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10 Essential Foods for a Well-Stocked Pantry

The best shelf-stable items for easy meals at your fingertips
Pantry sauce savory Organization 2024 Feb March Well stocker

We’ve all been there: It’s 5:00, the family is hungry, and you’ve got nothing on deck for dinner. That’s when this all-star lineup of pantry staples comes to the rescue. Stocking versatile, shelf-stable essentials can spare you a trip to the store on busy nights. It can also serve as dinn-spiration when you can’t think of anything to cook. Check out our top ten list of kitchen standbys and tasty recipes that prove with a well-stocked pantry, a delicious, nutritious meal is always within reach.  

1. Canned beans 

When it comes to plant-powered protein and fiber, it’s hard to beat beans. With so many varieties to choose from – black, cannellini, garbanzo, just to name a few – there’s a bean to fit every recipe and craving. They’re a no-brainer for soups and grain bowls, but hearty, nutrient-packed beans can also take the place of meat in dishes like tacos, chili, and sandwiches.

2. Coconut milk 

Coconut milk is a dairy-free way to add creaminess to all kinds of savory dishes, drinks, and desserts. It creates a velvety smooth texture when blended into sauces, soups, and smoothies. It can also serve as a dairy milk replacement in vegan-friendly baked goods. A staple of Southeast Asian and Indian cuisines, coconut milk is a must-have for authentic-tasting curries, like this version with tender beef, rice noodles, and cashews.  

3. Enchilada sauce

Enchilada sauce is an effortless way to instantly add layers of Mexican-inspired flavor to any dish. The combination of tomatoes, onions, and mild chilis can liven up casseroles, chili, stews, dips, and even mac and cheese. You can also use it to simmer proteins, like eggs, chicken, or ground pork, which can be used for any of your favorite Tex-Mex dishes, like rice and bean bowls, burritos, tacos, or quesadillas. Versatile enchilada sauce can even turn frozen ravioli into a five-ingredient fiesta of a dinner.  

4. Canned fish  

Canned fish, such as tuna, salmon, anchovies, and sardines, is having a moment, and it’s not hard to see why. A good source of protein and heart-healthy omega-3s, canned fish is a delicious, budget-friendly way to bulk up salads, sandwiches, pasta, and grain bowls. For a simple snack that will tide you over until dinner, try mixing your favorite canned fish with a dollop of mustard and/or mayo and schmear it on crackers or bread. Anchovies are an umami-rich ingredient for sauces and salad dressings, like a  classic Caesar Salad. Canned fish is also a smart alternative to pricier fresh or frozen fish when you’re craving seafood on a budget. These fish croquettes are equally delicious with canned salmon or tuna. 

5. Canned tomatoes

Canned tomatoes are full of juicy, bright flavor that at certain times of the year can be better than fresh. You can buy them in a variety of forms, such as whole peeled, diced, or pureed, to save prep time and accommodate any recipe. Tomatoes have natural sweetness and acidity that help balance the flavors of sauces, soups, braises, and stews. Canned tomatoes are especially useful when it comes to whipping up midweek pasta dinners, like this pantry friendly spaghetti puttanesca. 

6. Soup


Soup in a can or box has the potential to be more than just an “I don’t feel like cooking” meal. A few simple upgrades, like veggies, grains, and protein, can turn store-bought soup into an ultra-satisfying, nutritious bowl of comfort. Creamy tomato bisque is the starting point for this hearty Italian stew with chicken sausage, broccoli, and two kinds of beans.

7. Canned chilis 

Whether you’re a spice-lover or prefer to walk on the mild side, canned chilis are a secret flavor weapon. Green chilis, available in both hot and mild, are perfect for adding zing to Tex-Mex dishes. They can also liven up baked goods, braised meat, and even eggs. For more heat with a touch of smokiness, reach for a can of chipotles in adobo. They’re a must-have in this take on spicy chicken mole that comes together effortlessly in the Instant Pot®. 

8. Condensed milk


A can of condensed milk is a handy standby for anyone with a sweet tooth. It’s an essential ingredient in desserts like cream-filled pies, custards, cheesecake, and more. We love the velvety smoothness it adds to iced coffee and homemade frozen desserts, like ice cream and gelato. Condensed milk also makes it easy to transform leftover rice into lip-smacking rice pudding, aka arroz con leche, with just five ingredients and five minutes of prep. 

9. Dried fruit 

It’s delicious for snacking by the handful, but dried fruit can also come in handy at breakfast and dinner time. Change up your oatmeal or cold cereal routine by stirring in dried apples, figs, currants, or any fruit you like. Dried cranberries add zing to salads and roasted veggies, and they can also add a pop of flavor to stir fries and baked goods. Dried fruit is a must-have for many North African-inspired dishes, like couscous bowls and tagines, which often pair raisins, prunes, and other fruits with savory proteins and vegetables. Dried fruit can also offer a taste of summer any time of year, like in this sweet-savory chicken recipe that gets a double dose of apricot flavor from dried fruit and preserves. 

10. Broth and Stock


Store-bought broth and stock deliver slow-simmered flavor that’s as easy as opening a container. The two are basically interchangeable, the difference being that stock is generally unseasoned whereas broth typically contains salt and pepper. Whether you’re talking vegetable, chicken, beef, or seafood, broth and stock are the base for an endless array of dinners. It’s a blank canvas for noodle bowls, brothy beans, and virtually any other soup or stew you can think of. For a slurp-worthy meal that won’t weigh you down, try this Asian-inspired soba noodle soup with shiitake mushrooms.  

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