A friend reached out to me recently with a blog request. She told me that she felt like she was “failing the pantry and freezer game.” She wants to cook more, but is quite busy. She thought perhaps if she had more things on hand in her pantry and freezer that she could just throw together in a pinch, she might be able to cut down on the amount of take-out and restaurant meals in her family’s schedule.
For me, this is exactly the reason to make a meal plan each week or month, like my recent 4-week low-carb meal plan. But even with the best planning, sometimes things fall through. In that situation, here are the items I keep on hand just in case I need a last-minute meal.
- Dry Pasta
At any given time in my house, I probably have lasagna noodles, spaghetti, penne, and elbow macaroni all on hand. Because I pretty much consider pasta the ultimate comfort food. And it’s so easy; boil it up and you have dinner in 10 minutes. Pair it with a jar of pasta sauce (or a frozen sauce you’ve previously made); pair it with olive oil, spices, and grated cheese; pair it with a nice creamy cheese sauce. Having pasta on hand means dinner is always nearly ready.
- Olive Oil
About 90% of the recipes I make start with olive oil. You can use it to saute proteins or veggies, you can combine it with vinegar or citrus to make a salad dressing or marinade, you can even bake with it. On the rare occasions when we’ve run out of olive oil, it’s essentially a full-grade emergency; a good quality EVOO is essential to any kitchen.
- Canned or Frozen Tomatoes
Tomatoes have always been one of my favorite foods, again, because of the versatility. Since we grow tomatoes, when the fresh harvest gets too big for us to consume, I just throw the extras in the food processor for a quick dice, and then into the freezer they go. But even if you don’t garden, keeping a few cans of diced tomatoes, whole tomatoes, and/or Rotel on hand will never go amiss. You can add them to your dry pasta for a quick marinara, you can throw them in soups and chilis, they work in enchiladas and even Indian food.
- Frozen Peas
Peas are my go-t0 vegetable side dish, and one of the few veggies that the hubby will consistently eat without complaint. Even better is that I find frozen peas taste GREAT. Just as good as fresh, and even better than canned. Just yesterday, the hubby brought home steaks for dinner; I threw some frozen peas, salt, pepper, and butter in a pot and in under 3 minutes, I had a tasty side dish. You can also toss them in salads or pasta dishes.
- Chicken Broth
Having some broth on hand, either homemade or store-bought, enables you to make just about any slow-cooker recipe. It makes rice delicious, or creates the base of many a soup. Making more broth is actually my New Year’s Resolution; the first step is just throwing all the “leftover bits” of veggies and proteins into a freezer bag…once the bag is full, you throw it all in a pot of water and boil for a few hours. And by making your own stock, you don’t get all the added sugar and artificial colors and preservatives you find in commercial varieties.
- Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup
So gross, yet so comforting. When you open a can of this glop, you know a casserole is not far away. Add green beans, bacon, and fried onions — you’ve got green bean casserole. Chicken, a can of rotel, tortilla chips, and cheese — you’ve got King Ranch casserole. Shredded chicken, cut spaghetti, veggies, and cheese — you’ve got chicken spaghetti casserole. Beef roast and veggies in a slow cooker — you’ve got pot roast. Heck, you could even add water and just make actual soup out of it. Amazing.
Rice is like a blank canvas for whatever you put on top of it. Top it with some protein and a hearty sauce, and you’ve got a great filling meal. And btw – I don’t mean the 60-second microwave instant rice; just get a big ‘ol bag of white or brown rice. Yes, it takes a bit longer to cook, but it’s not particularly hard. You just boil it, then reduce the heat and let it steep in a covered dish until the water is absorbed. And it works in so many cuisines: Asian, Indian, Italian, Mexican, Cajun, etc.
If you want to turn something into a ball-shape, or you want to stuff something, you’re gonna need some breadcrumbs. Case in point: meatloaf, crab cakes, stuffed mushroom, stuffed eggplant, etc. You can use it as breading to jazz up protein, or combine it with some butter and cheese to make fancy-pants gratin over your favorite pasta or vegetable dish. I always have breadcrumbs in my pantry.
- Good mustard
By “good” mustard, I mean the whole-grain, dijon variety, not something that comes out of a bottle neon-yellow. Mustard is one of my favorite marinades, in fact, despite the fact that I don’t even actually like yellow mustard as a condiment. I use it in salad dressings, rub meat with it, finish sauteed veggies with it (works GREAT with brussel sprouts), include it in charcuterie plates, and even jazz up potatoes with it. The higher quality here, the better.
- Frozen sauces
Finally, my freezer is always full of a variety of sauces. I’ve got marinara, bolognese, pesto, chimichurri, salsa verde, etc. Pretty much any sauce that doesn’t involve cream in it can be frozen. So whenever I make a nice sauce, I don’t just make enough for the dish I’m making; I triple or quadruple the recipe and then store the rest in freezer bags, lying them flat. Then, if I need a simple dinner, I just pop the sauce in the microwave to defrost, and combine it with a protein. It “fancies” up your meal quickly and without requiring any additional work for you.