When you’re short on time and long on pantry items, here are quick meals that are tastier than their packaged counterparts.

By Rebecca Schneider

dinner clockAfter a long exhausting workday, your stomach’s growling and the kids are chiming in with “What’s for dinner?” Instead of takeout or the usual pasta with canned tomato sauce, take dinner from tired to ethnically inspired with these quick, easily prepared recipes made with pantry staples.

Of course, you can add meat and favorite veggies to any of these recipes for a heartier meal.

Comfortably Filling

dinner comfortably fillingWhen you’re beat and the kids are starving, it’s easy to reach for boxed mac ’n’ cheese. But when you see how quickly this recipe comes together, you’ll wonder why you ever bought boxed stuff in the first place.

Serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil
½    lb. dry pasta (macaroni, small shells or any short variety), cooked and drained
6    ounces (¾ cup) 2-percent evaporated milk (or substitute fresh milk)
1 cup shredded Cheddar or Jack cheese, or a mixture of both (if you want a consistency similar to boxed macaroni and cheese, use only ¾ cup of cheese)
½    teaspoon dry mustard
¼    teaspoon garlic powder
¼     teaspoon salt
1/8    teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

In a large saucepan, combine all ingredients and cook over medium-low heat until cheese thoroughly melts, stirring constantly so cheese and milk don’t burn.

“Think-ahead tips: To always have plenty of shredded cheese on hand, toss a bag of pre- or self-shredded cheese into the freezer. Since the pieces are small, it’s easy to take out only what you need for a recipe and leave the rest in the freezer. If you have semi-hard cheese in the fridge that’s about to go bad, shred it, pop it in the freezer and—poof—no more food waste!

Taste of the Orient

dinner taste of orientThe flavors in this sesame-peanut noodle dish are reminiscent of the cold sesame noodles at your local Asian takeout place, but they’re much more kid-friendly. We’ve left out the heat, but more adventurous eaters can add chile-garlic paste or Sriracha hot sauce to their portions. Place the optional sesame seeds and chopped scallions in small bowls and your kids will be more likely to  try them, adding texture, complexity and nutrition to their plates.

Serves 4

½    lb. whole-wheat spaghetti
2    teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1½    teaspoons peanut butter (at room temperature or warmed a few seconds in the microwave to help it evenly distribute throughout the noodles)
1    tablespoon tamari or soy sauce (preferably low-sodium)
2    teaspoons rice wine vinegar
1    teaspoon honey
1    teaspoon ground ginger
1    teaspoon garlic powder
roasted peanuts, chopped (for garnish)
sesame seeds, white or black (optional)
scallions, chopped (optional)

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Cook the spaghetti according to package directions and drain. While the pasta is cooking, mix remaining ingredients (except garnish and optional ingredients) until thoroughly combined and set aside. Drain cooked pasta and add it back into the pot, turning stove burner to low. Stir in mixed ingredients while pasta is warm until evenly distributed throughout. If desired, add sesame seeds and/or scallions, reserving some for garnish, or place them in separate bowls. Top with peanuts to serve.

Think-ahead tips: “Plant” unused whole scallions in a cup of water and refresh the water every few days. The onions will grow roots and stay fresh for a couple of weeks, so you have them at the ready when needed. To save time, sliver scallions and fresh herbs with kitchen shears instead of chopping them.

Mamma Mia

dinner mamma miaForget canned pasta sauce—a few pantry items are all you need to bring basic pasta to a tastier level.

Serves 4

4    sun-dried tomatoes (optional)
½    lb. spaghetti or fettuccine
2    tablespoons olive oil
1½    tablespoons garlic paste
½    tablespoon anchovy paste
½    tablespoon tomato paste
1    cup frozen spinach, thawed and drained
2    teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
Put the sun-dried tomatoes in a bowl. When pasta water boils, ladle out some and pour it over the sun-dried tomatoes; soak for 10 minutes. Put pasta in boiling water and cook according to package directions. While pasta cooks, use a fork to combine oil and garlic, anchovy and tomato pastes in a small bowl. Stir well to evenly distribute pastes in the oil. Drain pasta and add it back to the pot, along with the oil mixture and drained sun-dried tomatoes. Stir to combine. Microwave spinach until heated through and add to the pasta. Stir until evenly distributed. To serve, add fresh lemon juice and stir gently until just combined (don’t overstir). Sprinkle grated Parmesan on top.

Think-ahead tips: Garlic, anchovy and tomato pastes are essential pantry items that add dimension to even the most basic dishes. Make sure to purchase pastes in tubes. Since you typically only use a small amount, tubes keep leftover paste fresher for longer, and you don’t have to transfer leftovers to another container. Leave the rind on Parmesan to help it stay fresh. Remove the plastic wrapper; re-wrap the cheese in wax paper and wrap aluminum foil over the wax paper. This will keep Parmesan fresh for up to a year. 


dinner ole!Canned goods are your friends in this quick, crowd-pleasing soup. If you have cooked chicken on hand, chop and add it to the soup for a heartier meal. If you have raw boneless chicken breasts or boneless thighs on hand, poach them until cooked, then shred with two forks while the chicken is still warm. Add chicken to the soup halfway through cooking. This soup tastes even better the next day for lunch or dinner.

Serves 4

2    14.5-ounce-cans Mexican-style diced tomatoes (canned diced tomatoes come in many different sizes; use the equivalent of 30 ounces total)
2    14.5-ounce-cans black beans, rinsed and drained
1    10-ounce-package frozen corn (optional)
2    ounces canned chopped green chiles, drained and rinsed
4    cups frozen veggie blend (look for one with bell peppers)
¾    teaspoon ground cumin
½    teaspoon ground chipotle chile powder
(other chili powders work, but chipotle adds authentic smokiness)
Stir together all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, reduce heat to medium and cover. Cook until soup thickens to chili consistency.

Think-ahead tips: Flavored canned tomatoes eliminate the need to add many herbs and spices. Some good options are crushed or pureed tomatoes with basil and/or garlic, and Mexican-style diced tomatoes (such as Ro*tel), which come pre-seasoned with lime juice and cilantro. Scan tomato labels at the grocery store and you’ll be delighted by the many options.