With many families either not working or working less during the pandemic, budgets are tight all over. In addition, most of us are also limiting trips to the grocery store. This is the perfect time to try a “use what you have” challenge. Make an inventory of what you already have in your pantry, fridge and freezer. You will be surprised at how much is there! Next, figure out what meals you can put together from those ingredients. If you need a helping hand, try one of these apps: Allrecipes Dinner Spinner or BigOven Recipes and Meal Planners. Both of these apps allow you to find recipes by inputting the ingredients you already have.
What pantry staples do you need?
Having a pantry stocked with staples makes life easier when you need to throw together dinner on the fly. It also helps your budget because you can stock up while items are on sale and you won’t be running to the store for “just one thing” and wind up coming home with a full grocery sack. There are many lists available online for what you should keep in your pantry. What you want to keep on hand will be unique to your family. Think about your favorite recipes and consider what ingredients you need for those. Check out this list from Budget Bytes to get started. Once you have your pantry optimally stocked, here are some easy recipes that require just a few staples.
1. Slow cooker maple cinnamon oatmeal
If your kids like those little packets of instant oatmeal, they will love this recipe from the blog A Mindful Mom. The oatmeal is made with ingredients that most people will have in the pantry and it is cooked overnight in a slow cooker. Waking up to the smell of breakfast was never easier.
2. Slow cooker baked ziti
With just four ingredients and a prep time of five minutes, this slow cooker dish from The Kitchn is a winner! The kids will love this creamy, cheesy pasta. We bet that if you don’t have ziti pasta on hand, another pasta shape of similar size and thickness will work just as well.
3. Easy fried rice
Rice is a great staple food but there are often leftovers. Use up that rice by cooking up a batch of restaurant-style fried rice from The Country Cook. This vegetarian recipe calls for frozen mixed veggies, but you can easily make it a complete meal by adding cooked chicken, pork, shrimp or tofu.
4. Italian wonderpot
This one-pot pasta dish from Budget Bytes is a favorite at my house. I omit the spinach and serve a salad or carrot sticks on the side, and instead of the basil and oregano, I just use one tablespoon of Italian seasoning. You can also use pasta of any shape — but gluten-free pasta doesn’t work as well according to some cooks. Serve this crowd-pleaser up with a topping of grated cheese.
5. Taco soup
This delicious soup from Life in the Lofthouse is made in a crockpot, and the ingredients come straight from your pantry, spice cabinet and freezer. You can even leave out the meat to make it vegetarian-friendly. You can substitute white or kidney beans for the pinto and black beans, leave out the enchilada sauce and use whatever broth you have on hand. Make it your own and pass the tortilla chips!
6. Slow cooker butter ranch chicken
Gluten-free buttery, ranch-flavored chicken breast with just three ingredients? Yes, please! Just put this recipe from Gluten Free With Southern Charm in the slow cooker and go about your day. Serve this dish with rice, pasta or bread and add your favorite vegetable to make it a new family favorite.
7. Grilled chicken pineapple rice bowl
This yummy recipe calls for a few fresh ingredients that you might not have on hand, such as fresh pineapple, fresh jalapeño, fresh avocado and red onion. That said, you can modify the recipe by using what you have. If you don’t have fresh pineapple, use canned, and then sauté or bake this dish instead of grilling the pineapple. If you have canned diced jalapeño, use that in place of fresh or just omit it. Use white onion instead of red, use bottled lime juice … you get the idea. It may not taste exactly the same, but it will still be delicious! Read more from Chelsea's Messy Apron.
8. Shepherd’s pie
We love this recipe from This Is Not Diet Food because it calls for instant mashed potatoes and ground beef. Shepherd’s Pie is very versatile. If you don’t have canned corn, substitute thawed, frozen peas or even edamame beans (without the shell). Any starchy vegetable will do. If you don’t have a packet of gravy mix, substitute 1 cup broth thickened with cornstarch or flour. Top with grated cheese for extra flavor.
Editor's note: This article was first published in 2020 and has been updated for 2022.