Pantry Essentials for Easy Cooking

Cooking at home is a great way to take control of what goes into your body, manage weight and diet-related health issues, and savor the satisfaction of creating tasty meals. But we know not everyone is comfortable in the kitchen. Maybe you're intimidated by cooking: You think it's time-consuming or complicated, or you simply don't enjoy it.

The secret to easier home cooking: Keep a well-stocked pantry.

With a few standard items in the cabinet or fridge, you can whip up a delicious meal—quickly, with no fuss and no fancy recipe—by adding whatever fresh ingredients you bring home from the store or farmers' market. Even better, you can throw together a quick dinner just with what you have on hand.

Here's a list of staple items to have on hand, along with ideas on how to use them: 

In the Pantry

  • Canned (no salt added) whole tomatoes: If you have nothing else in the house but canned tomatoes, a box of pasta and some olive oil, you've got dinner. Simply warm olive oil in a pan, add tomatoes and crush them with a spoon, throw in a clove of minced garlic if you have it; simmer, then toss with hot cooked pasta. Add canned tomatoes to chili or make a quick homemade tomato soup.
  • Pasta: Pasta makes a great foundation for fresh veggies; keep a long shaped (spaghetti, linguine) and a short shaped (penne or fusilli). For a "desperation dinner," toss hot cooked spaghetti with a bit of butter, a handful of Parmesan cheese and lots of cracked pepper.
  • Olive oil: Great for sautéing chicken breasts, roasting vegetables and other basic cooking. Choose a mid-priced extra virgin olive oil for everyday use.
  • Brown rice, wild rice blend, quinoa: Combine cooked whole grains with roasted vegetables for a light main dish or hearty side for roasted chicken or grilled fish.
  • Canned (no salt added) beans: White beans, black beans and chickpeas add fiber and protein to soup, chili or roasted vegetables.
  • Herbs and spices: Dried Italian herb blend, salt-free seasoning and red pepper flakes are must-haves. Ground cumin is very versatile; smoked paprika adds a smoky, deep flavor. Use kosher salt for cooking and keep a pepper mill for fresh-ground pepper.
  • Canned or boxed stock: Choose lower-sodium chicken and vegetable stocks; use for cooking rice and making soup.
  • Roasted, unsalted whole nuts: Walnuts, almonds and pecans are healthy snacks (in 1-ounce portions); they're also great additions to pasta dishes and salads.  

In the Refrigerator

  • Lemons: Squeeze lemon juice over everything (grilled meats and fish, roasted vegetables, tossed green salad) to add a spark of flavor without calories or sodium.

  • Farm-fresh eggs: If you're hungry and too tired to fuss, a plate of scrambled eggs and toast makes a fine meal. Make breakfast for dinner: omelets filled with cooked vegetables, cheese and diced ham.
  • Plain, nonfat Greek yogurt: A great substitute for higher-fat, higher-calorie sour cream (you won't know the difference). Make your own yogurt parfait by layering with fruit preserves.
  • Parmesan cheese: Imported is best; pre-grated makes life easier. Toss on pasta, salad or roasted vegetables.
  • Homemade salad dressing: Homemade is better for you than store-bought, which contains preservatives and additives. Here's a quick recipe:

In a lidded jar, shake together 1/3 cup wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
and 1 tablespoon honey. Add 1/2 cup olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper; shake again.
Keeps for 2–3 weeks in the refrigerator.


​Bryn Mooth is the author of the Findlay Market Cookbook, the editor of Edible Ohio Valley  magazine, and she also publishes a website called She loves cooking tasty and uncomplicated dishes, cultivating a small vegetable garden and shopping at the Tristate area's many local farmers markets. Saturday mornings, you'll find Bryn at Findlay Market bright and early, doing much of her grocery shopping for the week. She's pleased to be partnering with Healthspirations to share her recipes, how-tos and information about eating healthfully in Cincinnati!