Former Executive Editor Ann Taylor Pittman breaks down how to stock your kitchen and what you can make once you have.

By Ann Taylor Pittman
May 06, 2020
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Credit: Photo: Jennifer Causey

At the end of 2019, I wrote that simple home cooking would be a major trend in 2020. I had no idea that projection would come true for such very different reasons than I initially thought. Most of us are sheltering in place and doing our best every day to work, teach, exercise, stay sane, and, most importantly, stay safe. And we’re all cooking more meals at home—both out of necessity and to bring comfort to ourselves and those loved ones with whom we’re hunkered down.

Cooking more at home necessitates maintaining a well-stocked pantry (and fridge and freezer) so that you can take fewer trips to the store. Over the last several weeks, I’ve realized that certain staples pull more weight in my kitchen than others—they’re more versatile; better for quick, off-the-cuff meals; and/or substantial anchors to hold down a meal.

Here are my top five meal-building staples for the pantry, fridge, and freezer. I’m not listing condiments here or flavor builders like vinegar, soy or fish sauce, or garlic. I hope that you keep those items on hand at all times anyway. Instead, I’m talking about ingredients that really help you pull a meal together and explaining why they’re on my list.

Pantry

  1. Canned beans: Right off the bat, I’m cheating: This pantry item really encompasses several different ingredients—canned chickpeas, white beans (such as cannellini), black beans, and pinto beans—all of which are invaluable kitchen staples. They’re great for chili and other soups, grain bowls, salads, and much more. You can puree them for hummus or blend them with simmered veggies and broth for a “cream of” soup without any cream. Be sure to opt for low-sodium or no-salt-added varieties.
  2. Quinoa: Ordinarily, I’d argue for all whole grains having a place in your pantry. But I get it—many of them take a long time to cook. And even though we all supposedly have more time on our hands these days, we still need quick dinner options. Enter quinoa: It’s done in 25-ish minutes, it’s protein-rich, and it freezes well once cooked (so go ahead and make a big batch and stash some there).
  3. Tuna: Whether you like fancy-pants imported oil-packed tuna (a real treat) or canned water-packed fish (a real workhorse), it’s a great standby for a quick lunch or dinner. It’s delicious on salads, grain bowls, or pasta. Ideally, opt for sustainable tuna.
  4. Marinara sauce: I lean on marinara sauce pretty hard these days. Why? Because aside from easy pasta or pizza dinners, I can use it to braise chicken, pork, or beef, or to poach salmon or shrimp. I can thin it out with water or chicken stock and make soup. I can add some spices to it and crack eggs into it for a quick shakshuka meal. I can stir in some cumin and smoked paprika and toss it with cooked ground beef for tacos, or add a little brown sugar and vinegar and add it to ground beef for sloppy joes.
  5. Pasta: Yeah, sorry, this is another multiple-ingredient entry. But you just can’t beat pasta when it comes to convenience, versatility, shelf life, and kid-friendliness. It’s best to keep several types on hand, including long pasta like spaghetti for fun slurping and short shapes like penne or rotini for catching chunky sauces. For more nutrition benefit, stock whole-grain pasta or pasta made from legumes (such as chickpea pasta).

Fridge

  1. Eggs: I know that they might be a little scarce these days, but eggs belong in every fridge at all times (unless you’re vegan). They are the perfect quick-cooking protein that can turn a sauce or side into a main dish—just put an egg on it! And how many other ingredients give you such amazing options depending on how you cook them, from creamy scrambled eggs to crispy hard-fried eggs to firm hard-cooked eggs? I also like to think of them of them as a great catchall for all the produce that’s on its way out: I can fold limp greens, starting-to-shrivel grape tomatoes, or soft-in-spots zucchini into a frittata or simple scramble.
  2. Tofu: One of the things I love about tofu is its long “shelf” life; it’ll often be good for a month or more after purchase. And it’s great blended into smoothies, simmered in soups, or crisped up for stir-fries.
  3. Greek yogurt: Thick, tart, and rich in protein, Greek yogurt can perk up a grain bowl or soup. You can stir in grated garlic and a little salt and pepper, spread it on a plate, and use it as a base for beans, grains, greens, and/or roasted veggies. Add it to a smoothie or stir some into your oats, and you’ve got a breakfast that’ll keep you fuller longer.
  4. Chicken or turkey sausage: You’ll get more longevity from cooked sausages, which are great to stash away for soups, pastas, and more. But raw sausages are great to keep on hand, too, and typically last longer in your fridge than fresh meat cuts.
  5. Parmesan cheese: Honestly, a variety of cheeses is ideal, but if you had to pick one cheese and one cheese only, Parm would be the winner. It lasts a long time without molding, and it’s delicious on just about every savory dish, where it adds richness and umami depth. It can basically take a ho-hum dinner and turn it into something you’re proud of. You can grate it to a powder, shred it for slivers of salty goodness, or shave it for large flakes of deliciousness.

Freezer

  1. Frozen peeled and deveined shrimp: Here’s why shrimp is always in my freezer: Even when I forget to thaw it ahead of time (which is every time, honestly), I can thaw it in a bowl of cold water in 5 or 10 minutes and it’s ready to go.
  2. Frozen salmon fillets: Much like frozen shrimp, frozen salmon fillets (wrapped in their individual packaging) thaw quickly in a bowl of water. Plus, omega-3s!
  3. Frozen vegetables: OK, I’m cheating again because I’m really touting multiple ingredients grouped under one category—sorry! I don’t love all frozen vegetables (the texture isn’t great for some of them), but I do love frozen broccoli and cauliflower florets, green peas, edamame, and corn.
  4. Frozen dumplings: These have been a lifesaver in my home. I love all kinds of frozen dumplings and sometimes toss them in broth with veggies for a quick “wonton” soup. I’ll stir-fry them with vegetables for an easy dinner the whole family will love. Or I’ll make a filling lunch salad by placing them atop a crunchy salad with a soy-ginger vinaigrette.
  5. Frozen cooked brown rice: Brown rice is a nutritious whole grain with a wonderfully chewy texture and nutty flavor. But it takes a long time to cook. So I like to either cook a big batch and stash portions in my freezer or buy precooked brown rice from my grocery store. It thaws in no time (like, a minute or two) in the microwave and is ready to go. You could also keep pouched precooked brown rice in your pantry, but I prefer the texture of frozen brown rice.

Top Pantry Recipes

What follows are some of my favorite recipes that pull from the pantry staples I’ve listed above. I’ve explained what I love about each and given tips on how you can adjust and make substitutions based on what you have on hand.

Eggs with Chickpeas, Spinach, and Tomato

This shakshuka-like recipe gets bulked up with canned chickpeas to make it a little heartier. It’s a pantry superstar, incorporating said chickpeas with marinara sauce and eggs, and is great for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

How to adjust: If you don’t have shallots, use chopped onion. No fresh rosemary? Use dried or omit it. If you don’t have chickpeas, use canned white beans or pinto beans, or stir in 1 1/2 cups of cooked grains like farro. Sub in any fresh green for the spinach, or use frozen spinach. And sub any cheese—such as feta or Parmesan—for pecorino Romano.

Shrimp Marinara Soup with Crumbled Feta

Credit: Stephen DeVries

With shrimp in your freezer and marinara sauce in your pantry, you’re well on your way to this stick-to-your-ribs soup. It’s done in under 30 minutes, and each person gets to enjoy a hefty 1 1/2-cup serving.

How to adjust: No white wine? Omit it and add 1 teaspoon or up to 1 tablespoon vinegar (of any kind) for a little extra oomph. If you’re out of chicken stock, just use water; the marinara sauce will have enough flavor to carry the broth. In place of orzo, you could use any other small pasta (like ditalini), crush up other pasta into small pieces, or sub in a can of white beans. If you don’t have parsley, just omit it; it does add a little fresh flavor but is mainly there to beautify. And use Parmesan in place of feta—or omit the cheese.

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Skillet-Toasted Penne with Chicken Sausage

I’ll sometimes go for a length of time when I forget about this recipe, and then I’m so happy when I remember it. Toasting the pasta gives it such incredible nuttiness, and cooking it risotto-style makes it wonderfully creamy. I’ll sometimes add sautéed veggies to the pasta, too—anything that needs to get used up, such as zucchini, spinach, or broccoli.

How to adjust: You can swap in any short pasta shape for penne and use any kind of onion that you have on hand. If you don’t have Italian chicken sausage, use cooked chicken sausage or turkey sausage. No lemon juice? Use white wine vinegar or red wine vinegar. If you don’t have fresh chiles on hand, stir in 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper.

Tuna Pasta Salad

Credit: Jennifer Causey

If you like pasta salad and you like tuna salad (yes, yes…), then you’ll love this recipe that combines the two in a creamy sauce with crunchy celery and sweet green peas. It holds up well, so you can make ahead and enjoy it for lunch the next day.

How to adjust: Use any short pasta shape you have on hand, such as rotini, penne, or elbow macaroni—and use one made from chickpeas or whole grains for more fiber. Whole-milk Greek yogurt contributes silky richness, but you could use 2% or fat-free if that’s what you have. No fresh dill? Use 1/2 teaspoon dried dill or 1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or basil. In place of lemon juice and country-style Dijon, you could try vinegar (any kind) and regular Dijon. And use water-packed tuna if that’s what you have, or canned salmon.

Szechuan Tofu with Cauliflower

I love making vegetarian dinners for my family, and I’ve tried lots of tofu ideas that have flopped with them. But they loved this recipe (as did I) because of that wonderfully crispy tofu and how it plays with the cauliflower and sweet-savory sauce.

How to adjust: If you don’t have vegetable stock on hand, you can try 1 tablespoon soy sauce plus enough water to equal 1 cup. In place of sherry vinegar, try rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar. No hoisin sauce? Try barbecue sauce. And you can use frozen cauliflower (thawed) in place of fresh.

Cheesy Sausage, Broccoli, and Quinoa Casserole

Credit: Photo: Jennifer Causey

This is a fun update from broccoli-rice casserole, with the addition of full-flavored sausage to take it into main dish territory. It’s held together and made creamy by an easy sauce that replaces canned condensed soup, and it’s topped with cheesy breadcrumbs for an irresistible finish. Better yet: It makes two casseroles—one to enjoy now and one to freeze for later (thawing and reheating instructions included).

How to adjust: You can sub any whole grain your family loves for the quinoa (such as farro, brown rice, or barley). In place of raw Italian sausage, try cooked chicken or turkey sausage. Use whatever type of milk you have on hand, and use thawed frozen broccoli if that’s what you’ve got. No panko? You can replace it with plain dry breadcrumbs or fresh breadcrumbs, or leave it out.

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Salmon Piccata Pasta

This recipe is easy, filling, and incredibly quick to pull together. And it combines two of my favorite things: pasta and salmon. Remember those frozen salmon fillets I suggested above? Remember that you can thaw them in 30 minutes or less in a bowl of water, so this meal is possible any night.

How to adjust: Use any pasta (preferably whole-grain or chickpea-based) you have, any shape or size. If you don’t have fresh parsley, either omit it or substitute chopped fresh basil. You can sub chopped olives (any kind) for the capers.

Smashed Chickpea Salad Toasts

Credit: Photo: Caitlin Bensel

If you’re craving tuna or egg salad, but you don’t have tuna and don’t feel like boiling eggs, check your pantry and see if you have a can of chickpeas. This recipe will give you a similar flavor and texture, and you might just like it even better (I do). Serve it any way you like—with crackers, in lettuce leaves, or as a sandwich.

How to adjust: If you don’t have dill pickles, sub in sweet pickles, any other pickled vegetable you happen to have, capers, or chopped olives. Use shallots or any other type of onion if you don’t have red onion. And in place of lemon juice, you can use any type of vinegar.

Quick Fried Brown Rice with Shrimp and Snap Peas

Fried rice is such a great heavy-rotation meal that you can customize based on whatever protein and vegetables you have on hand. This version features crunchy sugar snap peas and shrimp, both of which are beloved by my kids.

How to adjust: If you don’t have pouched brown rice, you can use 3 cups of frozen cooked brown rice (see my recommendation above). In place of sambal oelek, use 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon Sriracha or 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes. No peanut oil? Sub canola oil or try toasted sesame oil for nutty richness. Try other vegetables in place of sugar snap peas: frozen shelled edamame, fresh snow peas, steamed frozen broccoli, or thawed frozen green peas (use 1 cup of those) would be great. And use any type of nut you have if you don’t have peanuts; or leave them out.

Indian-Spiced Pea Fritters

Credit: Photo: Jennifer Causey

This simple recipe is one of my favorites I ever developed. The fritters are surprisingly hearty but maintain a sense of freshness from the sweet peas. And they pick up loads of robust flavor from the spices. Serve with any veggies you have on hand, or arrange them over a leafy green salad.

How to adjust: If you don’t have whole-wheat panko, use regular panko or 2/3 cup plain dry breadcrumbs. In place of garam masala, you can use curry powder.