While the best way to avoid the "what's for dinner" 5:00 crisis is to plan meals in advance, there will still be nights that you stare into the pantry and wonder what on earth you can make with canned tuna, spaghetti noodles, and a can of coconut milk.
Avoid pantry meltdown by keeping yours stocked with our list of staples that can be used to make a variety of meals with little or no notice.
1. Canned or Pouch Chicken
With a storage life of up to a year, canned or pouch chicken is a lifesaver when you forget to defrost or think you have one extra cutlet in the fridge. It's best used in casseroles, stir-fries, creamy salads, or even shredded as a topping to a baked potato.
Noodles (spaghetti, linguini, rotini, penne–the list is as long as your arm) add bulk to almost any meal. Serve them with Asian-style dishes or as an alternative to rice. Add them to soups or pair them with sauces for an Italian or home-style dinner in minutes.
3. Jarred Tomato Sauce
Paired with noodles, it's a simple meal in minutes, but tomato sauce can also be used in soups, stews, and chili recipes. Many come pre-seasoned, so your favorite herbs and spices are already included–no need to go digging through the spice rack to find "Italian Seasonings" when you're cooking with premade sauce. Find more ideas for using jarred tomato sauce.
4. Rice and Grains
Like noodles, grains can bulk up any dinner. Keep a variety of quick-cooking rices, bulgur, and barley on-hand as an easy side for almost anything. Add grains to chili to make a hearty meal even more filling. Serve with a simple stir-fry or mixed with veggies and an egg for an easy fried rice dish. If the rice aisle confuses you, take a peek at our quick crash-course in the nutrients and flavor behind different grains. Discover new ways with brown rice.
5. Canned Beans: Black, Pinto, Cannellini, Great Northern, Garbanzo
Beans are roaring into mainstream dishes and sides. Heat and mash them for a filling soup or drain and mix them with canned veggies for a light and flavorful dip or vegetable salad. They're high in protein, so they'll keep you satisfied no matter how you use them. For more ideas on main-dish bean recipes, check out our all-star bean recipes.
6. Canned Vegetables
Fresh-bought produce can wilt or go bad in the fridge if you take a night off from cooking, but canned vegetables are more forgiving. Combine an assortment with broth and seasonings for an easy vegetable soup or add them to pastas, dry soup mixes, casseroles, or rice for a range of dishes that offer a variety of flavors with limited ingredients.
7. Canned Salmon and Tuna
When you're cutting back on red meat but still craving protein, turn to canned salmon and tuna for easy meal ideas. Serve the fish in salads, pitas, pasta dishes, burgers, loaded potatoes, croquettes, and even as light appetizers or snacks to add protein and flavor to simple dishes. For more ideas, check out 7 Ways With Canned Tuna.
8. Canned Tomato Products: Paste, Stewed, Diced
Keeping a few cans of go-to tomato products on hand opens up a world of options for appetizers and main dishes. Add diced tomatoes to cheese for a melty queso dip, to ground beef and taco seasoning for a zesty burrito supper, or to a skillet with seasoning for a homemade pasta sauce. Stewed tomatoes are perfect additions to soups and stews, adding depth and flavor. Tomato paste is great to keep on hand for when you need bold tomato flavor–the concentrated mixture adds just that.
9. Peanut Butter
Aside from the classic PB&J, peanut butter can be used on the dinner table for Asian-inspired flavor in dips, sauces, and stir-fry. Serve it for a snack spread on celery stalks or apple slices, as a drink in a nutty smoothie, or keep it simple by pairing the spread with multigrain crackers. Plus, it's perfect when paired with chocolate for dessert anytime.
10. Canned Fruit
It's hard knowing what nights your meal plan might not make it from the fridge to the table and when you're filling in gaps, it's nice to have convenience fruit products on hand. Keep jarred cherries and an assortment of canned fruit, including pineapple, mandarin oranges, and even fruit cocktail in the pantry for nights when your pizza dinner needs a nutrient-boosting side. When you keep a supply on hand, you'll find yourself more likely to experiment, serving grilled pineapple with chicken, Asian-inspired mandarin salads, and fruited desserts.