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How to Cook When Your Shelves are Getting Empty

How to Cook When Your Shelves are Getting Empty

Everywhere I look, it seems that the coronavirus is complicating the simple task of feeding our families. In many places, store shelves are empty and food banks are overwhelmed with more hungry families than they can serve. Some families cannot shop because they are sick and in quarantine, while others are simply trying to limit their possible exposure by avoiding the grocery store. The longer this crisis continues, the emptier people’s fridges and pantries become. How do you cook when your kitchen shelves (along with the shelves at the store) have only a few things left? How do you take a random assortment of ingredients and turn it into a meal?


The first half of this post will give you some basic tools to help you figure out what meals you can make with the food you already have. The second half will provide a list of highly versatile meals ideas you can easily adapt to the contents of your pantry. 

Take Inventory

First and most importantly, figure out what you have. Go through your shelves, cupboards, fridge, and freezer and make a written list of all the food in your house. Include spices, condiments, and other ingredients you can use to make the basics taste better.


Look over your list of ingredients and write down any meals you can easily make. Also write down meals you have most of the ingredients for, and make a note of what you are missing. You may be able to skip or substitute those ingredients, or possibly find them at the store. Be sure to write your ideas down so that when the stress of dinnertime comes, you don’t have to try and remember what you can make.

Ingredient Search

My favorite cooking tool, one that has gotten me through many times when food was scarce, is the ingredient search on All Recipes. They have a specialized search bar which gives you three fields–one for keywords, one for ingredients to include, and one for ingredients to exclude. This allows you to carefully refine your search to only show recipes you have the ingredients to make. As “the world’s largest food-focused social network serving a community of 85 million home cooks”, they will almost certainly have a recipe to meet your needs.


I usually start by typing in a few items I have and leaving the other two boxes blank. This brings up a wide variety of recipes and gives me some ideas about the possibilities. As I look through the recipes, I will add ingredients they call for but which I don’t have to the “ingredients to exclude” field to narrow things down. I continue to do this until I find a recipe I can work with.

For example, I have a lot of canned corn on my shelf, so I put “corn” into the search bar. This brings up an overwhelming 3859 recipes. As I scroll through, I start adding ingredients to the include and exclude fields, based on what I have. Include beans. Exclude avocado and zucchini. Now I only have 705 results, most of which are delicious-looking soups and chowders that are easily adjusted if I am missing ingredients. 

Get Creative

As you look through recipe ideas, whether on All Recipes or from some other source, remember that a recipe seldom needs to be made exactly as it is written. Some people are precise in their cooking and like to follow a recipe to the letter. Others, like me, see recipes more as a place to start, as a source of inspiration rather than a rulebook. This second mindset is definitely a virtue when faced with bare cupboards. With a little flexibility and creativity, many recipes can be easily modified to fit the contents of your cupboards


If you see a recipe for which you have ALMOST all the ingredients, don’t necessarily dismiss it. You can often eliminate or substitute ingredients and have little effect on the overall meal. If it calls for one vegetable and you don’t have it, there’s a good chance that the vegetables you DO have will work just as well. Or just leave it out. If it calls for canned tuna and all you have is canned chicken, try it anyways. Substitute one kind of bean for another, one vegetable for another.

For baking, where substitutions have a greater effect on the results, a quick google search will give you lots of successful substitutions if you are missing butter, oil, eggs, yogurt, etc.

Versatile Meal Ideas

The following meal ideas are highly versatile and can be made with whatever you have in your fridge and pantry. They are especially good for using up leftover ingredients or vegetables that are getting old. 


Start with a base of broth, canned tomatoes in juice, or water. Add some vegetables (onions, celery, potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, broccoli, cauliflower, etc), and some protein (chicken, beef, ground beef, beans) and a starch (noodles, rice, barley). Combine everything in your pot and simmer for an hour or so to meld the flavors together.


Many ingredients work in any kind of soup, but others don’t combine well. I like to pick a general idea for the soup (like Italian, Mexican, savory, etc) and then choose my ingredients around that idea. For example, an Italian soup would be more likely to have sausage, kale, basil, and oregano, while a Mexican soup would probably have corn, green chilies, cumin and paprika. This helps me choose ingredients whose flavors will compliment each other so that I end up with a delicious meal.


If you have some kind of “cream of something” soup (or if you can make a cream sauce from scratch), you have the foundation for a casserole. Combine a can of soup with a cup of milk or water, then add a starch (noodles, rice, or potatoes), some vegetables (fresh, frozen, canned), some meat (canned tuna, chicken, ground beef, etc), and extras for added flavor (onions, celery, olives, bell peppers, herbs and spices. Scoop into a casserole dish, top with cheese or breadcrumbs (if you have any) and bake at 350 degrees for 60 to 90 minutes.


“Bowls” (like burrito bowls, grain bowls, etc) are a flexible formula with endless possibilities. Start by cooking a grain (rice, quinoa, wheat, etc) and season it however you would like. Top it with a protein (cooked or canned meats, beans), vegetables (fresh, sauteed, steamed, frozen, canned, fermented), and a sauce (soy sauce, curry, salad dressing, etc.) or topping (salsa, sour cream, cheese). Finish the dish with a soft-cooked egg for a massive boost of flavor. 

Fried Rice

We always called fried rice a “kitchen sink” meal, because you can add pretty much anything except the kitchen sink. Cook up some rice, toss it in your frying pan with a little oil, and start adding extras. Think egg fried rice with eggs and frozen mixed vegetables, pineapple fried rice with pineapple, bell peppers, onions, and shredded carrots, or come up with your own combination from whatever you have on hand. Soy sauce, sesame oil, and sesame seeds will add an extra level of flavor to this dish, if you have them.


Noodles are one of the most versatile pantry ingredients and can be combined with almost anything. While marina and alfredo sauces tend to come to mind first, pasta is delicious simply topped with butter or oil, a few herbs and spices, and cheese if you have any. Add lentils, beans, canned, frozen or fresh vegetables, or cooked or canned meat of pretty much any kind. You can even upgrade boxed macaroni and cheese can by adding beans, veggies or meat. One of our go-to “poor man” dishes is spaghetti noodles topped with butter, frozen mixed veggies, and parmesan cheese. The kids just eat it up.

You can also make a pasta salad by combining your favorite noodles, vegetables, and meat or cheese. Combine a little olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper and drizzle over the top. 



If you have tortillas (or want to make your own) and a little cheese, you have a ready quesadilla foundation. Add salsa, avocado, canned beans or corn, bell peppers, onions, green chiles, mushrooms, spinach, sweet potatoes, diced chicken or steak, canned chicken, ground beef, etc. Quesadilla fillings are limited only by the contents of your pantry and your imagination (…and maybe the pickiness of your kids). 


Use any kind of flat bread (like tortillas, pita pockets, naan, English muffins) for a crust, or make your own crust from scratch. Top with a premade pizza or marinara sauce, or make your own from tomato sauce or paste and whatever italian spices you have on hand. You can also use BBQ or alfredo sauces for a gourmet-tasting pizza. Top with cheese and any other toppings you have–onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, spinach, cilantro, pineapple, ham, steak, ground beef, sausage, chicken. Personal pizzas are especially nice if you have kids because they can be tailor-made to accommodate their individual preferences. 


Cooked oats are another highly versatile meal foundation. For breakfast, add fruit, nuts, seeds, cinnamon or other spices, and maybe a little milk. For a dinner option, top it with savory herbs and spices and add cheese, veggies, beans, and even a fried egg.