When it comes to cooking quickly, stocking up your pantry with the right staples and equipment can go a long way towards helping you feed your family without having to slave over a hot stove for hours or spend a fortune.
Not only that, but in times where you find stores out of stock or you are unable to shop as often, have an established pantry can offer you that buffer that you need. You’ll be able to pull meals together and get through until you can do a full grocery shopping again.
Pantry Items You Always Want to Keep In Stock
Here are some of the items you might want to keep on hand for quick, easy and inexpensive meals. Having a well stocked pantry makes it easier for you to eat healthier while still maintaining your budget.
These are some ideas for some good basics to keep around, but obviously you may need to adjust this list according to your preferences and any dietary limitations,
Pasta and Grains
This is a versatile food that can be used on its own or in other recipes. Italians have hundreds of sauces to add flavor to these humble little items made out of flour, eggs and oil. Use in soups, stews, salads, and on its own.
Use spaghetti or one of the wonderful shapes the kids will love, like butterflies or twists. And of course, elbow macaroni is perfect for homemade mac and cheese, or macaroni salad.
Choose some of the types that are made with added vegetables or choose whole grain varieties to really boost your nutritional value. Most grains can last up to a year if properly stored. Pasta can last for us to 2 years.
Look for a variety – barley, couscous, bulgur wheat, quinoa, millet, farro, freekeh, oats, oat bran, wheatgerm are all handy to have around and can increase your possibilities.
Closely related to pasta are egg noodles, which are great with dishes like stroganoff and chili if you don’t want to serve it with rice. There are all kinds of Asian-style noodles as well, such as soba, udon and buckwheat.
Even ramen have their place in a busy kitchen, as long as you don’t use too much of the ultra-salty seasoning packets.
Rice offers an amazing array of tastes. White and brown rice are musts for the house. Parboiled is perfect for Mexican food. Jasmine rice is great with Asian food. Arborio and short-grain rice are perfect for risottos.
Think about adding some bags of cauliflower rice or broccoli rice to your freezer for a grain-free alternative.
Tuna Packed in Water
Tuna packed in water can be eaten hot or cold. You can choose the solid white albacore versus the chunk light if you prefer, as the latter can be very watery. You can buy eight cans of solid white very inexpensively at your local warehouse store for a fraction of what you would pay per can in the supermarket.
Tip: The light tuna does have less mercury than the white tuna so it’s important to bear that in mind too!
Canned tuna is perfect for sandwiches, salad, tuna casserole, stuffed peppers, stuffed mushrooms, and more. Tuna is high in protein and low in calories and is a filling way to feed your family.
Consider canned salmon too. If you’re like me and are allergic to fish, a couple cans of chicken is a great alternative. My dad always liked the canned flaked ham too but it can be a bit on the salty side so keep that in mind.
Eggs are extremely versatile. As long as no one in your house is allergic, you can whip up dozens of meals in a matter of minutes. Try scrambled, poached, fried, over easy and soft or hard boiled. Make omelets, frittatas, quiches, French toast, pancakes, crepes and more.
Eggs are perishable so it can be more difficult to keep them stocked at all times and often aren’t considered “pantry items” because of that. Here’s my tip: Buy some of those cartons of whole eggs or egg whites and store them in the freezer. They keep beautifully! You can divide them up into smaller portions before freezing too.
You can also buy powdered eggs (I find them at health food stores) to keep in your pantry. These are great to add to baking or things like pancakes or smoothies for an extra boost of protein.
Canned beans and legumes that have already been cooked are ideal for quick and easy recipes. Look for low sodium varieties of red and white kidney beans, pink, black and pinto beans, and chickpeas.
Don’t forget about dried beans. They aren’t difficult to use (they just require a little planning ahead) and they will last a year when stored properly in a cool, dry place.
Not all canned veggies hold up well in salted water, but two that you should always have on hand for salad are beets and corn. Rinse well before serving and toss in your salad. Or, pickle the beets slightly with some white vinegar before serving as a side dish.
We also like to keep peas (a great source of protein) and lima beans on hand. Look for the no salt added brands – you can add your own seasoning later if you feel the need.
Don’t forget about tomato sauce and tomato paste. Yes, we also keep some canned or jarred prepared pasta sauce around but the tomato sauce and tomato paste offer so much flexibility for so many meals. Keep some canned tomatoes on hand too if you prefer those.
These are frozen at the peak of freshness on the farms and can be added to stretch any meal. Some frozen vegetables, such as cauliflower and broccoli, can be a real time and energy saver with a minimum amount of waste.
Canned, Frozen, or Dried Fruits
Look for varieties with no sugar added! You can find dried fruits that haven’t had any sugar added to them or fruits canned in juice or water. Tip: if you’re stuck with some fruit packed in syrup, place it in a colander and rinse it well under running water.
Add fruits to salads, smoothies, cereals, trail mix, cottage cheese, yogurt, or simply enjoy as a snack as is.
White and sweet potatoes make an excellent accompaniment to a range of meals. You can keep it simple and bake them whole in the oven, or peel and cook them on the stove for mashed potatoes.
Seeds/Nuts/Nut and Seed Butters
Whole nuts and seeds are great to have on hand for snacking. These items are loaded with nutrients and can even help lower your cholesterol. Look for unsalted, dry roasted, or raw for the best health benefit.
Most nuts will keep for up to a year if you keep them in the fridge. They are shelf-stable for 2-3 months – some even up to a year depending on temperature and humidity. Pine nuts (one of my favorites) should be stored in the refrigerator and will last about 3-4 months.
Nut and seed butters are another quick and easy option for simple meals and snacks. Try experimenting beyond just peanut butter – there are so many different options to choose from. You can also buy powdered peanut butter – mix with a bit of water to use as a spread or add to things like smoothies and overnight oats for more protein.
It’s important when keeping your pantry stocked with oils to find out their “smoke point” so you know the best uses for each one. For example, canola oil is well-suited for high-heat cooking, while olive oil is better at low heat. Flax oil is best for drizzling – in salad dressings, for example.
Why does this matter? You can risk burning the oil and causing a fire. Oils heated at too high a temperature can create harmful chemicals and it can alter the taste. Most oils should be kept for up to 1 year in your pantry. Check the instructions on the oil bottle because some oils, like flax oil, need to be refrigerated after opening.
Broth is such a great way to add flavor to many recipes. Keep some on hand all the time, not just for making soups, but to add flavor to casseroles, sauces, and so much more. Look for the “no salt added” varieties for better health benefits.
Tetra packs and cans of broth are shelf stable. Opened containers of broth will keep for up to 3 days in your fridge. We also like to keep some of the Knorr concentrated broth on hand for times when we only need a small flavor boost.
Tip: Whenever I make a roast – roast chicken or beef – or if I have a bunch of odds and ends of veggies on hand, I make a batch of homemade broth. I keep a tall yogurt container in the freezer and add those last bits of leftover veggies to it and use that. It’s a great way to cut down on food waste.
Carrot peels (be sure to wash the carrots first) and onion skins are another great addition to a broth to add some depth of flavor. Save the carcass of your turkey or chicken or the big beef bones and use those as well. I pour the finished broth into ice cube trays and keep it in the freezer. Simply pop out a cube or two anytime you need it.
Shelf Stable Milk
I remember the first time I asked my son in law to pick up some skim milk powder at the grocery store. He had this horrified look on his face and asked, “You’re not going to drink that, are you?”. No, I’m not a fan of drinking this kind of milk, but I do love to keep it in my pantry.
Powdered milk is so handy to throw into any cooking/baking that you might be doing to increase the protein content. Add it to your smoothies or use it in overnight oats. You can also buy evaporated milk or tetrapack milk too.
Remember – nut milks aren’t true milk. Yes they can be great sources of calcium and Vitamin D and add some yummy flavor, but they are not protein sources like milk and soy milk. Still, if they’re part of your diet, you should be sure to keep some on hand.
Chia, hemp hearts, flax seed, and wheat germ are all things we keep in our pantry. They’re such great little nutrition boosters and can be thrown into so many recipes. Use in cereal/oatmeal, add to your smoothies and yogurt, and add to your baked goods.
One of my daughter’s favorite snacks as a child was an apple cut into wedges. She would dip it into some peanut butter (or other kind of nut or seed butter) and then wheatgerm. YUM!
Try some nutritional yeast (it’s really good sprinkled over popcorn), vegetarian crumble, or Bob’s Red Mill TVP (use in place of ground meat in your favorite recipes).
If there is something I’ve learned during tough times, it’s how much simple joy can be found in having a few little favorites on hand. If there is something that perhaps isn’t terribly practical, but it brings you joy, I say, add it to your pantry.
For some that might be artichoke hearts or truffle oil or pink Himalayan salt or a bit of dark chocolate – whatever it is for you, treat yourself now and then to something that’s going to make your heart sing.
With these staples in your pantry, there will always be something quick and easy to cook for dinner. You’ll be prepared for emergencies and never have to worry about what you’re going to make for your next meal – even with some last minute guests!