You can make a million cheap, healthy meals with these 11 pantry staples


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Photo: Stocksy / Cameron Whitman

There are about a million things I’d rather do than go grocery shopping. It’s a hassle (ask me how long I waited in line last week at Trader Joe’s!) and it can quickly get expensive, especially if you’re trying to prioritize buying organic or sustainable foods.

Food waste is also a big part of your standard bad grocery experience. Fresh food goes bad so quickly (looking at you, pre-packaged spinach) that it’s hard to guarantee you’re getting the most bang for your buck by using your entire grocery cart haul on time. That’s why keeping pantry staples—which have longer shelf lives and don’t require refrigeration—in your home can be so useful. Most are inexpensive and can be used in so many different, delicious ways for quick, easy meals when you’re pinched for time or are unsure what to make.

This sounds like a fast-track way to eat like you’re living in a bunker—but working creatively with non-perishable staples can be super delicious if you know how to do it right. For help, we asked dietitian Maggie Michalczyk, MS, RD, to help us come up with five different healthy, easy pantry meals that can be made primarily with 11 key staples everyone should have in their kitchen. (With a little help from some refrigerated ingredients like cheese, greens, and avocado.) That means you can have dinners ready from Monday to Friday night after work, all with just a few simple, cheap ingredients waiting for you at home.

What to buy for your pantry:

  • Canned black beans or pinto beans
  • Canned chickpeas
  • Canned pumpkin puree
  • Vegetable broth
  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Canned tuna or salmon
  • Corn tortillas
  • Salsa
  • Canned diced tomatoes
  • Lentils (any variety!)

Meal 1: Vegetarian grain bowl

Pantry staples: quinoa, chickpeas or black beans

Extra ingredients: cheese, leafy greens, cooked vegetables

“Going plant based even just once a week can make a positive impact on your health and the environment,” says Michalczyk. She says a go-to dinner for her usually involves a grain bowl with quinoa, chickpeas or black beans, and a bit of cheese (or nutritional yeast if you’re vegan). You’ll get a double dose of plant-based protein and fiber from the quinoa and beans to keep you satiated for hours. You can also add in some greens too for some added nutrition.

Pro tip: Roast your chickpeas with some olive oil, salt, and your favorite spices before adding them to your grain bowl. Throw some chopped vegetables on the baking sheet too if you’re feeling particularly ambitious.

Why is every RD so hot about fiber? Probably has to do with its major gut health benefits:

Meal 2: Lentil tacos

Pantry staples: lentils, tortillas, canned diced tomatoes

Extra ingredients: cheese, shredded lettuce, avocado

You can never go wrong with #TacoTuesday, and this version lets you shop mostly from your pantry. “Cook lentils according to package directions and add to tortillas along with canned diced tomatoes for a great plant based meal,” Michalczyk says. Then top with anything you normally love to add on tacos, like shredded lettuce, cheese, avocado slices, or hot sauce. “Lentils are a great source of fiber, protein, potassium, folate and iron,” she says. They’re great to have on hand to switch things up a bit from beans, and they still pack in tons of nutrients to improve your health and provide delicious flavor.

Pro tip: Season your lentils like you would any other taco filling with cumin, chili powder, and paprika.

Meal 3: Canned salmon cakes

Pantry staples: canned salmon or tuna, oats, quinoa

Extra ingredients: panko, egg, lemon, mustard, turmeric, greens

Yes, yes, we all know that fish has tons of health benefits thanks to all of those omega-3s. But it’s so expensive, which is why Michalczyk swears by the canned stuff. “Canned salmon or tuna are major pantry staples in my book. They are super versatile and a great source of protein,” she says.

No, this doesn’t mean you have to eat tuna salad all day every day. “Whip up salmon cakes by combining oats and canned salmon, panko bread crumbs, an egg, plus mustard and seasonings like in this recipe for turmeric salmon oat cake,” she suggests. (Basically, you combine all the ingredients in a bowl, form small patties with the salmon mixture, then cook for a few minutes on each side in a skillet.) “The oats add fiber to this protein-packed meal,” she says. Eat as is or on top of a bed of cooked quinoa and greens for even more protein and fiber, which will keep you fuller longer.

Pro tip: Make extra quinoa when you’re cooking the grain bowl and save it for this recipe—all you have to do is reheat it and you’re set!

Meal 4: Bean quesadilla

Pantry staples: black or pinto beans, corn tortilla, salsa

Extra ingredients: cheese, cooked vegetables, guacamole

Honestly, who doesn’t like a quesadilla? You can really easily make one in just a few minutes with a few key pantry items. “Add black beans or spread pinto beans onto two halves of a tortilla for a quesadilla and top with salsa for a quick and filling meal,” Michalczyk says. It provides a good dose of plant-based protein and fiber for nourishment, and the salsa gives it some heat. If you have veggies or cheese on hand, you can always add in some, too.

Pro tip: If flipping a quesadilla endlessly on the stovetop isn’t your idea of a good time, try making it in a panini press. Game. Changing.

Meal 5: Pumpkin chili

Pantry staples: canned pumpkin, black or pinto beans, canned diced tomatoes, vegetable broth

Extra ingredients: garlic, red pepper flakes, chili powder, cumin, avocado, sour cream or Greek yogurt

Nothing beats cold winter nights quite like chili, right? Simply combine the pumpkin puree, black or pinto beans, diced tomatoes, and vegetable broth in a stock pot. “Let simmer [until warm and cooked through] and you’ve got the perfect hearty and healthy meal made from simple pantry staples and a few spices,” says Michalczyk. “You’ll definitely have leftovers which is a good thing because soups and chilis tend to taste even better the next day when the flavors marry together longer.” You can season it up even further with garlic, chili powder, cumin, and red pepper flakes. Or go with some creamy ingredients for extra protein, fats, and richness, such as avocado, Greek yogurt, or sour cream on top.

Pro tip: If you’re looking for more protein from this meal, add some cooked ground beef or turkey to the pot, too. If you’re plant-based, add some cooked quinoa or your go-to alt-protein instead.

Looking for more smart meal ideas? Here’s how to make a week’s worth of vegan dinners out of one shopping list. And here’s how to get a low-FODMAP dinner on the table in under 15 minutes.

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