20-Minute Dinners from the Pantry

20-Minute Dinners from the Pantry

15 easy weeknight meals to make with the ingredients you have on hand

Editor's note, March 18th: Boy oh boy are we feeling the need for this story from meal planner Debbie Koenig right now. Hope your pantries are full and your hearts are coming back down to a regular speed, slowly but surely. We'll get through together. —Ruth Rangan, Yummly

I’m a meal planning pro, but no matter how hard I try to keep a supply of fresh vegetables and lean proteins available, some weeks just get the better of me. My Monday schedule explodes and I skip the baby kale salad I planned, and a week later when I finally go to build a meal around it, it’s gone slimy. Or in a rush at the supermarket I grab some grape tomatoes, but when I open the container to use them, they’re moldy underneath. Y’know, life. On those nights I skip the takeout and turn to my pantry, where food almost never goes bad. And I get dinner for my family on the table in 20 minutes or less.

Making dinner with what I have doesn’t take much effort, as long as I keep some common ingredients on my pantry shelves, in the fridge, or in the freezer. And most often, I wind up with not only a quick meal but a healthy one—those pantry ingredients include items like canned beans and tomatoes, quick-cooking whole grains like pasta and bulgur, and frozen vegetables. If you’re following a keto diet or you’re vegetarian or gluten-free, a well-stocked pantry can give you plenty of options, too.

The key to all this, of course, is what you’ve got to play with. I mentally divide my pantry into five categories, and stock a variety of ingredients for each. Then I head to some easy recipes.

#1 Canned pantry staples

Your canned goods may have what looks like an expiration date stamped on them, but I’ve got news: Unless the can is dented, rusty, or bulging, the food is safe to eat pretty much indefinitely. After a few years the quality might suffer, it might taste a little bland, but it won’t go bad. My go-to canned items: beans, tuna and salmon, broth, tomatoes (whole, diced, sauce, paste, and diced with green chilies), beets, pumpkin, coconut milk, chipotles in adobo, and anchovies. Try using them in these dinner ideas.

Spanish White Beans with Chunky Tomatoes & Paprika combines canned white beans and diced tomatoes with smoked paprika, ground cumin, and dried parsley flakes for a 20-minute stew with such deep, rich flavor, you’ll think it simmered for hours. I keep good bread in the freezer to reheat for quick stews like this.

Tuna Pasta Puttanesca is the poster child for using what you have on-hand to make something spectacular. It calls for canned tuna and anchovies, dried chili flakes, canned tomatoes, olives, and capers to create a restaurant-quality, umami-packed sauce for bucatini pasta (or whatever pasta you have in your pantry, naturally). 

Low Carb Southern Salmon Patties with Sriracha Aioli turns canned salmon, crushed pork rinds, and spice-rack seasonings into a decadent keto dinner. The ingenious, pantry-based spicy aioli takes it over the top.

#2 Quick whole grains from your pantry

These days you shouldn’t have trouble finding whole grains that cook in 15 minutes or less—and they can help fill out even the simplest meal based on a can of beans. As far as storage goes, glass jars on the counter may be pretty enough for Instagram, but the natural oils in whole grains can go rancid when exposed to light and heat. I store the ones I use less frequently in the freezer, and the rest inside a cabinet. My quickie whole-grains list: whole wheat pasta and couscous, bulgur, instant brown rice, polenta rolls, quinoa, quick-cooking barley, and rolled oats. Some weeknight dinner recipes to get you started:

5-Ingredient Mexican Brown Rice only takes 15 minutes because all five ingredients are ready to use: shelf-stable cooked brown rice, canned black beans, frozen corn, chili powder, and prepared salsa. If you’ve got an avocado and some cilantro handy, great, but if you don’t it’s still pretty darn yummy. 

Spaghetti Carbonara jazzes up pasta with a handful of staples that are technically perishable, but they stay good so long they’re easy to keep on hand (you’ll read more about them below): eggs, Parmesan cheese, garlic, and bacon. Start cooking the bacon as soon as the pasta hits the water, and this Italian comfort food is ready by the time you drain it.

Chickpea and Roasted Red Pepper Pantry Tagine uses fast-cooking couscous (just five minutes!) as the base for a north African-accented stew made with 100% pantry ingredients, starring canned chickpeas and jarred roasted peppers. Sweet dried currants and salty, crunchy roasted pistachios add a sophisticated punch. If you swap raisins or another dried fruit in for the currants, or used a different nut in place of pistachios, it'd still be great.

#3 Pantry jars of flavor

The jarred foods I keep on-hand all add tons of personality to a pantry-based recipe. Again, when stored in a cool, dark place, most unopened bottles will stay good indefinitely. (In most cases, you should refrigerate any unused portions.) My go-tos include: pasta sauce, bbq sauce, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, salsa, ketchup, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, natural peanut and almond butter, tahini, jams, Dijon mustard, olives, capers, marinated artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, applesauce, and oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes. These recipes all feature flavorful food in jars.

Thai Peanut Sesame Noodles uses four different jarred foods—peanut butter, soy sauce, sesame oil, and sriracha—to make a classic Asian noodle dish. (And guess what: It uses regular ol’ linguine for the noodles!)

Tomato Sauce Poached Eggs turns a jar of pasta sauce into an easy, healthy dinner in 20 minutes. You won’t believe how delicious three or four ingredients can be. Don’t sweat it if you haven’t got fresh basil on hand; you can sub in some dried herb and add Parmesan for extra flavor.

Mediterranean Olive Pesto also makes full use of your jarred goods, with olives, marinated artichoke hearts, and roasted red peppers. A quick blitz in the food processor while the pasta cooks, and you’ve got dinner.

#4 Shelf-stable pantry basics

Certain pantry items won’t do much on their own—but if you combine them with other ingredients, you’ve got the makings of an easy dinner. Things you’ll always find in my pantry: Flour, sugar, cornmeal, breadcrumbs, a variety of dried herbs and spices, olive oil (as well as various other oils) and vinegars, dried beans and lentils, honey, maple syrup, nuts, and dried fruit. Here’s how to use them.

Easy Red Lentil Dhal takes advantage of dried red lentils’ super-fast cooking time. With the addition of a handful of dried spices, jarred curry paste, and canned coconut milk, it’s ready in just 15 minutes. 

Classic Pantry Pancakes are a crowd-pleasing breakfast-for-dinner option that combines basics (flour, sugar, and baking powder) with fridge-standard eggs, milk, and butter. I keep a bag of frozen strawberries on-hand for dinners like this. Warmed up in some maple syrup, they make a perfect topping.  

Quick Curried Veggie Brown Rice Bowls raids the spice rack to create a mini-miracle. Mix six different spices with cooked brown rice (frozen or instant), frozen vegetables, and a smidge each of tomato paste and peanut butter, and you’re eating dinner in 11 minutes. How’s that for fast?

#5 Long-lived perishables for your “pantry”

My definition of “pantry” doesn’t limit me to cans, jars, and dry goods. I also make sure to have a group of basic foods that are technically perishable, but last a good long time. They add a burst of freshness to pantry-based recipes. My fridge always has eggs, plain yogurt, butter, milk, hard cheeses like Parmesan and cheddar, bacon, tortillas, lemons and limes, carrots, and a bag of shredded cabbage slaw. In the freezer, where they’ll stay good pretty much forever: corn, peas, spinach, butternut squash, artichoke hearts, berries, several combos of mixed vegetables, and a knob of fresh ginger, tightly wrapped in foil. Pull-out bins inside a cupboard hold onions and potatoes (I keep them separate; stored together, they’ll make each other go bad faster), and a ceramic garlic keeper on the counter holds—you guessed it—garlic. These recipes all make quick dinners from long-lasting perishables.

How to Make an Easy Cheese Omelette hardly even needs a recipe. Aside from scrambled eggs, I can’t think of an easier last-minute dinner than an omelet. This version adds cheddar to give it a little cheesy oomph. Other filling options you’re likely to have on hand: frozen chopped spinach with diced onion, canned or frozen corn with salsa and jack cheese, a dollop of jam (my son’s favorite), bacon with diced onion and Swiss cheese, artichoke hearts with roasted red peppers and Parmesan—you get the idea.

Sweet Potato Red Curry uses hardy vegetables like sweet potato, onion, and ginger. Prepared red curry paste spices it up, while coconut milk and a bit of maple syrup make it creamy and just the teeniest bit sweet.  

Salmon Tacos opt for canned salmon, corn tortillas, and a bag of shredded cabbage slaw so the recipe comes together in 20 minutes. If you have a bell pepper and fresh cilantro on hand, they give a pop of color, but you can leave them out. I go for plain yogurt instead of the sour cream, and add a squeeze of lime at the end for a little kick. Of course, a big shake of hot sauce would wake these up, too—and that keeps for months in the fridge.

Use Yummly to find more quick dinner recipes

After I open my cupboards and scan what’s inside, I rely on Yummly’s database to find the perfect dinner for my family. I start with the search bar, and use the filters to narrow things down: First by time, which for me is usually 20 minutes, then by ingredients, then by diet (vegetarian, keto, etc.), and then by tastes (less sweet, more savory). I can add a cooking tool in the search bar, like slow cooker (if I have a little more time) or sheet pan. That winnows things down to a manageable list of options, all of which work with what I have.  Next thing I know, I'm eating dinner.

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