Eat Dinner Like a Mom: 5 Indispensable Pantry Ingredients for Everyone

Guest Post from Debbie Koenig of Parents Need to Eat Too

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Squishy eggplant and slimy greens killed my dream. 

One of my lowest new-mom moments came after my husband had given me the great gift (seriously) of a solo trip to the supermarket, where I was seduced by the produce aisle’s late-summer bounty. About ten days later I finally felt ready to cook again, visions of ratatouille and fresh, crunchy salad making my heart race. But when I opened the fridge, disappointment struck. All my carefully-chosen perishables had, well, perished. 

For the next few months, I found it wiser to rely on shelf-stable pantry ingredients. Fast-forward a bit, and life with a six-year-old turns out to be nearly as hectic as life with a six-week-old. I still cook from the pantry several times a week. 

And when I teach cooking classes to new parents, showing them tricks and techniques for eating well with a baby in the house, the first session is always devoted to The New Mom’s Pantry. (The first chapter of my cookbook, too.)
These five ingredients are my go-to items to make an easy, nutritious, tasty—not to mention inexpensive—meal, even when I’m so tired I can barely see straight.

  1. Lentils, unlike other dried beans, require no pre-soak and cook in well under an hour. My favorite use: Muhjadarrah, which is nothing more than lentils mixed with deeply caramelized onions and white rice. Try the various colors, too—black lentils make a lovely stew, and red or yellow break down in thick, creamy, curry-scented soup.

  2. Canned Beans, even quicker than lentils, can become anything from hummus to hearty black bean soup to a quick beans & greens stew. Five-minute recipe: Toss a can of rinsed and drained cannellini beans with a can of tuna packed in olive oil, some finely chopped red onion or shallot, fresh herbs if you’ve got em, and red wine vinaigrette. Pile onto thick slices of toast. (Since giving birth I’ve become hyper-aware of things like BPA, so I buy either Trader Joe’s or Eden Organics, both of which are BPA-free.)

  3. Canned Tomatoes need no explanation, right? How else could you make a fifteen-minute pasta sauce? (Liven it up with olives, capers, and anchovy paste—all pantry items themselves—for a quick puttanesca.) But they also add sweetness and acidity to kitchen-sink soups and stews, the kind of thing I throw together in a panic when the dinner hour approaches. BPA-avoidance tip: Pomi brand (the one in the boxes) or jarred tomatoes both do the trick. 

  4. Prepared Polenta Rolls. Some commenter is bound to point out how easy it is to make polenta from scratch, but not when it’s 6:00, you’re exhausted, and you haven’t even thought about what’s for dinner. Pull out the ready-to-go tube, though, and you’re minutes away from eating. I like to slice it into rounds and fry ‘em in a little olive oil, then top with a quick tomato sauce and some grated Parm. Or if I’ve got ten minutes to assemble, I make Southwestern Polenta Lasagna: Mix a can of rinsed & drained black beans with a can of Ro-Tel and some shredded cheddar or Jack cheese, then layer in a baking dish with sliced polenta and top with more cheese. Bake at 400° until the cheese is bubbly, 20 to 30 minutes.

  5. Low-Sodium or Sodium-Free Broth. Whenever I have chicken bones, I make Overnight Chicken Soup and freeze a quart or two—but matzo ball soup is one of my son’s favorite meals, so we go through it like water. Just in case, I keep BPA-free boxes of chicken broth and vegetable broth on-hand at all times. Here’s a fifteen-minute recipe, using three of my top five pantry items: Chop and sauté an onion, a carrot, some garlic, maybe some celery, add a half-cup of uncooked pasta, a large can of tomatoes (whatever kind you’ve got), and a quart of broth. Simmer for 10 minutes, then add a can of rinsed and drained white beans. Boom: Pasta e Fagioli. Top with grated Parm, if you like.

What are your go-to pantry-based recipes?

Debbie Koenig is a food writer and the author of Parents Need to Eat Too: Nap-Friendly Recipes, One-Handed Meals, and Time-Saving Kitchen Tricks for New Parents (Morrow, 2012). Find her at her blog, Parents Need to Eat Too, or@debbieharry on Twitter.

(Images: Debbie Koenig)