You had every intention of going to the grocery store Sunday, and stopping by that great little produce stand on the way home from work yesterday. But you left work late because that meeting went long, and then you found out it was your week for carpool.
So now you’re home and dinner time is nigh, and well, and now what?
Don’t worry, you are still going to be able to get a great meal on the table—you’ll just need to get creative with what you already have in the fridge and pantry.
For these moments, it’s helpful to have a few dinner templates that can give you a springboard for figuring out how to make those odds and ends in the fridge and pantry add up to dinner.
And once dinner is made, give yourself a big old pat on the back for creativity and think of the money you’ve saved by not ordering take-out! Not to mention how much food waste you might prevent, just by using up random items that might otherwise have gotten tossed in the trash after lingering a few days longer.
Frugal, inventive, and environmentally sound—that’s not a bad platform for dinner.
If there is one dish that you can make with any collection of ingredients, it’s soup.
Start by sautéing some member of the onion family (garlic, leeks, shallots, whatever you have) in some oil or butter, then add in some longer cooking ingredients, such as diced potatoes, sliced carrots or parsnips, and other root vegetables, and then some broth or, failing that, water.
Longer cooking grains such as rice or barley can also get added here, as can raw diced chicken or other meat.
If you are going to add small pasta shapes, wait until the vegetables have started to soften before you do so (and note that uncooked grains and pasta may require you to add more broth as it will get absorbed in the cooking process). Dried lentils also take about the same amount of time to cook as some grains, usually about half an hour, so add those now.
Bring to a simmer, and cook until everything is fairly tender. Then you can add in any quick-cooking ingredients such as chopped greens, corn, little broccoli or cauliflower florets, peas, drained canned beans, diced summer squash, tomatoes, herbs, or grains.
Simmer some more until everything smells amazing and is cooked through, then season with salt and pepper and maybe a hit of hot sauce. You’re ready to serve up your soup!
You might also thinking about pureeing the soup for a smoother, creamier version of itself. This works best with an all-vegetable soup, especially one with starchier vegetables like winter squash and potatoes, though other soups can also be successfully pureed: just think about whether it makes sense with whatever soup you’ve created. Puree it in a food processor or blender, in batches if necessary (Caution: Don’t overload an appliance with hot ingredients!). You may also decide to stir in a bit of cream at the end.
Check out these recipes for ideas on how to build a soup from various ingredients, and then feel free to swap in whatever you have on hand.
- Broccoli Cheddar Soup: Try this with cauliflower and a mix of other cheeses
- One Pot-Chicken and Rice Soup: Use shallots instead of onions, parsnips instead of carrots.
- Simplest Vegetable Soup (The Mom 100)
If you have a box of pasta in the pantry, then you definitely have dinner. Get the pasta cooking first, and then tackle the sauce, vegetables, or whatever you’re planning to stir into the pasta.
To make the sauce or other topping, heat some oil in a separate pan, and add some garlic, onion, scallions, or whatever member of the onion family is hanging around. Then (much like soup), you will add other ingredients in order of cooking time, from the longest cooking to the shortest.
For example, you could sauté some sausage until browned (psst…do you have breakfast sausage patties in the freezer? Crumble them and use them!), add some chopped broccoli rabe (or broccoli or kale) and sauté until softened, then add some red pepper flakes and a splash of wine from an open bottle.
Ladle in a couple of scoops of the starchy pasta cooking water to add some creaminess to the dish—this is one of the best pasta tricks! As the pasta cooks, the pasta releases starches into the water. When added to the vegetables, this cooking liquid to pulls everything together into a more cohesive sauce.
Finally, stir in a handful of grated hard cheese like Parmesan, season with salt and pepper, and toss with your cooked pasta. Dinner!
- Pasta with Spinach, Artichokes and Ricotta: Use kale instead of spinach, mushrooms instead of artichokes, and add a glug of cream instead of the ricotta.
- Bowtie Pasta with Peas, Prosciutto and Arugula: Use sugar snaps instead of the peas, skip the prosciutto if you want, or use bacon, and slivered chard instead of the arugula.
- Spaghetti with Fennel, Bacon and Parmesan (The Mom 100): use leeks instead of fennel, sausage instead of bacon, and whatever cheese you have around.
A frittata is an Italian egg dish cooked in a skillet. Add-ins—such as potatoes, ham, veggies, rice, what have you—are beaten directly into the eggs and then the whole thing is cooked until the eggs are set.
Generally, a frittata is cooked first in a skillet on the stovetop and then finished under the broiler. There’s no stirring or flipping necessary.
And do you know what’s good in a frittata? Almost anything! Eggs, like chicken, are almost a blank canvas. You can have a lot of fun foraging around in the fridge for different things to add to your frittata.
Frittatas don’t take long to cook, so anything that needs thorough cooking (little cubes of potato, sausage, and so on) should be cooked first before adding the eggs, while other ingredients that don’t need much time to cook (chopped kale, cheese, minced scallions) can be added raw.
All of this is to say: If you have eight or so eggs on hand, a frittata is a great vehicle for using up that last cup of roasted squash, or that single tomato sitting on the counter.
Here are some recipes which will show you the basic cooking method for a frittata, and serve as a springboard for adapting to your own available ingredients.
- Artichoke Leek Frittata
- Zucchini Ricotta Frittata
- Mushroom, Caramelized Onion and Feta Frittata (The Mom 100)
A total kid pleaser if ever there was one: melted cheese sandwiched between two flour tortillas. All you need to do is make sure you have some tortillas and some cheese on hand, and a quesadilla dinner is usually about 15 minutes away.
The sky’s the limit on what can be added—it’s such a tasty way to use up those bits and pieces of different cheeses, that leftover chicken breast, the two cups of spinach that didn’t make it into the salad, that half a container of mushrooms.
Make sure ingredients such as meat or hard vegetables like broccoli, are already cooked through, and slice everything thin or chopped small enough so the filling stays inside the tortilla when it’s cooked.
Bonus: Kids can customize some of the ingredients in their quesadilla, if you’ve got children with specific appetites, let’s say.
To make a quesadilla, heat a skillet lightly coated with oil over medium-high heat. Place a large flour tortilla in the pan. Cover half of the tortilla with cheese and whatever ingredients you want to include, then fold the other half of the tortilla over the top.
Cook for about three minutes on each side until the outsides of the quesadilla are lightly browned and firm, and the cheese has melted inside. Serve with sour cream and salsa, or whatever seems to be a good match for your filling!