Editor’s Note: This post, originally published in January of 2021, is here to solve your last-minute meal woes. Keep these ingredients on hand and you’ll never wonder what’s for dinner again.
Here’s the odd thing about being a cookbook author and recipe writer. For everyday cooking, I rarely follow a recipe. Yes, my husband Alex and I are professional recipe developers but when it comes down to it, the majority of our meals are completely off the cuff. Honestly, that’s our secret to healthy, plant-forward eating in the long term. Make a few recipes per week, then fill in the rest with impromptu cooking!
Of course, cooking in this way requires a sense of confidence in the kitchen. But the more you learn basic building blocks and meal concepts, the more creative and confident you can become! So to start off the year, here’s a master list of the basic ingredients we keep around and a few simple recipes to illustrate each one. Remember: These are just ideas and examples. Customize them to your tastes, diet, and what you have on hand!
Pantry ingredients (& recipe ideas!)
Let’s start with the actual pantry, then move to the refrigerator. Here are my top picks to keep on hand:
Beans are packed with plant-based protein and ready to eat with little prep! There are so many fast and easy meals you can make with these powerhouses; here are some favorites:
Couscous (& other pasta)
Sure, we all know pasta is nice to keep around for quick meals. But a secret some people don’t know about is this: couscous! It cooks in just five minutes, making it perfect for easy dinners. Use standard couscous or pearl couscous, which is larger and ball-shaped. Try it in:
Farro, quinoa, and rice
Whole grains are clutch to keep around for easy sides. Some favorites of ours: farro, a chewy grain like barley that cooks in half the time, and quinoa, that popular protein-packed fluff. A new favorite alternative to rice: lentil rice, which is made of lentils and cooks in half the time. (Here are a few options.) Try them as:
Lentils are another staple ingredient packed with plant-based protein and fiber. They’re great as a side dish or for bowl meals or tacos. We love them in salads or for lunches too! Eat them as:
Canned tuna (really!)
Does keeping tuna on hand sound retro? Because if so, we’re all about the 1970s pantry full of canned tuna. Why? It’s protein-packed, super shelf-stable, and makes for filling meals. Try it in:
Oatmeal powers us most days, and it’s ideal for whole grain healthy breakfasts! It’s great for snacks too. Some of our favorite ways to eat it off the cuff:
Old Bay (secret weapon!)
There’s nothing quite like Old Bay for impromptu seasoning! This classic seafood seasoning mix of paprika, celery seed, and lots of secret herbs always hits the spot. Grab it at the grocery store or make your own.
Fridge ingredients (& recipe ideas!)
Skip them at breakfast and save eggs for dinner! Eggs are full of protein and part of a healthy diet, in moderation. Some of our favorites are:
Our veggie of choice these days is broccoli: It’s packed with nutrients and the perfect side for all sorts of meals. Try it in a throw-together meal:
Leafy greens: kale or spinach
Throw a few handfuls of greens into just about anything to infuse the good stuff! Pre-packaged baby greens are handy for quick meals. We throw them in soups, stews, scrambles, stir-fries, bowl meals, and of course: smoothies.
Tofu or tempeh
You don’t have to eat vegan to enjoy these tasty proteins. Tofu is part of a healthy diet, in moderation. Tempeh is lesser-known but a favorite of ours, as it has a more robust texture and flavor. Try it in:
Smoked shoyu (secret weapon!)
Lastly, here’s a secret weapon condiment: smoked soy sauce (aka smoked shoyu)! It’s becoming more widely available at grocery stores: check near the Japanese products. The intensely savory, smoky flavor is incredible for using in off-the-cuff recipes as a seasoning. Throw it in any of the recipes above.
And that’s it: a little rundown of some of our favorites! Again, the recipes above are meant to be guides. Use them to customize your own experience based on the ingredients you have on hand.
Tell us: What do you make as “off-the-cuff” recipes? What do you like to keep around in your pantry and fridge? Let us know in the comments below!
Sonja is author of award winning food blog A Couple Cooks and the cookbook Pretty Simple Cooking. Together with her husband, Alex, the two are leading voices on plant-based eating, and authors of a recipe series with Washington Post Food called Voraciously: Plant Powered. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.