Have you been wanting to start cooking dinner more often, but find you’re too tired at the end of the day to give it a shot? Trust me, I’ve been there!
Cooking is just like anything else: once you get into the habit of doing it more often, it stops being a hassle and starts being fun! One thing that helped me get into the cooking groove was stocking my pantry.
If you’re like me, you prefer to be spontaneous rather than plan your meals ahead of time. While this can be more satisfying because you can eat whatever you’re currently craving, it can be impractical if you don’t have the basic components of most recipes on hand.
Having a fully stocked pantry makes it easier to cook instead of eating out because you have what you need to whip something up without having to run to the store.
Here are some key items I recommended stocking your pantry with to get started.
Oil, Vinegar, and Condiments
- Olive Oil: Use this for making your own salad dressing, sautéing vegetables or pretty much anything on low to medium heat. It’s healthier than butter and I love the flavor.
- Butter: Though living in France has largely converted me from a butter-cooker to a olive-oil cooker, there are still certain things I like to cook in butter, for example: steak, eggs, salmon, and shrimp. The buttery goodness makes these tasty treats even yummier.
- Balsamic Vinegar: This is my go-to vinegar for making a simple vinaigrette.
- Dijon Mustard: In France, they just call it mustard because it’s all from Dijon. If your Dijon mustard comes in a plastic container, throw it out immediately. Authentic Dijon mustard always comes in a glass container.
- Olives: Olives are great on their own as an appetizer, but they’re also yummy in salads or cooked dishes. They add a ton of flavor without much extra work.
- Herbes de Provence: Sprinkle this on pretty much anything. Meat, fish, pasta, sandwiches… the list goes on! You can’t go wrong with this spice mix. Note that in the US they often sell this mix with Lavender in it. Here in France, I’ve never seen that included and can’t attest to how that tastes. If you can’t find it without, buy rosemary, thyme, and oregano separately and mix them together at home. You can also add basil, which is another one of my favorite herbs.
- Sea salt: I love cooking with sea salt instead of your regular run-of-the-mill salt. Try adding a little on top of things right before you serve them, for example on a nice steak or on some freshly sliced avocado.
- Pepper: I don’t like pepper, but I put up with it as long as it’s cooked so I sometimes use it for the benefit of my boyfriend. Oh the things we do for love!
- Curry: I didn’t used to be a huge Curry consumer, but I recently discovered how delicious it is with veggies. Now I’m hooked!
- Paprika: This is a great spice to use with both meats and veggies.
- Chicken, beef, and veal stock: I add this to rice or vegetables for some extra flavor if I’m not adding any meat, or sometimes even if I am.
Canned and bottled goods
- Red & White Wine: Use wine to add flavor to your sauces or to keep your meat from drying out when you slow cook it in the oven or on the stove. Not sure which wine to choose? Go to the liquor store and pick out the cheapest possible white or red wine. In France it usually comes in a resealable carton, but if yours comes in a bottle just cork it if you don’t use it all. Once open, you can keep cooking wine longer than you would drinking wine since you’ll be heating it up when you cook it anyway.
- Tuna: It’s always nice to have some tuna on hand for times when your fridge is empty. I usually use it to make some sort of salad (either with greens or with rice).
- Sardines: When I’m really in a pinch, I like to eat sardines on crackers or some bread. Not the most healthy meal, but it works when you’ve got nothing else!
- Corn: As a native Minnesotan, corn is something I grew up loving and that hasn’t changed. I eat it warm with a little butter or cold in a salad.
- Tomato paste: If you’ve got tomato paste and pasta, you’ll never go hungry! I love keeping this in my cupboard for times when I don’t have anything fresh in the fridge.
Lentils, Pasta, and Rice
- Pasta: It’s nice to have a couple different kinds on hand. I love angel hair pasta and macaroni, so I make sure I always have some in my cupboard.
- Rice: I typically make basmati rice (both white and wheat), but I also like to stock some round rice for when I want to make risotto (which is SO MUCH easier than you think).
- Lentils: I didn’t used to like lentils, but over the past couple years I’ve really come to appreciate them. If you know how to make them, they can be super flavorful, not to mention good for your digestive system. Check out this recipe to become a lentils convert. I like to stock a couple different kinds: red, green, and blonde.
- Quinoa blend: I fell in love with this quinoa blend they carry at my local grocery store. I haven’t seen it in the US, but it’s easy to make. Just combine equal parts White and Red Quinoa with twice the amount of Bulgur. It’s amazing.
Fresh Produce and Herbs
- Onions (or shallots): No matter what I’m cooking, you can safely assume there will be onions in it. Whether they are sautéed, caramelized, fried, or raw, they add so much flavor with such little effort it would be a shame to not take advantage.
- Garlic: See above. A dish without garlic is a rarity in my kitchen.
- Lemons: If you’re looking for a way to add flavor without adding fat, lemon is a great option. I always have some fresh lemons lying around as I put lemon on pretty much everything.
- Mushrooms: I love mushrooms. Raw or cooked, you’ll find them in a lot of my recipes.
- Carrots: These are also a great vegetable to have on hand because they’re really versatile. You can make carrot sticks or a shredded carrot salad. You can also bake them, boil them, or pan-fry them.
- Lettuce: I am a salad lover so I usually have some lettuce in my fridge, though I’ll admit that sometimes in the cold winter months I don’t because I crave warm meals.
- Crème Fraîche: If you can’t find crème fraîche, you can substitute sour cream, which is pretty similar. It’s perfect for making those creamy sauces that French cuisine is known for.
- Shredded Cheese: This is great for pasta, pizza, quiches, savory pies, omelets, tacos, and so many other things.
- Goat Cheese: I am a HUGE goat cheese fan. Seriously. I’ll put it on anything. I especially love it with a little drop of honey on it. Exquisite!
- Plain Greek Yogurt: One of the things that I’ve gotten used to since living in France is (almost) always finishing off my meal with something sweet. My go-to is greek yogurt with a touch of honey since it’s somewhat healthy but not any less delicious.
- Eggs: Eggs can be cooked in many different ways either on their own or with other ingredients. Whether you prefer them sunny-side up, in a omelet or in a quiche, having some eggs in your fridge always comes in handy.
- Chicken breast: This healthy meat option is can be used for thousands of different recipes, so freeze some and dethaw it as needed.
- Ground beef: Here’s another meat that can be used in a myriad of ways and can be kept in the freezer so you always have it when you need it.
- Sugar: I don’t think I need to explain to you why you should have sugar on hand, but one thing you may not think to use it for is tomato sauce. Adding just a pinch can take counteract some of that acidity and make it taste just right.
- Flour: Most baking recipes call for at least a little flour.
- Baking soda: Chances are you’ll either need this or baking powder if you’re baking.
- Baking powder: See above.
- Vanilla: Vanilla is a common ingredient in baked goods as well, so it’s a good idea to keep some around.
- Honey: This is a great alternative to sugar and I actually prefer the taste.
If you want to start cooking more often, try removing one of the biggest barriers by stocking the right ingredients in your kitchen. That way, next time you feel like cooking you’ll have everything you need.
So go forth and stock away! I bet you’ll find you’re more inclined to throw on that apron and get at it.
If your kitchen is already fully stocked, feel free to share any “must-have” items I may have forgotten below. I’d love to hear what your stapes are!