How to stock the perfect pantry (and freezer) for your own tastes and needs－and then cooking creatively from it－is easy with the following tips and ideas. (Plus lots of relevant recipes!)
To say we’ve entered uncharted territory in the last week or so is an understatement for sure. We were visiting family in California when there was a palpable shift as to how the country was approaching the crisis at hand. We actually expedited our return trip to ensure we made it home. (We did…well, everything except my suitcase!)
In the days before we flew home, we saw countless pictures of empty grocery store shelves and heard plaintive tales of people going to multiple stores in search of a much-needed item.
Because things were rather picked over by the time we made it to the store, I really needed to assess what I had on hand, especially because the current situation － which for us involves two kids out of school and a traveling husband who won’t be traveling for a while － dictated that I would have more mouths to feed for every meal.
As people are quarantining and usual routines are interrupted, the time seemed right to put the recipe I had originally planned for today on hold in order to share my go-to pantry and freezer items along with helpful tips designed to eliminate waste and facilitate creative and enjoyable meals with what you have on hand.
Of course, I’ve also linked plenty of specific recipes that put these items to good use!
And because I seem to be washing my hands non-stop, I mixed up a fresh batch of my tried-and-true scrub recipe, which effectively softens dried, cracked skin. As a bonus, the scrub can be made in minutes with ingredients likely stored in your pantry, it smells fantastic, and you can easily make enough to share with a neighbor or friend.
Also, based on personal experience, I heartily recommend mixing up a batch of elderberry syrup. My family has relied on this natural remedy for quite some time, and we are currently taking a spoonful each morning. For locals, Lemon Street Market is now bottling this recipe because the demand has been so high. Rest assured if you’re reading this from afar, however, as the elixir is quite easy to make at home.
Finally, now more than ever, I welcome reader comments. Please share what you are cooking, how you are entertaining yourself and perhaps helping those in need, as we can all learn a little something from each other. And stay tuned for more easy, flavorful pantry recipes from here in the very near future. ❤️
Now let’s get started!
We could stock our pantry according to one of those long and seemingly comprehensive lists and end up feeling like we have the proverbial “nothing to eat.” I’m not sure about you, but there are usually quite a few items on those lists that I rarely use, and the sum total can seem uninspiring. (That said, I’ve included one below that I think is practical without being overwhelming, mostly as a quick check.)
The concept sounds so simple, but it’s too easy to go to the store and stock up on dry goods in a disconnected way. This is not the ideal time to purchase bulk quinoa, for example, if it’s not in your usual repertoire, even though it seems like a practical and wholesome dry good. You want to collect staples that you can creatively work with and, most importantly, will thoroughly enjoy.
The reality is that the perfect, complete pantry will vary greatly from one person to the next.
So how do we stock our pantry in a practical, satisfying way?
- Start by making a list of what you and any family members like to eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Then look to which of those ingredients can be held on hand, whether in the pantry or freezer. As we’ve seen in recent days, fresh ingredients can actually be easier to access when people are stockpiling for the longterm.
- Assess what you currently have in your pantry and freezer. For many of us, this requires removing items. When I did this the other day, I found all sort of gems that were hiding under and behind other things. Make a point of using the items that have been in your freezer the longest.
- Place any items that may have been purchased with good intentions but are unlikely to be consumed in a bag or box and consider donating them to a local food bank or giving to a friend or neighbor who will put them to good use.
Start with the “bases”:
- Determine what forms the foundation of most of your meals, and then allow for complementary variety from there. For variety, focus on added proteins, healthy fats, textures and toppings. For example, if oats form the foundation of your breakfast, consider how you most enjoy them? With maple syrup, dried fruit, nuts, seeds? Have kids that love the instant oatmeal packets? Purchase the ingredients to make them in bulk (that’s a fun activity, too), and occasionally mix things up by making a packet into a single serve muffin. ⇩⇩
Consider the various cuisines you enjoy
If Mexican cuisine is a family favorite, purchase plenty of rice, tortillas, etc., and then add black beans, canned tomatoes, canned or frozen corn, jarred salsa, onions, spices for taco seasoning, and so on. You can mix and match these items to make a myriad of meals－grain-based bowls, tacos, hearty salads, stuffed potatoes, egg burritos, etc.－supplementing with chicken, beef, avocado, bell peppers, fresh greens, shredded cheese, etc.
Be creative: Don’t worry about following a recipe to the letter. Don’t have fresh spinach? Opt for frozen. No garlic? Proceed without. Don’t have fresh tomatoes? Use salsa or canned, drained tomatoes. Garnish with parsley instead of cilantro, or skip it altogether…and so on. Many recipes have ingredients that add something but aren’t critical. Since we’re not talking about the more precise science of baking, now is the time to take a chance with an omission or substitution. You may even surprise yourself with new combinations that you really enjoy! Desperation breeds creativity, right?
Here are some examples in the Mexican category that rely on pantry staples and are forgiving with adjustments:
- Speedy Mexican Pizzas (pictured below; incredibly simple, healthy and satisfying)
- Crispy Baked Chimichangas
- Slow Cooker Mexican Flank Steak
- Easy Baked Refried Bean Dip
- Loaded Dinner Nachos
Love Mediterranean flavors? Look to ingredients such as whole grain pastas, orzo, quinoa, and add ingredients like white beans, olives, roasted red peppers, canned artichokes, and canned or jarred tuna. Spice things up with hummus, feta cheese, Greek yogurt, cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, fresh herbs, and greens.
Mediterranean recipes that are heavy on pantry staples:
- Greek Pasta Salad (pictured below)
- Mediterranean Chicken & Hummus Bowls
- Cilantro Lime Hummus or Roasted Beet Hummus (click here for more hummus recipes)
- One Dish Baked Fish Marinara (use flash-frozen fish as needed)
I’ve linked many more recipes below.
If you love Indian dishes, stock up on lentils, rice, garbanzo beans, curry powders and pastes, canned tomatoes, frozen spinach, canned coconut milk, and so on. If you keep thinking along these lines, you will suddenly feel as though you have a world of choices and will be emboldened to experiment. (Report back if, after a few weeks, you don’t agree!😉)
Helpful tips and creative ideas:
- Tuna is almost a pantry cliche, but for good reason. Consider supplementing with canned wild salmon.
- And keep a few flash-frozen wild salmon fillets in the freezer for a delicious, heart-healthy protein option.
- Eggs will keep in the refrigerator for 3-5 weeks.
- Make the most of avocados by refrigerating them as soon as they are ripe. At this point they will keep in the fridge for another week or so. Once cut, if you store the unused portion in a covered bowl with a slice of onion, the avocado will magically remain green! Alternatively, you can freeze the flesh, but then it is best used straight from the freezer in smoothies, as it will be mushy once thawed.
- Same for bananas. You can actually refrigerate them for several days to preserve freshness. The skin will continue to turn brown but the insides will ripen much more slowly. At first it may seem weird to eat a cold banana, but you may actually like it! Conversely, peel and freeze any overripe bananas for use in smoothies, banana bread, and other baked goods.
- If you are a smoothie fan, you can stock your freezer with the fruit you enjoy and freeze fresh fruit beyond bananas, like berries, peaches, cherries, pineapple and mango, that is becoming too ripe to enjoy fresh. Frozen spinach and kale, and even frozen cauliflower, offer a big nutritional boost to smoothies, too. When I have too many fresh greens, like spinach or kale, that I won’t get to before they go bad, I roughly chop and freeze them (without blanching) and add straight to smoothies or soups as needed.
- Have onions and bell peppers that threaten to go back before they are used? Dice and freeze them. Again, no need to steam or blanch them first. Use in soups, stir fries, casseroles, etc.
- Have tomatoes that are softening? Slow roast them and freeze for a flavor boost to pasta, grain-based salads, and more.
- I love to freeze pesto in small containers. It thaws quickly and adds something extra special to plain pasta and orzo. Stir in frozen peas and optional halved grape tomatoes and/or protein (chicken or white beans pair well) for a complete meal. Pesto will also enliven chicken, pizza, or a one-pan stir fry, and can be stirred into mayo for a flavorful sandwich spread or quick sauce for chicken or fish. My family also like is spread over toasted French bread. I have several pesto recipes on this blog, including a kale pesto, which is perfect when fresh basil is not in season.
- Short on milk and enjoy the flavor of coconut? You can mix one can of coconut milk (regular or light) with one quart of water for an inexpensive, plant-based milk alternative.
- What are the essential cooking oils? A mild olive oil will serve nearly any purpose, including baking. Coconut oil is a great choice if you enjoy the hint of tropical flavor and/or avocado oil if you do a lot of high heat cooking.
- Vinegars are a pantry standby and, with the addition of Dijon mustard and honey or maple syrup, you can make a wealth of flavor-packed vinaigrettes that bring excitement to the basic ingredients. (search “dressing” and “vinaigrette” to see some of my favorites; some extremely versatile recipes are included with salads, like Favorite Brussels Sprouts Salad, Fall Slaw, and Roasted Veggie & Wild Rice Salad.
- White vinegar can also be mixed 50-50 with water for an all-natural household cleaner.
- Baking soda can also be used as a natural cleaner. I use it when I need to scour pots and pans, and anyone who has a smooth top stove should know that a paste of baking soda and water works at least as good as the expensive cleaners marketed for that purpose.
Mixing up your go-to pasta: Chickpea-based Banza isn’t the only protein-rich game in town. There are so many good alternatives to basic pasta (which absolutely has its place, too!), from noodles made with rice and protein-rich ingredients like black beans and lentils. For an easy, healthy, protein-rich meal, I like to sauté vegetables like red bell pepper, onion, and snow peas or broccoli, stir into freshly cooked black bean spaghetti and toss all with a sesame ginger vinaigrette or similar Asian sauce. Top with cashews or nuts/seeds of choice if desired.
More delicious pasta: Another delightfully easy pasta meal is to cook your pasta of choice, adding frozen peas (if you like them) in the final minute. Once drained, toss with pesto and stir in halved grape tomatoes. You could add chicken or cannellini beans if you like, or use a pasta like Banza that is naturally protein-rich. For a flavor boost, sprinkle with grated Parmesan and top with slivered fresh basil when in season. My family especially enjoys when I use cheese-filled tortellini for this meal. I usually buy the fresh version in the refrigerated aisle (which can be frozen) although it can be purchased from the frozen section of the store, too.
And this baked spaghetti recipe ⇩⇩ from my mother-in-law is a keeper! Plus it makes a lot, reheats well, and can be frozen. Omit or use canned mushrooms as desired.
Oats: a heart-healthy, fiber-rich pantry standout
Baked oatmeal: I have many recipes on this site, all of which rely on pantry staples. For the seasonal recipes that call for fruit and other ingredients, they are almost entirely adaptable. For example, frozen berries can be used in my Strawberries and Cream Baked Oatmeal and Blueberry Almond Baked Oatmeal, and I have made all of my baked oatmeals with a variety of plant-based and dairy milk－even diluted canned coconut milk, which I explain in the helpful tips section above.
More ideas with oats: Overnight oats are high on pantry staples. When making with frozen fruit, I prefer strawberries and/or blueberries. Don’t have yogurt on hand? Skip it and just with an extra tablespoon or so of oats or an extra teaspoon of chia seeds. Search words like “oat” and “muffin” if you’d like to see a variety of other options, refining with words like “steel cut” if you’re looking for something specific. Banana Bread Breakfast Bars are an old favorite that I plan to make soon and are ideal when you have overripe bananas.
Links to more tried-and-true recipes that rely heavily on pantry and freezer ingredients and are easy to adjust as needed
Family friendly meals
Classic Crispy Top Macaroni and Cheese
Soups, Stews, Chili
Note: Canned seafood is a worthy alternative to fresh in many of the following recipes. Wild salmon fans can look for flash-frozen fillets and then search this site for more salmon recipes.
Salads and sides
A few more breakfast ideas
Desserts and snacks
Projects and fun for kids
For dry skin
For household use
Ok! That’s all for now, but check back because I will add as I think of things and/or readers make helpful suggestions. We are all in this together, and we can get through it if we lean on each other. ❤️