I wholeheartedly believe that like many things in our lives, cooking has to be simple in order for us to keep a routine. Our well thought-out meal plans for the week can so easily be derailed. Events, family and friends plans, an exhausting work day, errands we forgot about, and that one ingredient you didn’t grab at the grocery store. I’ve fought this battle for years, and although I’d rather eat as fresh and seasonal as possible, I know the annoying alternative if I’m not prepared. If I only have fresh ingredients but no time to prep and cook, then I’ll get takeout. I don’t mind when that happens sometimes, but it can easily add up, both in dollar amount and unnecessary calories. So I keep the below list in mind and always have these items stocked. I can create enough dishes to give me flexibility. Mexican? Indian? Italian? Check, check, check. But these items don’t overwhelm by small kitchen. Plus if I put my husband in charge of cooking, he can easily whip something up with confidence, even though I’m usually the cook.
1.Frozen Produce: corn, peas, veggie medley, fruit medley, cauliflower rice. Sometimes I’ll do diced asparagus and I always love to keep some frozen hashbrowns or other frozen potatoes. So yes, that’s a lot of items just right there, but they’re cheap and they keep forever and you can use a little or the whole bag. I love adding just a bit of frozen corn to my Asian soups. The fruit mixes are great for smoothies or to add to some sparkling water or a cocktail to make you feel like you’re at the beach. And frozen peas go into more of my dishes than I would like to admit.
2. Frozen Meatballs: A much more versatile item than you might think. Sure, spaghetti and meatballs are delicious, and it’s a perfect example of a weeknight pantry dinner. But I love adding meatballs to my ramen or Italian soup and to my Mediterranean rice bowls. I tend to mix it up between a healthier turkey meatball and pork. Pork is especially good with Asian soups. You can also dice up the cooked meatballs and add to a bean chili. Plus they usually come in large bags with several servings.
3. Frozen Fish: I picked fish over other proteins because it thaws so much faster than other meats. You can get home, go ‘oh crap what am I making for dinner?!,’ pop some fish in some cool water and it’ll be thawed within the hour or less. That doesn’t easily happen with beef or chicken. I usually stick with mild, white fish and sometimes I’ll go for salmon. Pick what flavor you like or even try other frozen seafood, like shrimp. Seafood is a healthy protein that can easily work with so many dishes. Fish and a side of veggies, fish stew, grilled shrimp in a rice bowls, seafood tossed with your favorite store-bought sauce and a carb. So many options.
4. Onions: The workhorse of all workhorses, IMO. All love all onions; fresh, sautéed, caramelized, green onions, scallions, everything. But even if you don’t love them raw, cooked onions are vital to so many cuisines and really help add volume to dishes (thus keeping your costs low). You will always see yellow onions in my kitchen. And you’ll usually see green onions wrapped in a wet paper towel in my fridge. Then I rotate between red onions, white and shallots depending on my mood. But just having a few yellow onions is all you need. I keep a tub of diced onions that I precut in my fridge to make everything easier.
5. Minced garlic or garlic powder: I should tell you to stop being lazy and just buy heads of garlic, but honestly I still lean on minced garlic in a jar or garlic powder in many of my dishes, unless I know the freshness of the garlic is important (mostly if I’m not cooking the garlic). Garlic is used in the majority of cuisines around the world and packs such a flavor punch it really makes or breaks many dishes. I love using a jar of minced garlic and spooning in double of what a recipe calls. I use garlic powder towards the end of cooking when I have a dish that’s still a little boring. It’s also great to sprinkle on store-bought dips, popcorn, and frozen meals to give them a little more zing.
6. Cashews: If I can recommend one nut, it would be cashews. You can make milk and even vegan cheese with ease using cashews. It’s great in Asian recipe, crushed on top of a pad thai (sub for peanuts) or cooked in a chicken and cashew dish. They’re fatty enough to be a good sub for pine nuts in a pilaf or pesto. And they’re delicious enough to just eat on their own or sprinkle on top of yogurt. I keep a 1-2 pound bag of unroasted and unsalted cashews on hand. If you can’t find raw cashews, go with what you can find. You can always rinse the salt off if you need to. You can also get a bigger bag (like 5 lbs) and keep most in your freezer to keep them fresh for months. If your cashews taste a little old, roasting them for a few minutes, especially before sprinkling them on a dish, will make all the difference.
7. Smooth Peanut Butter: For obvious reasons, peanut butter is nice to keep on hand. It’s great to put on waffles or in oatmeal or smoothies. It lasts forever in your pantry or fridge. But it’s also amazing for dipping sauces and Asian peanut sauces. Just warm some up, add some water and something acidic (like lime juice or vinegar), then add seasonings: soy sauce or salt or red pepper flakes. It’s so forgiving and something you can whip up in a few minutes. If a recipe calls for tahini and you don’t have, peanut butter is a good substitute.
8. Eggs: I hope you like eggs because they’re my favorite. I am never without eggs in my fridge and it’ll be one of the few refrigerated items on this list I suggest. I probably don’t need to tell you too much about the versatility of eggs, but I will say: think about them outside of breakfast. Soft-boiled eggs really up your packaged ramen game. A fried egg can elevate a yummy rice bowl and add protein. Leftover tomato sauce? Crack a couple eggs in and let them cook for an easy Shakshuka. Fried rice, egg drop soup, the list goes on and on.
9. Plain yogurt: European style, Greek or kefir all I recommend. Just depends on your texture preference. I think Greek is the most versatile, because of its thickness. It’s a great sub for sour cream and dips. (Read more about Greek yogurt here.) But I love the flavor of kefir, the runniest of the bunch. It makes for delicious mock ranch dressing and it’s my favorite in the morning with some berries and granola. All of these should be easy to find in grocery stores. They’re easily sweetened with some honey or maple syrup for breakfast and you can buy in large containers (versus the pre-overly-sweetened small containers) so they’re affordable. Yogurt tends to last 3-4 weeks in the fridge.
10. Bouillon cubes or paste: Stop buying canned or carton broth. I mean, do what you want, but they’re bulky, you run out of them without noticing, and many have odd aftertastes. If you’re reading this post, you probably aren’t making a ton of homemade stock (very proud of you if you are!), so I recommend bouillon cubes or paste. If you’ve never bought these before, think of the cubes as condensed versions of the flavor packages in ramen. You can break them up into smaller bits if needed. For the cubes, you sprinkle them into hot water to create a broth. For the paste, same concept, except you spoon it in. Both dissolve really easily. I lean towards the paste more because I like the flavor. But they are so much easier to store, will last you for months and give you the flexibility to control the salt and flavors of your broth. And if a recipe calls for a half cup of stock, you’re not opening an entire can or carton (that you’ll probably put in the fridge and throw away two months from now). I always keep ‘Better Than Bouillon’ brand vegetable, chicken, and beef in my fridge.
11. Noodles/pasta: If I can recommend keeping two kinds in stock: something long, something small. My go-tos are ramen and farfalle (bowtie). Spaghetti, other Asian long noodles, penne, and orecchiette are also in my rotation. But it really depends on what sauces and cuisines you like. I like Asian dishes and I know pesto ramen (for when I want something non-Asian) is actually delicious so that’s why I usually stock dried ramen. If you’re more of a tomato sauce kind of person, lean more on spaghetti and penne. Pad thai made with spaghetti tastes just fine. Mac and cheese made with penne or orecchiette is going to be great. Don’t overthink the need to stock too many varieties. Also keeping with the trend of avoiding the need to constantly stock fresh meat in your fridge, there are so many high-protein pastas out there now to keep you full without needing to add any meat. Banza, a chickpea pasta, is widely available.
12. Rice: or a healthier grain. I’m not the one to tell someone to limit how many grains they keep in their pantry; I’m one of the worst. But if I could only pick one kind of rice I would go with basmati. It’s what I buy the most and it works the best with the most cuisines. Jasmine is a close second. I also like to keep several packages of the 90 second rice. It’s not the best thing in the world, but I can microwave one of those with a 90 second Indian pouch and bam, dinner. That’s hard to argue with. Of course you can opt for brown rice if you want to avoid white. And my favorite healthy grain is farro. It has a really nice texture and nuttiness.
13. Diced Tomatoes: I very rarely go a week without using diced tomatoes from a can. Honestly, I enjoy the flavor more than I do regular tomatoes (outside of tomato season) and like that they are skinless, making them easier to incorporate into dishes. They go well in Italian dishes, most curries, Hispanic recipes, chili, the list goes on. I’ve even used them to make a vegan raw tuna for a poke bowl. You can also blend to turn into tomato sauce. I usually stock both diced tomatoes and tomato sauce, but if you’re tight on space, diced is more flexible.
14. Coconut Milk: I went back and forth on coconut milk making the cut or not, but it is truly one of my most used canned items. Sure, it’s because I cook more Indian and Southeast Asian food than the average American, but I truly think it’s such a great, versatile ingredient to stock. I love to make Caribbean and Latin American inspired dishes with it. It’s a great non-dairy milk substitute and works with sweet and savory dishes.
15. Canned Chickpeas: Canned chickpeas are great for hummus, but I love having them for so much more. Mostly, because they have enough protein in them to allow you to make tons of dishes without stocking a lot of meat options. Curried chickpeas are a go-to in my house, whether that’s more Thai-inspired with coconut milk and other veggies or a chana masala, a simple Indian dish with tomatoes and chickpeas. I love roasting them for a snack or basically a substitute for croutons on a salad. Or one of my new favorites: rinsing and tossing them in a store bought dressing and adding to a pasta salad.
16. Beans: Cheap and so easy to keep in your pantry. I usually have at least five cans on hand. They’re so flexible with so many dishes and like I mentioned about chickpeas, they’re great when you need protein in a dish but don’t have meat readily available. I keep pinto, kidney, and black beans on hand for Hispanic and American dishes and cannellini beans or other white beans for Italian and Mediterranean. Every grocery store has them and they keep for so long. Since you’ve saved room in your pantry by not keeping cans of broth on hand, go crazy with the beans.
17. Feta cheese: There are several reason why I choose feta cheese over others, but mostly it’s for its strong flavor. It is quite salty and a little goes a long way. It doesn’t melt easily, so it’s a perfect topping to hot dishes. Lastly, it works well with lots of different cuisines. I’ll add some on top of tacos, Mediterranean bowls, pasta, and even Indian dishes.
18. Olives: I love having a jar of nice olives in my fridge. They last forever, they’re good for snacking, and they easily elevate a simple sauce or Mediterranean rice bowl. If you’re not a big olive fan, think of some other small, long-lasting items that can really add a flavor punch. Anchovies, horseradish paste, capers, marinated cheeses, pickled red onions, etc. are all great to add that simple flavor punch a dish might be missing.
19. Store-bought sauces: This is kind of a no-brainer but if you’re like me, I get a little too ambitious that I’m going to make all my sauces from scratch and that very rarely happens. Keeping a few jars of your favorite flavors that pair well with other things on this list will make dinner so much easier. A marinara sauce or a pesto are always smart to stock. But think outside of the basics so when you’re craving different cuisines you don’t just automatically reach for your phone for takeout. I particularly encourage you to grab some sauces that can turn your bland frozen veggies into something you’ll enjoy eating. A thick teriyaki sauce, a jar of butter chicken sauce, something creamy and garlicy that would be good with fish and veggies. Some shelf-stable sauces are delicious, some are very average. For the bland ones, adding acidity, like a vinegar or citrus juice, a bit of salt, and maybe some garlic usually turns them into a much more appetizing sauce.
20. Your favorite frozen meal: Sometimes we’re just tired. I absolutely love cooking and don’t mind an hour prep. But sometimes, I don’t want to be in the kitchen for more than 5 minutes and that’s okay. We are allowed to feel that way. Find frozen entrees that are filling and wholesome, but still don’t require solid prep (many Trader Joe’s frozen meals are great, but require a decent amount of cooking and prep). My go-tos are frozen burritos, lasagna, pizza, and dumplings. They keep me away from my delivery apps, so I default save $10 and give me peace of mind when I have a nice meal planned but my body says “not today”.
Simple Recipes Using these Ingredients:
- Pesto ramen with a soft-boiled egg or grilled fish, like this recipe
- Pesto white beans and noodles, like this recipe
- Spicy miso ramen with meatballs
- Dumpling soup, like this recipe
- Noodles with Asian peanut sauce
- Chana masala, like this recipe
- Italian meatball stew
- Italian bean soup
- Spaghetti and meatballs with marinara and diced olives
- Coconut rice and black bean burrito bowl, with cashew sauce and veggies, like this recipe
- Fried Rice, like this recipe
- Shakshuka, tomato stew and eggs, like this recipe
- Veggie frittata, like this recipe
- Vegetarian chili (or throw in some meatballs for more protein)