9 wonderful pantry recipes for any night you think 'I have nothing to eat for dinner'
Trust us, you do.
If you frequently find yourself spiralling into a 5:15 p.m. panic because you don't have a dinner plan, I understand your terror. Because as much as I preach about batch cooking and freezing everything, life gets busy and I find I'm not always that super-prepared version of myself I aim to be. Especially now that it's November and my enthusiasm for back-to-school planning has fizzled and I'm dragging the kids around to fall activities without much time to plan.
In an effort to avoid "hangry" kid meltdowns or resorting to take out (again), I've learned how to stock my pantry so there's always something to cook. Now I'm using the word 'pantry' loosely here — mine is actually just the top cupboard shelves that I stand on the counter to reach. But inside there I keep a curated selection of whole-food ingredients like jarred tomatoes and canned salmon, along with relatively quick-cooking grains like lentils and yellow split peas.
And, those pantry meals happen to be the ones my family actually really likes — even requests! Like pasta in sauce made with a jar of passata (strained tomatoes) and a couple of eggs swirled in for protein, or tacos with a flavourful filling of pureed canned black beans and a few other pantry ingredients I make sure to have on hand — it helps that I keep onions and garlic on hand for times like these. Luckily they're pretty happy in the dark corners of my pantry too.
Here's how you can stock your pantry and cook a from-scratch meal, any day.
Whole canned tomatoes + dry pasta + garbanzo beans for soup
Sweat an onion in olive oil and add the whole canned tomatoes. Mix in elbow pasta and garbanzo beans and simmer until the pasta cooks. I like this as a hearty stew, but you could definitely add vegetable or chicken stock to thin it out, the boxed stuff is fine if you've got it. Simmering a leftover Parmesan rind along with this wouldn't be a bad move either; I keep a stash of the finished ends in the freezer just for this purpose. Season the soup with salt and pepper and grate Parmesan over the soup if you've got it.
Canned tuna + cannellini beans for salad
Grab any greens you've got kicking around and empty a can of tuna or two onto a bed of them. (No greens? Use toast!) You can either drain the tuna's oil first, or use it in place of the olive oil you'd otherwise use for the dressing. If the tuna is packed in water, definitely drain it. Add the beans, then squeeze a lemon over the whole salad, and season well with salt and pepper.
Canned salmon + breadcrumbs for salmon cakes
Follow the instructions for these Asian Salmon Burgers, omitting the green onions if they aren't in your fridge. If you're also without eggs, whisk together 3 tablespoons of ground flaxseed with 1 tablespoon of water and that'll help bind the burger, or, skip the extra binder altogether and just add more breadcrumbs — the burgers will be a little more delicate but will still hold their shape.
Passata + dried pasta for noodles in tomato sauce
Empty a jar of passata into a pot and grate in two cloves of garlic and a quarter of an onion over top with a microplane grater. The onion will turn to mush and that's what you want. Add two glugs of olive oil and 1 ½ teaspoons of kosher salt. Stir it all up and cook gently for 20 minutes. For added protein, beat two eggs with a fork before tempering them (add ½ cup of the hot sauce from the pot, whisking the eggs quickly) and adding them back to the sauce at the end of cooking whisking constantly. (If you do this too quickly or at too high a heat, the eggs may scramble. This can always be fixed by a whiz in the blender before tossing with the cooked noodles.)
Black beans + boxed stock + taco shells for tacos (plus jarred salsa and jalapenos)
Saute a large, chopped onion in olive oil until soft and translucent. Add a can of drained black beans, aiming for a 1:1 ratio of onions to beans (just trust me). Pour in enough stock to submerge everything and simmer gently for 30 - 45 minutes, adding more stock if necessary and turning down the heat if it gets too dry. Purée the beans in a food processor or with a stick blender and season with salt and pepper. Serve in the taco shells with jarred salsa and pickled jalapenos from your pantry, and any fillings you may have on hand, shredded kale, many kinds of cheese, and fresh tomatoes all work here.
Yellow split peas + canned tomatoes + jarred ginger garlic paste + brown rice for dal
Keep a jar of unopened ginger garlic paste in your pantry for instant flavour when you don't have the fresh stuff. You can wing it or look up a recipe for dal online, swapping in the jarred version of ginger and garlic if it calls for fresh. Stock garam masala in your spice cabinet so you're set with all the seasonings and put a pot of brown rice on to cook when you start the stew.
Chickpea flour + olive oil for socca
Make socca (chickpea flatbread) by following this recipe, but top with ingredients from your pantry instead, like canned tuna tossed with diced jarred artichokes, or rehydrate dried porcini mushrooms and saute them with onions and garlic, along with your favourite dried herbs. Serve the mushroom mixture with a fried egg for something more substantial.
Wild rice + lentils + orzo pasta + dried apricots + breadcrumbs for veggie patties
Boil the wild rice for 10 minutes in a large, covered pot of salted water. Add the lentils and cook for another 20 minutes, then add some orzo pasta. Boil for 5 minutes and drain. As the grains cool, rehydrate a handful of dried apricots, and saute a medium onion and a few cloves of garlic in oil until softened, adding a bit of cumin, smoked paprika and a pinch of cayenne. Process everything in a food processor until smooth, adding enough breadcrumbs so the mixture balls up, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Fry the patties in a bit of oil and serve with a dipping sauce of dijon mustard, mayonnaise, and a little bit of honey whisked together.
Canned butter beans + whole canned tomatoes for beans on toast
Saute a medium onion and two cloves of smashed garlic in a generous amount of olive oil until soft. Add a can of whole tomatoes and butter beans (otherwise known as lima), along with a pinch of sugar, a splash of vinegar (any kind) and dried oregano. Simmer gently for 15 minutes and season with salt and pepper to taste. Heap on toast and serve with a drizzle of olive oil and flaky salt.
Armed with these recipe ideas, you'll always have a backup plan. If you're looking for more concrete instructions, take a look at the recipes below and stock your pantry with the ingredients for the ones you like best. Remember that recipes are never set in stone, so don't be afraid to skip ingredients or get creative by subbing in things like dried fruit or herbs for the fresh, or olive oil and bottled lemon juice in place of the tangy yogurt. Some of the best pantry meals are made if you think outside the box.
Jessica Brooks is a digital producer and pro-trained cook and baker. Follow her food stories on Instagram @brooks_cooks.