Parenting hack: Quick family meals from pantry staples

Need a quick family meal? Make sure to stock your pantry with staples like pasta, rice and whole grains, and you can make inexpensive meals in minutes. iStock.

Working parents know the sinking feeling only too well. It’s 6 p.m. and you’re met at the door by hungry, cranky kids and the realization that you forgot to thaw the pork loin for dinner.

With a well-stocked pantry and a little know-how, there’s no need to panic or dial for takeout pizza for the second time in a week. A few essential pantry items — such as canned tuna, pasta, cooked brown rice, pesto sauce, olives and pinto beans — make it possible to cobble together a dinner in about 30 minutes.

A bonus: a meal made with food on hand costs less than going out to eat. A pantry meal for a family of four ranges from about $10- $15, compared with $20- $25 for a fast-food meal. Pricier fast-casual or restaurant meals can cost twice as much. Simple math shows that a family that eats out twice a week conservatively can save $520 to $1,040 a year.

Pantry meals also are healthier, typically containing less calories, salt, sugar and fat. And making dinner from the pantry can be less stressful than fighting rush hour traffic and restaurant crowds. Get started with these suggestions for pantry cuisine:

Assorted pasta in a rustic wooden box
Keep pasta onhand for quick, easy dinner ideas.

• Take inventory. The first step to stocking a workable pantry is taking inventory. Throw out items past their expiration date and donate food that’s good, but that your family is unlikely to eat. Then, organize, organize. Group like foods together to avoid wasting time rummaging for canned salmon.

• Prioritize nutrition. When stocking a pantry, read labels carefully. Stock it with the the most nutritious options available — those cans, boxes or jars with healthiest ingredients, such as whole grains and olive oil rather than palm oil.

• Try global flavors. Today’s off-the-shelf sauces — from Thai peanut, sun-dried tomato pesto to Mexican adobo — make it easier than ever to add international flavor to pantry meals. Be adventuresome and stock a variety of global flavors.

• Experiment. Embrace your inner pantry chef. It can be scary at first, but learn to create meals without recipes or simply use a recipe as a suggestion. Start with one or two easy creations, and expand your repertoire as you gain confidence. Think of your favorite restaurant meals and recreate simpler versions at home. Encourage children to help create a meal — a practice that also will make them more willing to clean their plates.

• Season it. Keep a few essential herbs and spices — dried basil, cayenne pepper, chili powder, rosemary, thyme and paprika — on hand to prevent pantry blandness. Because pantry meals cook quickly, add just a pinch of seasoning to avoid overpowering the dish.

• Remember essential proteins. Expand the definition of pantry to include the freezer and refrigerator. Keep smoked chicken sausages, cheeses, smoked salmon and thick-sliced deli chicken, turkey or ham on hand for quick proteins. Also, stock frozen foods that can be thawed in a snap or cooked frozen, including chicken tenders, meatballs, shrimp and frozen vegetables.

Spend an uninterrupted hour in the grocery store searching for new items to stock. If you haven’t paid close attention, grocers have dramatically increased the inventory of convenience foods for cooks to assemble dinners. Yes, it’s best to prepare meals made from scratch, but cutting corners with well-crafted pantry meals comes in as close second, both for a family’s health and bank account.

No pantry should ever be without three building blocks: pasta, beans and pre-cooked grains. These three staples, doctored up with vegetables and protein, can easily be turned into quick meals with spices.

Seamless texture with legumes on black background
No pantry should ever be without three building blocks: pasta, beans and pre-cooked grains. iStock.

Here are a few pantry favorites:


This Italian staple (an undeserving victim of the low-carb fad) is versatile and, yes, nutritious. Pasta leads to weight gain only if eaten in excess. It’s fortified with folic acid, an essential B vitamin. A half-cup serving of cooked pasta contains a mere 99 calories, less than half a gram of fat and less than 5 milligrams of sodium. For a high-fiber option, whole-grain pasta is smart option. Asian rice or ramen noodles are two other quick-cooking options.

Ideas: Toss with a tomato or pesto sauce, diced smoked sausages or Italian salami or ham. Or, for a vegetarian option, toss with garbanzo beans and frozen Italian vegetables. Warm pistachios in olive oil and toss with pasta and Parmesan cheese. Pasta also doubles as noodles for quick Asian meals. Top with stir-fried tofu or shrimp, frozen Asian vegetables and hoisin sauce.

Pre-cooked whole grains

Brown rice, a nutritious whole grain, takes at least 40 minutes to cook from scratch. Opt instead for new darlings of the pantry — pre-cooked or instant brown rice. Both cook in minutes, and, according to the Whole Grains Council, all are equally nutritious and a good sources of fiber. Or substitute pre-cooked quinoa, or any other whole grain for brown rice.

Ideas: Turn rice into breakfast-for-dinner bowls. Mix warmed rice with scrambled eggs, tidbits of pre-cooked bacon and frozen, diced bell peppers or pickled jalapenos. Or, heat brown rice with drained canned black beans, frozen corn, diced green chiles and diced chicken tenders. Top with grated cheddar cheese. You could also serve a quick jambalaya of brown rice, fire-roasted tomatoes, frozen peas and diced kielbasa.


Beans are no joking matter. They are low in fat and loaded with slow-burning carbohydrates, protein and fiber. Equally important, canned beans can quickly be turned into soups and burritos. Always rinse beans well before cooking.

Ideas: For a pantry bean soup, simmer pinto, Great Northern, black, kidney or a combination with diced ham and a heaping tablespoon of salsa. Tip: add a can of refried beans for a creamier, thicker soup. Heat a mix of whole and refried pinto or black beans, green salsa, brown rice and cheddar cheese. Another option is adding diced deli turkey. Wrap in a burrito and serve with salsa.

Chef Aaron Chamberlin of  St. Francis and his son, up-and-coming chef Arturo (2).
Chef Aaron Chamberlin of St. Francis and his son, up-and-coming chef Arturo (2). Photo by Rick D’Elia.

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