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Easy, healthy meals from pantry staples

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If you haven't been able to get to the grocery store or you haven't had time to plan meals for the week, ordering take-out seems like an easy alternative. Luckily, when it comes to making good-for-you meals, you might be surprised how far the existing stash in your pantry, fridge and freezer can take you.

Pantry staples like pasta, canned tomatoes, beans, and rice are great to always have on-hand because they're non-perishable (they don't go bad), but it can be intimidating to make a quick and comforting meal without guidance from a recipe. By keeping your kitchen cabinets stocked with these key ingredients — and our advice on how to use them — you'll cut down on stressful, last-minute grocery runs and may find that cooking at home can be quicker, cheaper and healthier than ordering pizza again.

Foods to always have in your pantry

When considering staples to have on-hand at all times, you want ingredients that are nutritious, filling and can be used in different ways. Here are just a handful of ways you can use the following ingredients:

  1. Canned or dried beans: You can use beans as a base or to add additional protein to a meal. With the wide variety of beans available, your options are practically limitless. If you opt for dried beans over canned, remember that you'll have to soak them first (often overnight) and then cook for an hour or two prior to using.
  2. Onions and garlic: Though they don't keep forever, onions, garlic, and shallots are common ingredients used to add flavor to the base of sauces, soups, stews and curry dishes.
  3. Canned tomatoes: Use crushed tomatoes in pasta or enchilada sauce, or diced tomatoes when you need them to keep their shape — like in salsa and other dips.
  4. Rice: You can quickly create a high-protein and high-fiber meal with rice or other grains like quinoa, farro, and barley when you combine with beans or other legumes like lentils. Plus, many grains come in quick-cooking varieties, so you can have dinner on the table in fewer than 30 minutes. Brown rice has a lot of fiber, which will keep you feeling fuller for longer.
  5. Pasta: Dried pasta, which comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, paired with jarred or canned tomato sauce becomes an easy meal in a pinch. Tip: Toss a bag of frozen veggies into the boiling pasta water in the last few minutes to cook them along with the noodles for a healthy boost.
  6. Oats: This filling grain isn't just for breakfast. You can make cookies, bread, pancakes, bars and even savory oatmeal topped with a fried egg. It's good to have some of the common varieties, like instant oats, steel-cut oats and rolled oats, as each have a slightly different texture and can be used in different ways.
  7. Potatoes: Another versatile pantry staple, potatoes and sweet potatoes can be baked, boiled, and roasted for a quick meal component — like a vessel for chili or part of a burrito bowl. Keep the skin on for extra vitamins and nutrients!
  8. Canned tuna or salmon: Whether it's packed in oil or water, canned fish can be an easy and cheap way to build or enhance a pantry meal with a little added protein.

In addition to the staples above, you'll also want basic cooking ingredients like cooking oil, vinegar, stock or broth, baking powder, baking soda, salt and pepper, honey, flour and sugar. A handful of basic spices will also add a lot of flavor to your pantry meals — like cinnamon, cumin, garlic powder, Italian seasoning, red pepper flakes, and turmeric. And, having fresher ingredients in your fridge, like eggs, milk, cheese, and yogurt can take your pantry meals even further — though they're not strictly necessary if you don't have them.

What to keep in your freezer

While frozen foods aren't exactly non-perishable, they last a whole lot longer than fresh produce, meat and seafood in your refrigerator. Plus, frozen fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious as their fresh counterparts — and you can steam, saute or roast frozen mixed vegetables just like you normally would. Here's what you should keep on hand in your freezer:

foods like bread, fruits, vegetables and meat can be frozen to make them last longer
  • Vegetables like peas, carrots, green beans, squash, broccoli, cauliflower and spinach
  • Fruit like mixed berries, mango, pineapple, bananas or other blends for smoothies
  • Meat or seafood, like salmon, chicken breasts or thighs, beef, pork, turkey and shrimp
  • Sandwich bread (especially if you don't think you'll use a fresh loaf within a few days — just make sure to thaw in the fridge overnight before using)

If you don't have an abundance of freezer space, consider making a few ready-to-heat meals like this one or this one. Or, take items like meat out of bulky packaging and store in freezer-safe, zip-top bags.

Do I really need fresh herbs?

Fresh herbs often add that final touch to dishes like soups, chili, pasta and more, and sometimes make up the base flavor of sauces. However, they only last a week or so in the refrigerator. Good news: If it's a garnish, you can skip it and it won't make a huge difference. If, however, you're making something like tomato-basil marinara and don't want to run out to the store for a single ingredient, you can substitute dried herbs for fresh. In general, you'll want to use a 3-to-1 ratio — if what you're making calls for 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs, you'll want to use a teaspoon of dried instead. Before making the switch, read this guide External Site — the fresh-to-dried conversion doesn't work in every scenario.

Five quick, healthy meal ideas from your pantry

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Now that we've covered the basics on what to have in your pantry and freezer, here are five meals you can pull together from common pantry staples. Search for a recipe if you need specific directions, or feel free to improvise to put your own twist on them:

  1. Beans on toast. Cook onions, garlic, spices, canned white beans and canned tomatoes in an ovenproof skillet until a thick sauce coats the beans. Top with shredded cheese and stick under your broiler for a few minutes until the cheese is browned in spots. Eat with crusty bread for a filling and delicious meal.
  2. Burrito bowls. Cube and roast a sweet potato with cumin and chili powder, then add black beans and cooked rice or quinoa. Top with whatever condiments you have on hand, like hot sauce, store-bought guacamole, cheese, and sour cream.
  3. Pasta with chickpeas. You can make a flavorful and comforting Italian staple, pasta con ceci, with just five pantry ingredients: pasta, garlic, chickpeas, tomato paste and olive oil.
  4. Black bean soup. All you need for this quick meal is a can of black beans, a can of tomatoes, and some broth.
  5. Vegetable fried rice. Scrambled eggs paired with cooked onions, garlic, ginger, frozen vegetables, and soy sauce can make a quick meal out of pre-cooked or instant brown rice.

Tip: For extra protein, you can reach beyond your pantry and add chicken or beef to the meals above.

If you need more healthy meal ideas, head to the recipes tab at the top of this page. Other sites to check out include SuperCook External Site, which searches for recipes based on ingredients you already have, and Cans Get You Cooking External Site, which features a wide variety of recipes from mains, sides, and desserts to brunch and holiday favorites based around canned fruits and vegetables.