Friday, May 4, 2012

Pantry Essentials for Impromptu Meals When Cooking for One

Pantry Essentials
I love stocking my pantry. I suppose there's a bit of compulsive behavior involved here, maybe even a hint of hoarding. But for sure, I don't like being out of favorite pantry staples when I have to cook on the fly, something all of us who cook for one must face from time to time despite the best planning efforts. As far as I'm concerned, there's almost nothing worse than having plenty of eggs in the refrigerator and craving deviled eggs for lunch only to discover I'm out of mustard, or finding a fresh chicken at a rock-bottom price and realizing I used the last of my dried tarragon in last week's halibut in tarragon lemon sauce.

Focus on What You Like To Eat

Building a stock of pantry essentials that allow you to pull together an impromptu meal is a personal affair. You are the one who knows best what foods you like and need. But maybe you can get some tips and inspiration from how I stock my pantry and from how the folks whose photos are featured here stock theirs.

These are my pantry favorites.

Condiments, Herbs, and Spices

Ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, oil, vinegar, steak sauce, relishes, peppercorns and salt, spices, and dried herbs are pantry essentials for enhancing anything you choose to cook. Most have long shelf-lives when unopened, and additional long lives when stored in the refrigerator after opening. I can't be without them!

Pantry Items

Canned Vegetables and Sauces

Beans in all their wonderful varieties, artichoke hearts, marinated mushrooms, tomato sauces, and roasted or pickled peppers make for quick dinners when meal planning takes a temporary pass. For a nutritious and satisfying instant meal, combine vegetables and sauces with rice or pasta, or add beans, marinated mushrooms, and artichoke hearts to a fresh garden salad.

Pasta, Rice, and Cereals

I think it goes without saying that pasta and rice can be backbones for any meal. Plus, they have long shelf-lives. If you find some sausage or chicken in the market at a good price, bring it home, break out the pasta or rice, add the condiments, herbs, spices, and sauces in your pantry, and serve with a fresh salad. Voila!

As for cereals, they're not just for breakfast. When I need a quick lunch or a bedtime snack, I cook a bowl of oatmeal to which I've added a dash of salt and some dried fruit such as currants or dates. If you like bran or corn flakes for breakfast, then you'll love chicken pieces which have been dipped in egg, rolled in crushed corn or bran flakes, and baked for about 45 minutes in a 350-degree oven.

Teas and Coffees

I'm a fan of herbal and black teas and strong coffees, and I always make sure I have a large supply on hand. Not only do I enjoy the individual tastes, hot or cold, but I also like to experiment. Here are two of my favorite ways to use teas.

  • Steep your favorite black tea and let cool. Mix with an equal part of fresh orange juice, add ice and a sprig of fresh mint, and enjoy a refreshing and unusual summer drink.
  • Brew a large pitcher of your favorite herbal tea and let cool down. Pour half of it into ice cube trays and freeze. Refrigerate the other half. Add the frozen tea cubes to the liquid and, on a hot day, enjoy a cold drink that never gets watered down.

Pantry Foods

Avoiding Spoilage in a Pantry Is a Balancing Act - Keep It Simple and Keep It Safe

I tend to overstock my pantry, but seldom to the point where items must be tossed because they've gone past their "use by" date. It took quite a while to achieve a good balance between having too much and not enough in my pantry.

I'd been used to cooking for a family, so when I found myself cooking only for one, I had to take the time to learn how to buy the types and amounts of pantry items that were right for me. I had been used to buying in bulk (which I sometimes still do, but only if I commit to using bulk items before they lose their freshness), and it was a challenge to buy smaller quantities. I hated to pay the extra price for smaller portions! However, buying smaller quantities turns out to be quite cost effective if it means you're not wasting food to spoilage. If you are new at cooking and meal planning for one, just be patient. You'll find the right balance for you.

Photo sources:  ChalonHandmade CC BY 2.0 (Pantry Essentials), vivevans CC BY - SA 2.0 (Pantry Items), NikiSublime CC BY 2.0 (Pantry Foods)


  1. When I lived alone, I had to go to the store almost every day because of bad planning and nothing in the pantry! It was so expensive! Even though I did improve and learned with time, I was never any good at planning nor keeping the costs down.
    It is a skill and you have so many good advices here! I especially love the tips on how to use Tea, it is so tasty with cold tea on a hot day and I will definitely try it this summer!

  2. I enjoy your blog and your tips. Thanks.

  3. Tina, I think you speak for many. Meal planning, especially when you are cooking only for yourself, requires a certain discipline, and that discipline doesn't come easy to everyone (self included). However, it's true, practice does make perfect, or almost perfect, anyway. :)