We’ve all been there after a long, hard day at work: the sudden realization that there’s nothing planned for dinner. Sure, you could just eat out, but why bother when you have a well-stocked pantry that can help you make a home-cooked meal in under an hour?
The key to meal planning is to always be prepared. However, even the best intentions can fall by the wayside when life gets in the way. That’s why it’s a great idea to always have your pantry stocked with the basics — plus a few goodies that can take any meal to the next level. Every at-home cook can benefit by having some choice go-to workhorses in their pantry for nights when dinner needs to be a no-muss, no-fuss experience.
Below are some pantry staples you should always have on hand for easy weeknight meals on the fly:
Everyone should have at least two boxes of pasta in their pantry. This isn’t necessarily a hard-and-fast rule, but having two varieties gives you a little more flexibility with your meal options. Spaghetti is essential, but if you like your noodle a bit thicker, feel free to go with linguini; a little thinner, and you’ll find angel hair is just as good. For your second box, any sturdy noodle will do, whether it be ziti, elbow macaroni, or farfalle (bow-tie pasta).
Now that you’ve got your pasta, how do you make it a meal? The easiest, most delicious way to turn your basic noodle into a meal is to simply add some olive oil or butter, a little fresh garlic, and some parmesan cheese (bonus if you’ve got some parsley). Add a quick side salad to the mix, and you’ve got yourself a filling meal in just a few minutes. Below we’ll discuss other pantry staples you can use to get a bit more creative with your improvised pasta dishes.
This is the next best thing to having pasta in your pantry. Canned tomatoes are extremely versatile and can upgrade any pasta dish in an instant. Ideally, you’d want to keep at least one large can of whole steamed tomatoes and a smaller can of sauce on hand, but feel free to get creative. Diced tomatoes also work in a pinch for many of the meal ideas listed here.
While many people may be intimidated by the idea of throwing together a pasta sauce using only canned tomatoes and sauce, it’s actually easier than you think. But in the interest of keeping things super easy, instead of making a quick sauce, just use the tomatoes as a base for other ingredients to keep it fresh. Warm your tomatoes up, add some garlic, and let those flavors mesh for a bit while you cook the pasta. Add some seasoning (or fresh basil or parsley, if you have it), and you’ve got an easy, fresh-tasting alternative to a heavier marinara.
Note: While fresh garlic doesn’t get its own entry on this list, it is a pantry staple that every at-home cook should keep on hand. It lasts practically forever and always adds that bit of “extra” to almost any meal.
Canned or Tinned Fish
Canned and tinned fish is becoming increasingly popular because of all the available options now on the market. Also, as more people adopt a more Mediterranean diet known for its heart-healthy oils and Omega-3s, it’s easier than ever to order fancy shmancy canned fish online. However, for the sake of these meals, your basic old can of tuna or salmon from the local grocery store will do the trick (and have less of a strain on your wallet). If you don’t really relish the thought of having tuna fish sandwiches for dinner, take that tuna and add it to your pasta/tomato creation from above. Tuna in oil is preferred here, but in a pinch, water will also do. Just be sure to drain and season it really well. Note that other pantry must-haves like capers or olives would also be a great addition here.
Another great use of canned tuna is to create your own tuna burgers. Chances are you’ll already already have some eggs and dried spices on hand, so whipping them up should be a snap. Just combine the ingredients into patties, add a pinch of breadcrumbs or crushed crackers, fry on the stovetop or grill pan, add your favorite toppings, and enjoy.
White rice is a pantry all-star, as it’s both easy to make and can be customized to form a variety of dishes quite quickly. However, any rice will do. Fried rice is an especially easy dish to create because you can use just about any vegetable (fresh or canned) to create a delicious and hearty main course. Simply toss in some frozen shrimp or tofu, and you’ve got a fast and easy weeknight meal.
Of course, white rice isn’t the only pantry grain that can work overtime to make deliciously quick meals. Lentils, quinoa, basmati or jasmine rice, and basically any other grain you have lurking in your pantry can also come together in a flash with the creative addition of herbs, spices, your choice of protein, and whatever veggies you have on hand. The beauty of creating fast weeknight meals on the fly is that there’s no recipe to stick to — only your own creativity and the ingredients you have on hand.
Don’t worry about the leftovers here — cooked rice keeps well in the fridge for a few days and is ideal for making rice balls or adding to your favorite homemade soup for a bit of extra texture and flavor.
While making your own stock is relatively easy, it’s also time-consuming. Always having broth or stock on hand is a great alternative that helps jazz up any meal. Cooking some rice but want to add a kick of flavor? Use broth instead of water. Have some roasted vegetable leftovers that you want to use up? Warm some stock, add a bit of spice and garlic, and throw them in for a simple weeknight soup. Bonus if you add some noodles, leftover chicken, or a can of diced tomatoes. Voila! You now have a cozy cup of goodness to enjoy.
Making sure that your pantry is well-stocked is a great way to always be just a few steps away from a delicious, affordable meal. While fresh ingredients always work best, we don’t always have the time or energy to create elaborate meals from scratch. Make sure you have the above staples on hand, and you’ll be able to create delicious, simple meals every night of the week.