Secret Ingredients: 15 Pantry Staples That Make Weeknight Meals Easy

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Secret Ingredients: 15 Pantry Staples That Make Weeknight Meals Easy
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Secret Ingredients: 15 Pantry Staples That Make Weeknight Meals Easy

Canned Tomatoes

These are available in many varieties, whole (in puree or juice), crushed (in puree of juice), pureed, sauce, diced and more. You can buy them whole and cut them up yourself, or go for the pre-pureed/diced/crushed versions to save time. Sometimes you can find crushed tomato in puree versus juice, which makes for a thicker sauce.

You may have heard about San Marzano tomatoes, which are from Italy, and extremely flavorful because of the unique soil and environment they are grown in.

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A dozen eggs equals dinner any day of the week. Cheap, protein-packed, versatile, vegetarian, eggs are a miracle food and not just in the a.m.

Poached, fried, in an omelet, frittatas, scrambled up all plain and simple, or try them with some of these add-ins. The amounts are for six eggs, which usually feed two to three people. Because you’re making scrambled eggs and not an omelet, feel free to stir ingredients right into the beaten eggs before adding them to the pan.

Cheese scramble: Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of shredded or crumbled cheese, such as mozzarella, cheddar, Monterey Jack, goat cheese, feta, even American—just about all cheese works beautifully with eggs.

Meat scramble: Add 1⁄4 cup of crumbled cooked bacon or sausage (watch any added salt if you use one of these salty meats).

Vegetable scramble: Mix in 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cup chopped or shredded vegetables, such as chopped tomato, zucchini, summer squash, or shredded carrot. Vegetables like broccoli or asparagus should be lightly cooked first.

Mexican scramble: Try a medley of cheeses, a pinch of chili powder, slivered scallions, maybe a couple of tablespoons of kidney or black beans, and a bit of cooked corn. Top the cooked eggs with a spoonful of salsa and sour cream. You might even wrap the whole thing up in a flour tortilla and create a dinner/breakfast burrito.

Italian scramble: Beat in a couple of slivered fresh basil leaves (or 1⁄4 teaspoon of dried basil), 2 tablespoons of shredded mozzarella and/or Parmesan cheese, and maybe a teaspoon or two of some chopped fresh or sun-dried tomatoes. You can serve a dollop of pasta sauce on the side if you like.

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Dijon Mustard

A little bit of Dijon in everything from salad dressing to dips to tuna fish salad to macaroni and cheese to pan sauces turns things from blah to not blah very quickly. Even if your family is not a mustard family, when used as an ingredient in various dishes it elevates the flavor much like salt or pepper or soy sauce. Dijon mustard also includes wine or vinegar or both for that identifiable tang, and is the mustard I most use in cooking. You can use smooth or coarse ground, or if you fall in love, buy both so you can vary things up.

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Soy Sauce

Soy sauce is indispensable in all things Asian, but is also interesting as an ingredient in recipes that aren’t particularly Asian in tone. It can be used in cooking, and as a condiment. It’s is a traditional ingredient in East and Southeast Asian cuisines, and the base of teriyaki sauce, but it can add a pop of flavor and a rich saltiness to all kinds of dishes if used sparingly.

I use lower sodium soy sauce on a regular basis, because you still get the rich flavor, but with less salt. Or you can dilute regular soy sauce to cut back on the salt, using a 2/3 soy sauce to 1/3 water ratio.

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Dried Pasta

This is sort of a “no, duh” thing to include, but it is in fact one of those life-saving items to always, always (one more time, always) have in the house. If you have a box of pasta, you will almost definitely be able to get dinner on the table from whatever you have in the fridge or in your pantry. Pasta also = casseroles, macaroni and cheese, skillet meals and so forth. When you find a brand you love, and it goes on sale, this is another great item to stock up on. The pantry life of pasta is years long.

Think about different shapes for different dishes. Small pastas for soups and stews, long skinny pastas for thin sauces, chunky pastas for pasta salads and casseroles and thick, meaty sauces. If you have kids, let them help pick different shapes – you can freshen up a favorite recipe quickly and easily just by changing the shape of the pasta. Also, give whole grain pasta a try; it’s a simple way to get more whole grains into your world.

Fresh pastas are also great to have on hand in the fridge, though their shelf life is considerably shorter. However, you can keep a package of fresh pasta or ravioli in the freezer for several months for a quick dinner.

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Individually Wrapped Frozen Chicken Breasts

These are available everywhere from price clubs to supermarkets, even organic versions. You pay a little extra for the individual wrapping, but having an easily defrost-able set of chicken breasts in your freezer is worth any price on a harried weeknight evening when a stop at the supermarket just isn’t in the cards. If you transfer them to a plate, still in their wrappers, and put that plate in the refrigerator in the morning, they should be mostly defrosted by dinner time (and the rest of the defrosting can take place as you cook them, just add a few extra minutes of cooking time).

Baking and grilling are fine ways to cook a chicken breast, but cooking chicken breasts in a skillet with minced onion or garlic, and then making a simple pan sauce is a great weeknight technique. When the chicken breasts are cooked, set them aside, then add some wine or chicken broth or both to the skillet and scrape up any brown bits stuck to the bottom, which will add flavor to your sauce. You can then add some Dijon mustard, fresh or dried herbs, maybe a splash of vinegar or citrus juice, and when the liquid has thickened slightly, pour the pan sauce over the chicken breasts. You can vary the sauces with whatever you have on hand.

Also, if you have leftover salsa, or a dip, or some pesto or tapenade, you could also spoon a dollop over a plain chicken breast. Open that fridge door wide, and you will certainly find a bunch of ways to dress up a plain chicken breast.

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If you have olive oil, salt and a member of the onion family, you are well on your way to a flavorful weeknight meal. The onion family includes garlic, leeks, onions, shallots and scallions, and practically every savory dish includes one or more of these – at least in my house. In short, the onion family, whether cooked or raw, provides a flavor base for almost any kind of dish, no matter what the ethnic orientation. With any of these items, if you leave them raw, the flavor is sharper. When cooked, they become more mellow and sweet.

At the very least, buy onions and garlic. If a recipe calls for shallots or scallions or leeks, you can always improvise with onions and garlic. Pick a protein, sauté it up with some minced garlic or onion and you have dinner.

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Canned Beans

Here is a low-fat, vegetarian protein that stores for years, can be used in so many different ways and cuisines and is very economical on top of all that. Dried beans last for a long time and are even cheaper, but in most cases you do have to plan ahead to soak and cook them before using them in recipes, so they are less of a last-minute help.

Some beans to consider:
-- Garbanzo beans (chick peas): great for salads, soups, stews, curries, or pureed in dips and spreads. Often used in Indian and Mediterranean dishes.
-- Black beans: Used in many Mexican and Cuban dishes, chilies, soups, stews and often the star of black beans and rice.
-- Kidney beans: often found in Southern and Mexican preparations. Great in soups and chilis.
-- Cannellini beans: Found in Italian dishes, soups, stews, side dishes, lovely with meats.
-- Navy beans: a white bean, good in baked bean dishes, soups, stews.
-- Pinto beans: These get their name for its mottled skin (like a pinto horse). These are actually the most common bean in the United States and northern Mexico, eaten frequently in soups, burritos and refried beans.

A very quick weeknight Mexican “lasagna” can be made by layering layers of flour or corn tortillas (another good refrigerator staple), drained canned beans, tomato sauce, salsa and shredded cheddar or Monterey Jack, all stacked up in a cake pan or casserole. Bake at 375°F until everything is golden brown and melty. You can add in anything else you have on hand from shredded chicken to canned artichoke hearts.

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Chipotle Peppers in Adobo Sauce

Yes, these chiles are somewhat spicy, but as with many flavorings, when used judiciously they just add a warm undercurrent of smoky heat to all kinds of dishes: chilis, stews and soups, bean dishes, sauces, potato salads, barbecue sauces, dips…

Chipotles in adobo sauce are smoked jalapeno peppers which have been stewed in a sauce with tomatoes, garlic, vinegar, salt and various spices such as cumin, oregano and paprika. Imagine doing all that yourself! Now imagine pureeing a little 7-ounce can of the peppers and sauce, transferring it to a plastic container, then tucking it into the fridge and scooping out teaspoons whenever you need it. This condiment will last for a couple of months, and you will use it again and again, until it’s all gone, and you do it again. It lasts for weeks upon weeks, and you will fall in love with its smoky, sultry taste.

To summarize: a little bit of puree = nice flavor, not so much heat; a lot of puree = a lot of flavor and heat.

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Parmesan Cheese

The real stuff puts anything you can buy in a can to shame. Parmesan is a hard, granular cheese made from raw cow’s milk and produced in Italy, but the term Parmesan is also used for cheeses, which are made in the style of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Freshly grated Parmesan is a central ingredient in dishes such as macaroni and cheese or risotto, a topping for pasta and an integral ingredient in chicken or eggplant Parmesan, but a little bit sprinkled on a salad or soup or pizza offers an extra hit of flavor and saltiness.

In a perfect world, you’ll buy a nice big block and grate it yourself as needed. In a more real world, you might buy the pre-grated Parmesan, but still, go for the good stuff at the cheese counter or a specialty store. A super simple weeknight dinner might be some chunky pasta shape simmered with broccoli florets in chicken or vegetable broth and finished with a generous shower of Parmesan.

There are different schools of thought on storing Parmesan cheese so it doesn’t get moldy, but one good method is to moisten a piece of cheesecloth or a paper towel and wrap it around the cheese, then wrap the whole thing in aluminum foil and store it in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. The foil allows just the right amount of air to circulate around the cheese, and it should keep for months.

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Olive Oil and Extra Virgin Olive Oil

In a perfect world, you’ll have both kinds on hand. For most savory food, except Asian food, pure olive oil is the kind to use. Weeknight meals at their simplest could be a piece of chicken, meat or fish pan searedc or sautéed in olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper.

You can use pure olive oil for cooking, saving the more pricy extra-virgin for uncooked dishes, like salad dressings or drizzling over tomatoes and the like. There are tons of brands out there, so play around to find ones that you really like. Some have a much more pronounced flavor, some are fruitier than others, and so on.

There are some good-quality extra virgin olive oils available in large bottles at the supermarket that won’t break the bank and are inexpensive enough to cook with, if you’re only buying one kind.

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Kosher Salt

If there is one seasoning you always need to have on hand, it’s salt.

Almost every recipe, whether savory or sweet, calls for salt to bump up the flavor. Kosher salt has a much larger grain size than common table salt and no additives, which can make salt taste sharp or harsh. You may also prefer sea salt, which sometimes has an even coarser texture. (Avoid salt that is too coarse, or you’ll be crunching chunks which is not so pleasant.)

You also may want to experiment with some other fancy salts, like Fleur de Sel, Maldon Sea Salt or some of the Hawaiian varieties, but make sure to save those for sprinkling on at the end of a dish. They are expensive, so you’ll want to use them sparingly, and their subtle flavors will get lost if you use them in cooking.

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Carrots, Broccoli and Cauliflower

These are some of the hardiest vegetables around, lasting for more than a week in the refrigerator, substantially more in the case of carrots. Added to pasta, they turn a starch into a vegetarian meal, and they can also be cut up and tossed with a little olive oil and salt, then roasted in a hot (450° F) oven for 40 minutes or so until they become tender and caramelized. You can also sauté them, steam them, and add them chopped to stir fries, pasta salads and skillet dishes.

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Canned Broth

You can use broth in place of water in most savory recipes, and get results with more flavor and interest. Even steaming vegetables over broth infuses them with extra flavor. And if you have leftover cooked chicken and a package of noodles, and maybe some carrots and dill, a carton of broth turns into chicken noodle soup in a flash.

Stretch leftover brisket into a soup by simmering it with barley in some broth. Chop up every vegetable in the house and simmer them with some rice in a pot of broth until it turns into soup. Sauté some rice and cubes of pork or chicken in oil, pour in chicken broth instead of water, and create a simple stovetop skillet meal.

Canned or boxed broths are great, and have a substantial shelf life. A box of bouillon cubes is also good to have on hand in a pinch, and there are also some stock pastes that keep in the refrigerator for months and can be diluted with water into broth. You may want to keep an assortment of beef, chicken and vegetable stocks around for different purposes. Go for the lower sodium varieties if possible, since many of these broths and stocks do pack a salt wallop.

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Fresh Ginger

Ginger is another ingredient often associated with Asian food, and rightly so, but one that adds wonderful aroma and flavor to lots of dishes. If you are a stir-fry person, you probably already know to always keep this on hand. It also features in Southeast Asian food, Indian food and so many other cuisines.

You’ll find fresh ginger in the produce sections of most supermarkets. It looks like a beige, bumpy root (which it is -- it's the underground rhizome of the ginger plant), and has a peppery and warm flavor. Look for ginger that is form and not shriveled or wrinkled, and free of any moldy spots.

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Katie Workman, author of The Mom 100 Cookbook and creator of blog shares her top 15 pantry staples. Whether it's a family dinner on a school night, a quick meal for one, or just the need to streamline your grocery shopping, these items will help you get dinner on the table any night of the week.

To see what 15 staples Katie Workman selected, check out our slideshow above!

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