The Ultimate Dinner Pantry

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Some of the most satisfying dinners are made from a little pantry hodgepodge.
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Lentil soup requires little more than a bag of lentils, a few long-lasting winter vegetable and seasoning.
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Ground turmeric stays good for months and adds flavor and health to any dinner dish it tops.
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When it comes to sauce, toppings and delicious additions, pasta dishes are renowned for their ease and versatility.
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Rice is inexpensive, easily storable, filling and goes with just about anything.
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Running low on fresh produce? Bags of organic frozen veggies make it easy to add extra nutrition to any meal.

With Shorter days, limited fresh produce and unexpected weather, some chilly nights are met with the challenge of two realities: the nagging grumble of hungry stomachs and the current sum of your kitchen cupboard. Of course, this doesn’t have to mean a season of PB&J sandwiches. In fact, some of the most satisfying dinners are the result of a little creative hodgepodge, proving once again that nourishing meals don’t need to be complicated to be delicious.

Good cooks know the secret to preparing healthy meals on the fly is not an overly stocked pantry, but a smartly stocked one. Some food items are simply more useful than others (no truffle salt or crystallized ginger here), giving us the most bang for our buck in terms of providing nutrition, flavor and a tremendous amount of versatility in everyday cooking. So, as winter gets into full swing, try stocking your pantry with these long-lasting staples and be prepared to whip up simple, nutritious dishes at a moment’s notice.

Canned Beans

As long as you have canned beans on hand, you always have an instant, heart-healthy protein source at the ready. Particularly versatile varieties include red kidney beans, black beans, garbanzo beans and navy beans — all of which can be added to soups, salads or any kind of dish that could stand to be made heartier. Combine a can of beans, briefly sautéed with any veggies you have on hand, over a bowl of rice and you’ve got a quick, satisfying and nutritious meal. Top it with hot sauce for a little extra flavor and an endorphin boost.

Canned Fish

Cans of responsibly caught small fish such as anchovies and sardines are a sustainable choice, as they’re low on the ocean’s food chain and don’t build up toxic mercury. Try canned sardines or anchovies in fried rice or pasta sauces to add protein and briny flavor; eat them on toast or with crackers and mustard; or cook them with eggs to make a fisherman’s breakfast.

Canned Tomatoes

Although you can’t make a meal out of canned tomatoes, canned tomatoes can make the meal. Ever-ready to accompany pasta, stews and baked dishes, canned tomatoes bring a little summer flavor into dishes, even when the fridge is almost barren. For a quick spaghetti, create a simple pasta sauce just by sautéing canned tomatoes in olive oil or unsalted butter, garlic and salt. Add a pinch of chili flakes or a splash of red wine if you’re feeling fancy.


Super quick to make (30 minutes or less) and chock-full of protein and fiber, lentils need little to make them feel like a meal. You can make a satisfying lentil stew with onions, celery and potatoes, along with a sprinkle of dried thyme if you have it. Or mash cooked lentils with sautéed onion, rolled oats (for adhesion), and your favorite seasoning blend to make protein patties you can grill on the stove like burgers.

Nuts and Seeds

Great sources of healthy fat, minerals and protein, nuts and seeds add valuable nutrition to winter fare. But many people don’t realize just how versatile these ingredients can be. Keep softer nuts and seeds, such as cashews and hemp seeds, on hand to blend with water and create instant cream sauces for pasta; add nut butters, such as almond or peanut butter, into vegetable stir-fries as a hearty condiment; and sprinkle toasted pumpkin seeds and walnuts on even the simplest dishes, such as scrambled eggs or pasta, to add a welcome crunch.


Too often oats are reserved solely for a sweet breakfast, but they make a wonderful savory meal as well. Make a quick porridge by cooking oats in broth (salted water with onion powder is a good cheat, too), then top with sautéed vegetables, such as mushrooms and spinach, and stir in savory miso. Or, make an extra-creamy bowl of oats by adding butternut squash (fresh or canned), nutmeg and coconut milk. You can even bake your savory oat creation — vegetable additions included — in a pie pan at 375 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, or until browned on top, for a homey meal.


Pasta brings a smile to almost all faces and can be whipped up in less time than it takes to get a pizza delivered. What’s more, one of pasta’s greatest accolades is its versatility: a jarred pasta sauce is certainly easy if you have it, or you can let the possibilities of your pantry help you. A little olive oil in a pan with some sautéed garlic and just about any vegetable — fresh, frozen or canned — is surprisingly delicious, and you can amp up the flavor even further with a splash of balsamic vinegar at the end of cooking. Many of the best pastas are decidedly random: sweet potatoes with white beans? Corn and pesto? Artichoke hearts and olives? Pasta almost always works with pantry miscellany. Be sure to try some of the many pastas available today that are made from whole grains, beans, lentils and vegetables. (Explore Cuisine makes organic edamame noodles with just one
ingredient and half of the recommended daily serving of protein.)


Potatoes keep all winter long stored in a cool, dark place. Whether sliced and baked as fries; diced and added to stews; or boiled and mashed as a catch-all for warm sauces, the humble potato is a champ at filling hungry bellies. Turn a potato into dinner by baking a cleaned, oiled, and pricked russet potato at 350 degrees for 60 to 75 minutes. Once cooked, top with canned chili, stew, salsa and beans, sautéed frozen veggies or any kind of cream sauce.


With its high levels of protein, fiber and trace minerals, there’s no question quinoa is a gold-star superfood. But its long shelf life and quick cooking time (just 15 minutes) are what earn quinoa a prime spot in our pantry essentials list. Try mixing cooked quinoa with a little coconut oil, nutritional yeast and onion salt for a cheesy-tasting dish that’s the perfect base for any kind of cooked vegetable — from cauliflower to kale.


Rice has long been a staple food of almost every culture on the planet. It is cheap, easily storable, filling, and goes with just about anything. Any type of rice will do the trick, although brown, black, red and wild rice varieties offer a broader nutritional spectrum. Use rice to bulk up soups, layer under saucy leftovers or toss into a stir-fry. To make an incredibly simple fried rice, warm a little coconut oil in a pan, and add chopped onion, sautéing until softened. Toss in whatever vegetable or protein you have on hand, and cook until tender. You can also add eggs and scramble them in. Finally, stir in some cooked rice, and season with soy sauce or sea salt.


Dried seaweed may not be the first thing that comes to mind as a pantry “essential,” but it serves an invaluable function: nutrition. As limited produce selection and decreased desire for fresh vegetables takes hold in the depth of winter, long-keeping dried seaweed becomes a useful vegetable substitute. Loaded with important minerals and antioxidants, seaweed helps round out the benefits of less nutrient-dense dishes. Use toasted nori sheets as a wrap for rice or whole-grain pilafs; sprinkle dulse flakes on casseroles and mashed potatoes; and add powdered kelp to soups and warm sauces.

Split Peas

Both green and yellow split peas can make a protein-rich, comforting meal with little effort. (Note: Yellow split peas are somewhat harder to find than green split peas, but are quite a bit higher in antioxidants.) Though they’ll take 60 to 70 minutes to cook fully in water or broth, it’s a fairly hands-off process, and they’re also ideal for batch cooking. Spice them up with your favorite curry blends for a warming Indian dal; make a split-pea soup with onion, carrot, garlic and a bay leaf; or mash them with oil, garlic and salt, and serve as a warm pâté with a crusty loaf of bread.

Squash and Tubers

Kept in a dark pantry, tubers and winter squash will last for months. Any kind of pumpkin or winter squash can be roasted in the oven and served over cooked grains, tossed with veggies, or stuffed with a simple pilaf. Sweet potatoes and yams can be baked whole like a potato, then generously topped with whatever’s in your fridge. Try black beans, salsa and sour cream.

Simple Superfood Toppers for Winter Dishes

These nutrient-rich add-ons store for months and supply a boost of flavor and health to any dish.

• Hemp seeds
• Seaweed sprinkles
• Dried goji berries
• Pumpkin seeds
• Chia seeds
• Ground turmeric

Cans to Consider

According to the extensive nutrition research of investigative journalist Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side, canned artichokes, beans and tomatoes are among the healthiest foods in any grocery store (or pantry). In fact, these foods all become more nutrient-dense via processing. Be sure to look for BPA-free cans or glass jars instead of regular cans in order to avoid toxins leaching from can liners.

Frozen Friends

Although this food list focuses on the pantry, the freezer is also a great ally for quick dinner ingredients. When you’re running low on fresh produce, having a few bags of organic frozen veggies on hand makes it easy to add extra nutrition to a simple meal. Try shelled edamame or lima beans, spinach or broccoli florets, or a vegetable medley. Add frozen veggies to fried rice, pasta dishes, soups, stews, casseroles and baked potatoes. 

Mother Earth Living
Mother Earth Living
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