You know the song. “There’s nothing to eat.” “What is there to make?” “I have no idea what to do for dinner.” Stop singing it. There are a few foods that you should always have in your home, and if you did, I can bet this issue wouldn’t come up so often.
Either that or you’d move on to the next verse: “I don’t feel like making anything.” You’re on your own on that one.
But in all seriousness, a well-stocked kitchen has the foundations for a number of dishes and recipes, almost-out-of-the-box-snacks, and at least the basic ingredients to get you by to make a boxed cupcake or cookie recipe, even if some items are substitutes.
1. A favorite oil or fat
Most people choose olive oil and/or butter, but these are the bases for a swath of recipes. Really, this should almost not be included on the list because having an oil or fat that you love is a gimme. I pretty much always have olive oil, grapeseed oil, butter, and coconut oil on hand because between all of them, at least one will work with virtually any flavor profile.
Eggs are heroic foods. They’re cheap, protein rich, and wildly versatile. Frittatas, quiche, omelettes, obvs. But adding an egg wash to pastries, mix them into rice in a wok with some veggies for some fried rice (a one-dish meal!), and throw them on a burger to get fancy with it. Yeah, you didn’t think eggs were fancy, didja?
Keep it around for baking, a fry batter or quick dredge for a crispy pan fry. Thicken up stews, make a roux – flour does it all.
4. Some Kind of Milk
Milk is one of those obvious things, but it doesn’t have to be traditional dairy – I’ve tried way too many different types of milk substitutes, and thus far, my favorite is coconut milk. That said, it’s always a great idea to have some sort of creamy liquid around to smooth out a recipe, make cereal or overnight oats, or just sip on.
5. Sugar or Maple Syrup
A sweetener of some kind goes a long way – I love the flavor of coconut sugar, personally, and maple syrup is awesome on anything (Grade B is a later harvest, so it’s richer in flavor and sweeter, so I HIGHLY recommend that over Grade A). Usually, though, I stock Zulka Morena because it’s an unrefined sugar that isn’t super chunky, which makes it awesome for baking and everything else.
6. Canned Tomatoes
You can make sauces, a quick & rich tomato soup, stews… It’s a simple ingredient that packs a one-two punch, PLUS it has staying power because it’s canned.
7. Chicken or Vegetable Broth
Cooking grains or pastas in broth makes it so much more flavorful, and broth, like tomatoes, is incredibly versatile. You can throw in vegetables to make a quick soup, toss in some noodles, chicken, and herbs when you have a cold, you can use it as a base for creamy sauces, you name it!
I love rice of a lot of different varieties. In my cabinets, you can generally find at least 3 (jasmine, brown, and short white, if not brown basmati and glutinous rice because sticky rice is the biznass), and it’s a staple for basically any meal. I’ll make rice for dinner with enough extra for rice pudding at breakfast, sweet sticky rice with coconut cream and mangoes is an excellent dessert (my fave!)… Rice is life. Always keep rice in the house.
9. Greek Yogurt
It’s tart, creamy, can add thickness to any recipe, it’s great on its own and as a base for sauces (tzatziki anyone?). I love using it as a substitute for sour cream (for some reason, I can handle it a little better – darn lactose sensitivity!) and as a foundation for desserts or snacks.
10. Apple Cider Vinegar
Vinegar is one of those does-it-all ingredients to keep on hand at all times. From vinaigrettes to sauces to home cleaning products… it’s pretty much the best.
11. Lemon & Lime
All of my favorite cocktails contain lime. And I generally ask for extra, because it’s delicious. One of my favorite lazy dishes is sliced cucumber drizzled with lime juice and sesame seeds.
12. Canned Tuna
Another long shelf-life product that will eliminate the whole “nothing to eat” dilemma. Seriously. A tuna salad sandwich takes less than 5 minutes to make. You can also mix it in with unexpected dishes like pasta salads for a protein punch.
13. Steel Cut Oats (or Rolled Oats)
This is one of the easiest breakfasts ever, PLUS you can make an incredibly frothy milk, no-bake cookies and/or traditional cookies. Remember those overnight oats I mentioned in the milk section? BAM. 5 minute prep the night before, easy breakfast so you don’t have to think too hard before the coffee kicks in.
14. A Block of Cheddar
Shred it, slice it, cube it, take a bite right out of the block itself (even though that’s a little weird) – cheddar is a miracle because it’s delicious, tastes good on a whole lotta foods (have you TRIED cheddar on apple pie?!), and adds richness, depth, and a little tanginess to a variety of recipes.
Onions are flavor HEROES. There are so many different ways to prepare onions to complement and add to a dish; raw onions give sharpness and bite, caramelized give a savory-sweetness, they’re beautiful in soups, work incredibly well in ground meats (or with any meats in general), and I like to char them a bit when I prepare frijoles. Except I tend to eat them all before the frijoles are finished, so really, I just like to snack on charred onions. Ever notice that TONS of recipes call for onions?
Fun Fact! Lots of cultures have a kind of trio base for recipes: the French mirepoix, Italian soffritto, the Creole holy trinity, the Portuguese refogado, Spanish sofrito. Every single one of them includes onions. The Nordic region versions of these sub leeks for onions, but it’s still in the same flavor profile family so I think it still counts.
16. Some kind of Nut or Seed Butter
Most parents already know what a hero nut butters can be. No one in our family has food allergies, so we’re pretty lucky that we can bust out the peanut butter to slather on toast, dip fruits, and sometimes when my day is just way overloaded, I snack on it by the spoonful because it’s a complete snack on its own: fat, protein, carbs, DONE.
17. Ground Meat
I’m a little on the anemic side, so I generally keep ground beef on hand for a number of dishes, but ground chicken or turkey are great, too. One of my family’s favorite easy dishes is sloppy joes (homemade with canned diced tomatoes, apple cider vinegar, sugar, and spices), but you can also make a taco bar for the family, pound out some burgers or sliders, or add a little somethin’ somethin’ to mac & cheese. The possibilities are endless.
18. Beans (canned or dry or both!)
Legumes are an excellent, fibrous protein that not only keep things moving (I’m talking about pooping regularly, not your sweet dance moves). I especially like crunchy roasted chickpeas as a snack because they’re healthier than potato chips, not to mention they’re more flavorful.
19. Apples or Bananas
You know when you’re not THAT hungry but you’re a little hungry and you don’t want to actually make anything but you know you’re about to hit a massive slump if you don’t get anything into your system? Eat an apple or a banana for the quick sugar pickup you’re looking for (without the guilt you’d get from diving into that bag of chips). You can bake with them, snack on them, use them creatively in other dishes, grab them when you don’t have time for a full breakfast. They’re natures gift to your schedule.
20. Crescent Roll Dough
This is for lazy Saturday mornings when you want to make something for breakfast but you don’t really want to have to work at it AND the kids want in on the action. You can make really cool appetizer dishes with crescent rolls, mini pizzas, pigs in a blanket, ham & cheese rolls, cream cheese & nutella treats, and a billion more ridiculously awesome ideas I’ve yet to discover on Pinterest.
21. Chicken Breast or Thigh Meat
I love getting big bags of frozen chicken breast because worst case scenario, I can throw it in the oven in a little broth with butter and onion, and VOILA! A main course. Chicken is WILDLY versatile, pretty darn cheap (just go to your grocer’s butcher) – it’s the workhorse of proteins.
You’ll notice that this list doesn’t include much produce, and I deliberately left it out BECAUSE it’s so perishable. Fruits and veggies don’t last as long as most things on this list, and you should be rotating through them pretty regularly. I highly recommend only shopping for produce as it’s called for in recipes, or as you know you’ll eat it. I know my kid and I can knock out a tub of raspberries in a day, so I’m never too mussed to toss a box in the cart when there’s a good deal on them. Huge bags of baby spinach? Ehhhh, not so much.
Is there anything you always keep in the kitchen that didn’t make the list? Tell me in the comments!