How to cook with what you have on hand

With everyone social distancing, in isolation or quarantine, it’s important to try to cook with whatever you already have in the house, to avoid unnecessary trips to the grocery store. I usually follow this rule anyway, even before Covid-19 was a thing, but now more than ever, it’s important to stay home if you can.

Being forced to stay in is also a great way to experiment in the kitchen. Baking, trying new recipes, making mystery baskets with your pantry ingredients and playing Chopped with your kids are all great ways to start using what you have on hand.

Stocking your pantry

In my first ever blog post, 55 Ingredients to Have on Hand at All Times, I shared a list of what I typically stock in my pantry. These are ingredients that I will restock as soon as I run out, even if I don’t have any immediate plans to use them. You will see a variety of similar lists all over the Internet. Use them as a guideline, and make your own list that suits your family’s tastes. Your customized pantry list should include:

  • herbs, spices, and seasonings you regularly use
  • sauces and condiments your family likes and uses regularly
  • dry goods (pasta, rice, grains, crackers, baking ingredients)
  • canned goods (again, ingredients that you typically use)
  • frozen foods that you use often or when you’re in a pinch
  • fresh foods with a longer shelf life (potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, apples)

You probably already know most of the items that would go on your pantry list, because you use them and buy them all the time.

To do if you’re bored: Make your customized pantry list and check what needs to be restocked on your next grocery shop.

Using what you already have in the house

Having a well-stocked pantry means that you have an excellent starting point for creating your meal plan. When creating a meal plan, I will always go to the fridge first and see what will spoil if it doesn’t get consumed right away, and base my meals around those ingredients. Next, the freezer. We usually have some sort of protein or vegetable that will be a building block for our next meal. Then finally, the pantry to tie everything together.

Ditching the recipe

Using what you have on hand requires a bit of improvisation. Following a recipe is usually necessary for baking, however for regular meals, it’s really not necessary. Proteins can sub each other out and so can vegetables. Spices and sauces can also be swapped most of the time. Being confident in your taste and knowing how you like your food prepared will help you to ditch the recipe.

Easy ways to swap ingredients

I’m going to narrow down a few recipes from this blog that are versatile and easily modified. If you are unfamiliar with some of the ingredients, it’s easy to swap them out for something else.

Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Soup

If you don’t have jarred red peppers, just use fresh and roast them yourself. No onions? Use dehydrated onion instead. No canned tomatoes? Try fresh ones and roast them up with your red peppers. No coconut milk? Use dairy milk or cream. No pesto? Some dried basil or Italian seasoning will season it up nicely. Do you see how we were able to swap almost every ingredient in this recipe?

Italian Sausage and White Bean Soup

Let’s look at the two main ingredients for this recipe: Italian Sausage and White Beans. The options are endless here. Instead of the sausage, try frozen meatballs, or meatballs made from scratch with any ground meat (chicken, turkey, pork or beef). For the beans, again, a great substitute would be red kidney beans or navy beans, however, chickpeas and black beans would also do the trick.

Greek Chicken Wraps – Three Ways

This one is a real bonus because you already have three different meal ideas with this recipe. An easy swap to make is to use a different kind of dressing. Italian dressing would work well with chicken and veggies. You may even want to add or swap some of the salad veggies for artichokes and sundried tomatoes or replace the feta with some fresh mozzarella. For an asian-inspired twist, try a Thai peanut hummus and use carrots, cucumbers, cabbage, and mushrooms instead of the greek-style veggies.

Recipes you can make with pantry ingredients

Here are a few other recipes you can make with ingredients from your pantry.

Try and don’t buy

The only way to get comfortable improving in the kitchen and using what you already have is to do it! Force yourself to use the grocery dollars that are already in your cupboards, in order to save some money and a trip to the store. Having nowhere to go means having time to focus on your home life and develop new habits. This is a good one to work on! Good luck!

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