Make Creative Meals With What You Have on Hand

Photo: Vivevans/Flickr.

I have saved us from buying more food or from eating out numerous dinners this week by simply cooking creatively from what I had on hand. Have you ever had one of those weeks where every day you said, “I need to go to the store today” and then you reach the end of the week and you still had not gone? It has been one of those weeks for me.

But I have been pretty surprised by how many nice meals I’ve gotten out of my stores in the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer! I once went to a funeral of a friend’s relative (who had lived a long and fruitful life), and several people shared how she was able to create these yummy and filling meals out of bits and pieces from what she had on hand to serve not only her family, but guests as well. I thought it was a beautiful example of a lady who used the resources she had on hand to welcome people into her home for a warm meal. I was really inspired by her example of love and giving through how she cooked for people. So often it is easy to feel that when one is on a limited budget we are limited in giving. She didn’t let that stop her!

But back to my week. Necessity is the mother of invention, and this week, with me just going grocery shopping tonight (finally), I was inventing a lot of new-to-me meals out of what I had on hand. I found 3 quarts of fish stock in my freezer, which I defrosted, and then made into a lovely soup with leftover quinoa, onions, celery, canned salmon, and seasonings. For another meal, random rice pasta I found in the cupboard was combined with the fish stock, miso paste, and tamari for a gentle soup (served with some meat on the side that needed to be used up). Another night I made a quick meal out of the last couple chicken thighs (leftover from when I made chicken teriyaki) some vegetables, and soaked grains.

To tell you the truth, I’ve gone through long periods of time in the past where I just kept basics on hand without a real meal plan, and then would just “make up” dinner that day. Perhaps not the best planning ever, but we actually ate really well during that time period and I was so aware of what I had on hand, I didn’t really waste food either. This week was such a good challenge for me because I realized that I can too often go running to the store for more food when I have enough on hand to make a great meal, if I just thought outside the box a little.

All to say, I have been thinking about this topic while I used up what I had on hand, and thought I’d share a few ideas of how I make this work for me, when needed. But I’d also love to hear any tips and successes you’d had with “cooking from your pantry” too. So share below!

Here are my ideas.

1. Try to keep some of the basics on hand all the time

When cooking from the cupboard it is helpful to have basics on hand. We ran out of some of our family’s basics this week, such as rice, but we still had enough basics on hand, such as onions, celery, quinoa, frozen foods, canned seafood, etc. that we were able to make do. There have been times when I’ve tried to make a decent meal out of the cupboard and come to the conclusion I just didn’t have enough on hand. The more you keep on hand the more likely you can create a meal easily.

Some of the items I find most helpful in creating a last minute meal:

  • Homemade stock (I can make a soup out of almost any pantry item when I have a rich and nutritious stock on hand).
  • Frozen or canned seafood: Because frozen salmon can be defrosted fairly quickly, it is almost as convenient as canned. Other seafood items (like frozen mussels) can be cooked quickly as well.
  • Precooked grains: This last week, one of the smartest things I did was make a large pot of quinoa. I was able to turn it into many other meals. Having it on hand made it so simple!
  • Frozen grass-fed ground beef: You can actually cook frozen ground beef straight from the freezer. This is how I do it. First, I make sure that all of the wrappings are off, and then I place in a covered pan, and add about 1/2-3/4 cup of water to the pan. I get this water simmering slowly, and cover the pan. I then keep breaking off the cooked meat, here and there, as it defrosts and starts to cook. At the end, I turn up the heat to evaporate the rest of the moisture, and then season the cooked meat. We add it to pasta sauce and serve over noodles for a quick meal.
  • If you have can dairy, cheese, yogurt, kefir, and milk, you can make a wide variety of delicious meals too. I think about how the Swiss village that Dr. Price visited. Their almost daily lunch was a piece of rye bread and a slab of homemade (nutrient-dense) grass-fed cheese. How simple is that? The thing I miss most about dairy is not only the taste, but also the pure simplicity of it.
  • And if you have eggs on hand, there are a wide variety of simple (and complicated) last minute cupboard meals you can make with them right there.

Think outside the box

But besides actually having at least some basic items on hand that you can use for the meal, the thing that I have found the most needed is the ability to think outside the box and my current recipe collection. As much as I am experimenting all the time with recipes, I STILL often don’t see meal possibilities right under my nose. Looking at what you have on hand with an open mind, and considering how to combine them or use them in a meal is a great creative practice that just may result in a meal for dinner.

Keep a relaxed attitude

Sometimes my last-minute, cooking-from-the-cupboard meals aren’t the best examples of a well-planned meal (I know, who would have guessed, right?) The main dish may not match the ethnicity of the side dish, but it’s okay. We have a pretty relaxed attitude about that sort of thing around here. And sometimes it may have been better if I had gone to the store and gotten some ingredient or another, but as long as it tastes good, we are good too.

Granted I don’t know if all of my cooking-from-the-cupboard meals would win me an Iron Chef title, but they nourish my family with nutritious fare. Plus, by not buying food out, we save money too. And that’s a win in this household!