It’s like the ultimate game of Chopped.
There are a few times in your life you’ll be stuck staring at a mostly empty fridge with the difficult challenge of whipping up dinner. It’s like you’re on an episode of Chopped—but someone removed most of the pantry and then cleared out the fridge. It’s time to get creative.
I’ve done this many times before. Every time I moved home during a summer in college, before leaving for a long vacation, that time my parents chose to redo their kitchen, and now I’m struggling to pack up my things and move to a new apartment. The last thing anyone wants is to pack up groceries... but you don’t want to toss them either.
That’s where the cleaning-out-the-fridge meal comes in. The first step is to stop shopping. Yes, it’s hard. I promise if you keep a generally well-stocked kitchen, re-upping on your pantry staples on the regular, you’ll be ok for a week or two without a trip to supermarket.
Now, evaluate what you have on hand. Maybe some leftover herbs and spices? You probably have a few bulbs of garlic and onions, a half bag of cheese, and a few zip-top bags full of frozen vegetables. You’re golden.
All you need is to make what you have work. To have a complete meal, you typically need a grain, sauce, vegetable, and protein. Here, we’ve included a few common ingredients you may likely have on hand, and a few ways you can make the most of your kitchen scraps before you hit the road.
Pasta is a perfect base for any clean-out-the-fridge masterpiece, and I somehow always manage to have endless boxes of it in my pantry. One of our editors even wrote a step-by-step guide to making a delicious pasta dinner and cleaning out your fridge at the same time. Check it out—It’s brilliant.
As for my own pasta revamping, it’s best to evaluate what you have to work with. My go-to is pasta with a jar of marinara, whatever frozen veggies I have on hand, and a little cheese and herbs to top it off.
If I feel like I have a little more to work with, I’ll start with a pan of olive oil and sliced onion and garlic. Then I’ll make some kind of sauce—either a homemade pasta sauce, pesto, or easy cream sauce. I recently made a fantastic blend of ricotta, lemon juice and zest, and fresh basil. It balanced perfectly with some frozen veggies and a sprinkle of toasted pine nuts. If you’re set on following a recipe, three classics that use just few ingredients are Pasta Carbonara, Cacio e Pepe, and Bucatini Aglio e Olio.
Most grains you have on hand can be used interchangeably in a pinch. The best place to start is to find a theme with your ingredients and run with it. See if you can snag a few other ingredients you could categorize by cuisine as Greek, Mexican, Italian, Chinese, or another set of flavors that generally work together. Then, toss them together with cooked rice, quinoa, farro, couscous, or whatever else you have on hand to use as your base.
When using more traditionally Asian ingredients, a classic fried rice or quick stir fry is a perfect option. Stir in some soy sauce, scallions, scrambled egg, and frozen veggies for a simple, throw-together dinner. If you find yourself staring at a can of beans, half-jar of salsa, bag of shredded slaw mix, and some cilantro—you have a super simple taco rice dish.
I recently found myself staring at ingredients like parsley, cucumber, tomato, and cheese— so I tried a version of this mediterranean bowl. I swapped in tahini sauce as the dressing and boom there was lunch for the week.
If a bowl of grains and veggies doesn’t quite do it—try mixing up the cooking method. Use leftover broth instead of water when boiling grains for extra flavor or cook grains risotto-style if you have wine and cheese laying around (lucky you). You can also pack patties with a delicious grain, and make grain-based veggie burgers.
Packaged ramen noodles can make for a really delicious noodle dish or soup to help use up everything in your fridge and pantry. Ditch the seasoning packet and treat noodles like you would any other grain or pasta—like this delicious cheesy spinach ramen. Just swap out the veggies and cheese for whatever you have on hand (see pasta tips above).
If you’re looking for an upgraded ramen soup, miso ramen is the perfect base to toss in all your leftover goodies. I like to mix a few tablespoons of miso into broth, boil my noodles in the mixture, and top it off with veggies and a soft cooked egg. Your college-self would be so proud.
Lentils and Beans
Start with a perfect pot of lentils or a can of beans, and you have a world of opportunity. Add them to soups, salads, grain bowls, or pasta dishes for a touch of protein. An old-school rice and beans dish topped with a fried egg is a delectable dish you can make in a snap.
If you have a few more options (like a can of crushed tomatoes) you can cook up a big pot of chili. Plus, if you have frozen hamburger buns or bread on hand, whip up a delicious lentil burger or riff on a sloppy Joe. Just be sure to invite all your friends over for the event—because you’ll definitely want to share (and show off your cooking skills).
These are possibly the easiest ingredient to finish off, because you can top almost anything with an egg. Think outside the box—a frozen veggie burger, can of lentil soup, or a bowl of pasta. Everything can benefit from an egg. If you’re swimming in leftover ingredients, toss them all into a grain dish (fried rice does taste better with a scrambled egg mixed) or frittata. If you’re low on ingredients (say, just some jarred tomatoes), a simple shakshuka is always a winner.
I’m someone who tosses all of my bread products into the freezer, because I know I can’t finish them alone before they go stale. That leaves me with a freezer full of English muffins, sliced bread, hamburger buns, pita, and tortillas.
A simple grilled cheese can be taken to the next level with addition of tomatoes, apples, spinach, or even a side of canned tomato soup. Tortillas and pitas can be sliced and baked into chips for dipping or topped for nachos. Plus, if the grains are just too stale, just blend them up in a food processor for quick bread crumbs. Then toast those on the stovetop to top your pasta dishes for a little extra crunch.