Last Update: September 11, 2023
There are people who know exactly what’s in their pantries, where to find it, and what to do with it. Then there are those who wouldn’t even think about wading through the abyss of the back shelves—unless there were a life-threatening pandemic and one of the few places left to spread germs happened to be the grocery store. Yes, it’s come to that—and it’s time to learn to shop your pantry.
If you don’t like to cook without a recipe, don’t worry. Recipes are great, but these times call for viewing them more as inspiration than as strict how-tos. In other words: Be prepared to make a lot of substitutions.
The first step is to figure out what you have to work with, and keep an eye out for these ingredients:
These hardworking ingredients will be key in helping you stretch what’s in your fridge and freezer while keeping your meals interesting.
Ever find yourself repeatedly stocking up on the same ingredient because you always think you might be running low? Use those surpluses to your advantage! Bags of nuts can turn into nut milks, nut cheese, or a taco filling.
Ratios are also important to consider. If you have a lot of pasta sauce, but no noodles, then think of other ways to use the sauce. Simmer beans in it, pour it over spiralized veggies, make ratatouille, or use it to cook roast beef in a slow cooker. If you have the opposite problem, think about making pesto sauce (we have a lot of different variations and ways to use here) or an alfredo. If you have fresh or frozen cauliflower, this is a great vegan option.
Soups, casseroles, and other one-pot meals often taste even better the next day—plus, they tend to store well in the freezer. They’re also pretty forgiving, and work well with whatever produce you have in the fridge. Any old veggies can be used to make a flavorful and healthy broth. Just sauté in a pot with aromatics like ginger and garlic, then fill with water and let simmer for a few hours. Strain out the veggies—use them in a stir-fry or vegetable rice dish—and freeze the liquid in an ice cube tray. Add as needed to sauces, grains, and sautés for another layer of flavor.
For ingredients that you just don’t know how to use, explore our blog for recipe inspo, or use a site like Fridge to Table. It lets you search for recipes by ingredient and generates tons of different recipe options. You can even filter by diet.
Timing is everything when you’re trying to avoid food waste. Here’s the order that you should prioritize for using your fresh ingredients:
For shelf-stable products, look for a date on the packaging—but not all dates are created equal. “Best by” dates reflect when a product should be eaten for it to be at its highest quality. “Sell by” dates help retailers know when products should be removed from shelves and “use by” dates indicate when a product should be thrown away. But many pantry products can be safely consumed after their best by dates. Before planning a meal around it, use your senses to make the call. A simple sniff test, small sample taste, and a close inspection for signs of mold or bacteria should tell you everything you need to know. When in doubt, throw it out.
Melinda writes about health, wellness, and food for the Thrive Market blog. She started her career as a financial journalist in NYC and has written for Where Magazine, Worth, Forbes, and TheStreet.com. When she's not reading or writing, she enjoys working out, sketching, and playing with her daughter and mini-dachshund, Goliath.
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