oz. bags on hand. If you follow this blog at all, you know that I have a “phobsession.” Any and all pho, whether it’s the middle of winter or summer. It’s my favorite comfort food. Among my favorites are Rotisserie Chicken Slow-Cooker Pho Ga, Slow-Cooker Duck Pho, and Instant Pot Vegetable Pho Noodle Soup..
- Ramen Noodles – I buy these by the case. I get both the cheap-o, 25-cents-a-pack kind and the slightly more expensive variety that you find on the ethnic aisle. These noodles are great in soups, of course (like my Pork-Miso Ramen Soup with Soy-Marinated Egg, pictured below), but they’re also fantastic for stir-fry.
I only keep a couple of types of grains, because my family are fairly adamant about their favorites.
- Basmati rice – we have a 20-lb bag of this stuff. It’s not quite as strong as jasmine rice (which I also love), so it can work in all sorts of dishes.
- Nishiki rice – I keep a 5-lb bag. I like using this kind of rice with stir-fries.
- Cereal grains – I stock 1–2 bags of pearl barley, millet, or sorghum. These are excellent in a variety of dishes (like One-Pot Cornish Game Hens with Mushroom-Barley Pilaf), but I mostly use them in soups (e.g., Soul-Warming Barley Chicken & Vegetable Soup). Rolled oats are also great to have around for an easy breakfast (see No Excuses Oatmeal).
- Grits – I love Southern corn grits and Italian polenta, so I keep 1 bag of one or the other. Check out my Italian Sausage-Pepper Ragu with Polenta, pictured here:
Legumes are high in protein and packed with nutrients like magnesium, potassium, folate, and iron.
- Canned beans – I like to stock at least 4 cans each of garbanzo beans (chickpeas) and red kidney beans for making Minestrone Soup. We also make a lot of chili in this house (my Easy Turkey Chili is our fave), so I buy hot chili beans by the case (the sauce is a great starter).
- Dried beans – I keep 2–3 bags of dried beans in stock. My favorites are navy and black turtle beans. It is so easy to make a fantastic soup in the slow-cooker using dried beans, especially if you have some leftover ham. For example, Slow-Cooker Ham and Navy Bean Soup (pictured below) and Slow-Cooker Black Bean Soup with Avocado Crema.
- Split peas – I keep one bag of either yellow or green to use in soups like Ham Split-Pea Soup.
- Lentils – these are also great for soups and cook more quickly than dried beans. My family are avid meat eaters, but every once in a while, I like to use lentils as a meat substitute for a vegetarian meal.
- Jarred roasted bell peppers – 1 jar. these are great for kicking up all kinds of dishes.
- Jarred olives – 1 jar each of kalamata and green olives like Castelvetrano.
- Tomato products – these are an absolute must, especially during the winter. You can make restaurant-quality salsa and tomato soup using canned tomatoes and a few other items you have in your pantry! (Restaurant-Style Tomato Salsa and Vegan Pantry Tomato Soup with Homemade Croutons)
- I buy canned tomato sauce or passata by the case at my local wholesale club.
- The same goes for diced tomatoes.
- I also keep 2–3 of those small cans of sauce: sometimes you only need a little bit.
- Tomato paste is great for building flavor in sauces and soups. I keep 2 small cans on hand, along with a couple of tubes.
- Potatoes – I’m partial to new potatoes, like red or yellow creamers—or a mix. Fingerling potatoes are also great if you can find them. Since potatoes don’t last forever, I usually buy only 1 3-lb bag at a time.
- Onions – I keep around 5 pounds of yellow or white onions in a bin. I occasionally use red onions in stir-fries, so I’ll buy one at a time. I also like to have a few shallots available.
- Squash – Depending on which type you buy, squash can have a fairly long shelf life. Acorn and butternut squash, along with pumpkin, are examples of long-lived squash varieties. They’re great for soups and curries (e.g., see Ginger-Turmeric Butternut Squash Soup and Easy Squash Curry).
- Garlic – jarred garlic is vile. Fresh garlic keeps for quite some time. I store 2 heads in the bin with the onions.
- Dried mushrooms – these are great for making rich broths and building flavor in sauces and soups. I keep 1 container each of porcini and shiitake. Dried wood ear mushrooms can be used in place of shiitake.
- Dried guajillo chiles – I keep a bag of these babies for making Red Enchilada Sauce.
Most of the seafood I use comes out of the freezer (see later), but these are the canned items I fall back on:
- Baby clams – I like chopped baby clams for making Pantry Linguine in Clam Sauce. Even though this comes almost entirely from the pantry, this meal is downright foxy.
- Tuna – good-quality tuna packed in olive oil makes a great snack. Or use it in tuna salad or in a quick, nutritious pasta dish (recipe coming soon!).
Miscellaneous shelf items
- Stock – I buy chicken and beef stock by the case at our local wholesale club—they’re absolutely essential for building soups and sauces.
- Oils – Obviously, you need good-quality extra-virgin olive oil. Sesame oil is great for Asian dishes. But both sesame oil and EVOO have a low smoke point, so for searing meats or other high-temp cooking, you’ll also need canola (or other vegetable oil). I also use peanut oil, which has an even higher smoke point than canola. It’s great for stir-frying.
- Coconut milk – this is another product that I buy by the case because of the amount of curry we eat.
- Hot sauces – 1 bottle each. hardly a dish gets eaten without a squirt of sriracha. Chili-garlic sauce (a.k.a., sambal oelek) is another must-have. Cholula is our favorite hot sauce for Mexican dishes.
- Soy sauce – I keep a 64-oz. bottle of regular soy sauce handy. I also stock a small bottle of dark soy sauce.
- Vinegar – 1 bottle each of seasoned and unseasoned rice vinegar, red wine vinegar, and balsamic vinegar. These are essential for marinades and salad dressings, among other things (see The Easiest Dressing: Vinaigrette).
- Curry paste – I keep several 4-oz cans each of red and green curry paste handy.
- Seasoning sauces – 1 bottle each. Fish sauce: sounds disgusting, but it’s not. This stuff is liquid gold for building flavor, not only in Asian dishes but for any dish in which you want to build some salty umami into the flavor profile. Maggi Seasoning Sauce is a vegetarian option that I use all the time. A bottle of liquid aminos is a good vegan substitute. I’m not a fan of Worchestershire sauce, but if you like it, stock this instead of Maggi (to me, the two sauces are similar except that the unpronounceable one has a strong “wang” of tamarind).
- Oyster sauce – great for building stir-fry sauces, among other things.
- Wine – I like to have the little one-serving wines for cooking. I keep a four-pack each of Barefoot cabernet sauvignon and pinot grigio. In addition, I keep a bottle of dry sherry, marsala, and sweet vermouth—all great for building sauces.
- Bread – We keep a loaf of sandwich bread in the pantry, but freeze any extra along with crusty breads.
- Panko bread crumbs – these are awesome for breading meats and making crumbly toppings for comfort food fixes like One-Pot Turkey Tetrazzini.
I don’t bake very much, so my pantry is a bit bare in this department. Avid bakers will keep more flours, sugars, and other ingredients on hand. I only buy active dry yeast on an as-needed basis.
- Flours – I keep 1 bag each of all-purpose and bread flours. Almond flour is a great option for gluten-free diets.
- Sugars – 1 bag/container each: Granulated sugar, brown sugar, palm sugar (I use this in Asian dishes rather than baking).
- Baking soda – 1 box.
- Baking powder – 1 container.
- Cornstarch – 1 container. This is also essential for thickening sauces and making a light, crispy breading for fried meats and vegetables.
Spices and Seasonings
I am a spice-o-phile, so I have a huge variety of spices and seasoning mixes. Visiting Penzey’s Spices is one of my favorite things. Here’s a selection of my most-used spices and seasonings:
- Coarse salt – although I do keep regular table salt on hand, I almost never use it in cooking. The flakier salt is easier to grab, and it’s harder to over-salt.
- Black pepper – I keep whole peppercorns, which I add as-is when I’m making stock, or load into my pepper grinder for freshly ground black pepper. I also keep ground black pepper.
- Ancho chile powder – I go through a lot of this, primarily because we love chili. It’s also great for making Quick Smoky Red Enchilada Sauce.
- Cumin – I keep whole cumin seeds (great in Mexican-flavored soups) and ground cumin.
- Onion powder – I keep good-quality, granulated onion powder for adding to chili and other soups.
- Garlic powder – Phil uses this in meat rubs.
- Bay leaves – I use good-quality bay leaves in stocks, soups, and stews.
- Bavarian Seasoning – this mix has crushed brown mustard, rosemary, garlic, thyme, bay leaf and sage. It’s great in soups and meaty dishes.
- Sunny Paris – I love this seasoning mix from Penzey’s for dressing up my ramen soup, but it’s great in just about any soup. It also pairs really well with chicken and game hens. The mix contains shallots, chives, green peppercorn, dill weed, basil, tarragon, chervil, and bay leaf.
- Bouquet Garni – I get this dried herb mix from Penzey’s. With savory, rosemary, thyme, Turkish oregano, basil, dill weed, marjoram, sage, and tarragon, this mix is perfect in a variety of dishes.
- Italian herbs – This is your standard mix of oregano, basil, rosemary, thyme, and parsley. I also have each of these as separate dried herbs.
- Broken Anise – I use this whenever I’m making stock for pho noodle soup.
- Cinnamon Sticks – Another addition in my pho broth, but cinnamon goes into a variety of dishes and desserts.
- Fennel seeds – I add these whole when I’m making stock and sometimes grind with a mortar and pestle to add to ground pork.
- Coriander – I often add either the seeds or ground spice to curries.
- Garam masala – This spice mix is used in a variety of Indian dishes.
- Hot curry powder – The simplest curry sauce I make involves hot curry powder and coconut milk.
- Saffron – I rarely ever use this expensive spice, so I buy it only as needed.
- Turmeric – this earthy, brilliant spice is a great addition to curries and soups, like my Ginger-Turmeric Butternut Squash Soup and Lemon-Turmeric Chicken Orzo Soup. Turmeric also offers some amazing health bennies!
You’ll find many of the pantry staples above in my virtual pantry store.
Although it’s absolutely possible to eat like a king from nothing more than the contents of your pantry, it’s even better if you can complement your pantry store with refrigerated and frozen items.
What staples should I keep in my refrigerator?
Although you certainly can prepare delicious meals with only the ingredients you have in your pantry, having a few fresh ingredients in the refrigerator gives you even more options.
- Cheese – I always have a selection of cheeses in the meat and dairy drawer. Parmesan and Romano are perfect for garnishing, or as the main component for such dishes as Cacio e Pepe. I also keep some good-quality American cheese on hand: it contains sodium citrate, which is the magic stuff that keeps sauces from breaking. I use it in my Creamy One-Pot Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese, Perfect Loaded Nachos, and Beer Cheese Soup with Pretzel Croutons (among other things!).
- Greek yogurt – Greek yogurt is a versatile ingredient: you can use it as a garnish for curries, to add creaminess to soups, or even as a marinade. It has a decent shelf life.
- Milk – Milk obviously has a much shorter shelf life, so I buy this on an as-needed basis.
- Cream – If you have it around, cream is a great addition to soups and sauces.
- Eggs – Although fresh are best, eggs keep for quite a while. Frittatas and scrambled eggs are favorites for breakfast. Marinated soft-boiled eggs for elevating ramen soup will blow your mind.
- Bacon – since it’s cured, bacon keeps fairly well. It’s great for building flavor in a variety of dishes.
- Mirepoix – you have onions in your pantry, but the other components of “the holy trinity,” carrots and celery, belong in the crisper. These keep fairly well, so even when I’m emptying out the fridge before a trip, I leave the celery and carrots.
- Ginger – this root keeps for a long time, but I also keep some in the freezer. I like both regular ginger and galangal (which is really quite different from ginger, but I use it for the same purposes).
- Baby spinach/kale – these are great for amping up the nutritional value of soups, curries, and more. Their shelf life is shorter, though.
- Herbs – fresh herbs can elevate just about any meal. Sprinkling a pasta dish with some chopped fresh parsley, for example, gives that restaurant-quality finishing touch. I usually keep flat-leaf parsley, rosemary, and cilantro in my crisper drawer. Dill is also a great addition.
- Cabbage – cabbage keeps fairly well in the crisper drawer. I love to add chopped cabbage to soups and stir-fries (e.g., Inside-Out Egg Roll Bowls), but it also can make a great side dish on its own (see Piquant Cabbage-Bacon-Onion Saute).
What staples should I keep in my freezer?
If you keep a selection of meats, vegetables, and other items in your freezer, it opens up a whole realm of possibilities for putting your pantry staples to use. We have a traditional freezer and a chest freezer.
- Italian sausage – I keep 1 package each of hot and sweet. I use the sausage in my cheater “Bolognese” Sauce, Slow-Cooker Salsiccie e Fagioli (Italian Sausage and Beans), pasta fagioli soup (recipe coming soon), Sausage-Pepper Ragu with Polenta, and lots more.
- Ribeye steak – Phil and I have taken to buying boneless rib roasts when they go on sale. Then we slice them up into big, fat steaks, vacuum seal, and store them in the freezer. Our favorite steakhouse-worthy dinners are Grilled Ribeye Steaks with Caramelized Onions and Mushrooms during the summer and Steak Mushroom Onion Skillet during the winter.
- Chicken – I keep a package each of thighs, boneless skinless chicken breasts, and leg quarters. Favorite chicken dishes include One-Pan Arroz con Pollo (made with lots of pantry staples!), Thai Green Curry, and a whole slew of soups, like Soul-Warming Barley Chicken & Vegetable Soup. Sometimes, I buy an econo-pack of chicken and freeze it right in my marinade.
- Ground meat – I keep plenty of ground chuck, turkey, and pork. These are great in easy meals like One-Pot Ground Beef Stroganoff and Easy Turkey Chili, and more special dishes like Pork-Shrimp Wontons with Soy-Ginger Dipping Sauce.
- Ham steaks – these make an incredibly easy weeknight dinner. Pair with mashed potatoes, or macaroni and cheese.
- Pork tenderloin – another really easy dinner option for weeknights. Make One-Skillet Mustard-Herb-Crusted Roast Pork Tenderloin, or slice the tenderloin into medallions to make Pork Scaloppine with Mushroom-Caper Sauce.
- Bones – Any time I’m cutting meat off of a bone, I keep the bone in a freezer bag for making stock. Ham bones are especially good for making soups. Pork neck bones, beef shanks, and oxtails are fantastic for stocks.
- Fish fillets – we keep a package of individually sealed tilapia fillets stocked in our freezer. Thaw as needed and combine with pantry staples to make easy meals like Mediterranean-Style Fish en Papillote and Ramen Ginger-Chili Tilapia Packets.
- Shrimp – We love shrimp in this house. There’s no easier meal than some sauteed shrimp over pasta in a light, wine- or cream-based sauce (I promise I’ll bring you those recipes soon!). Arugula-Spinach Pesto with Shrimp and Pesto-Shrimp Cavatappi are two favorites.
- Bread – We do keep bread in the pantry, but we also like having a rustic loaf or two in the freezer to pull out and eat with soups.
- Vegetables – I always keep a package each of petite green peas and corn kernels. I like to buy fresh French green beans (haricots verts), cauliflower, and broccoli: I prep and parcook each, and then freeze in Ziploc freezer bags for easy side dishes or additions to soups and stews. Peppers freeze really well, so I keep a bag with a variety—from Thai bird chilies to Fresno chiles, habañeros, and jalapeños. Pearl onions make a fantastic addition to stews.
- Aromatics – I have a freezer bag stuffed full of lemongrass, kaffir (lime) leaves, curry leaves, and ginger.
- Homemade Stock – I store homemade stock in 4-cup twist-and-lock freezer containers. It’s great to be able to thaw these out on demand for making soups and sauces. For example, check out my Simple Pressure-Cooker Chicken Stock and Simple Pressure-Cooker Chicken Stock. For a simple vegetable stock recipe, see Instant Pot Vegetable Pho Noodle Soup (make just the stock).
- Fats – I keep homemade lard and extra butter in the freezer. The lard is a delicious way to start any Mexican dish, from refried beans to carnitas.
Of course, I also store any extra sauce or meal servings in the freezer for a quick meal any time.
I hope I’ve given you some inspiration for using pantry staples to make restaurant-worthy food. With that, I’ll leave you with my “Grown-Up Ramen Noodle Soup.”
Stay safe. Stay healthy.
All the best,
"Grown-Up" Ramen Noodle Soup
- 1 package of Ramen noodles - throw away the flavor packet
- 2 tsp. finely grated - fresh ginger
- 1 garlic clove - finely minced
- ½ cup rehydrated mushrooms - optional, liquid reserved
- 1 carrot - grated
- 3 cups vegetable or meat broth (got rehydrated mushrooms?
- Use the strained liquid!)
- 2 tbsp. soy sauce - or to taste
- 2 tsp. sesame oil
- Generous squirt of Sri Racha
- 1 egg - optional
- ¾ c. chopped Napa cabbage or bok choy - optional
- 2 scallions - thinly sliced
- Heat the sesame oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and ginger; stir until fragrant (about 2 minutes). Stir in your broth and soy sauce; bring to a simmer. Add in your noodles. NOTE: if you don’t like slurping up long strands of noodles, you can crunch up the noodles while they’re still in the package. Otherwise, stir as they soften in the broth to break them up. Squirt in the Sri Racha.
- If you are using an egg, you can add it now. Note that you have a couple of different options here: 1) you can crack the egg into a ramekin and drop it into the broth, in which case you’ll have a perfectly poached egg hiding out beneath your noodles; or 2) you can beat the egg and swirl it slowly into the broth, which will give you little ribbons of egg strewn like confetti throughout your broth.
- In either case, allow two minutes to let the eggs set, then stir in the carrots and cabbage (if using). NOTE: If you went the poached egg route, stir only very gently so that you don’t break your yolk. Cook for an additional two minutes.
- Dish the soup into bowls, garnish will scallions, and enjoy!
Some of our pantry favorites:
This is one of my family’s straight-from-the-pantry meals. It’s done in well under 30 minutes, but packs a ton of flavor. With the addition of a couple more ingredients (I’ll let you guess what ONE of them is!) you can have Penne alla Vodka!
comfort food at its best, this soup is incredibly easy to make with the “throw it in the slow-cooker and go” strategy. I always make a big batch because it freezes really well and really comes through when I need an easy dinner or don’t have any food in the house (like after vacations!).
Healthy Dorm-Room Microwave Pasta only takes a microwave and a microwave-safe pasta cooker. The (mostly) no-cook sauce is made right in the pasta cooker. Dress it up any way you want, with sliced tomatoes, fresh arugula, grated cheese—or eat it plain!
One-Pot Ground Beef Stroganoff is an easy meal that tastes decadent enough to satisfy your naughtiest craving—without cream-of-nasty soup!
This meal comes together quickly thanks to pantry staples. Delicious, healthy comfort food!
This delicious marinara makes a perfect healthy solution for busy weeknights.