31 Essential Ingredients for No-Cook Meals

updated Jun 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

A well-stocked pantry is paramount to cooking, but what about those times when we’re too rushed/hot/tired to turn on the oven? Every cook should have some essential ingredients on hand for low-fuss, no-cook meals — especially in the dog days of summer.

Why You Need No-Cook Meals

No-cook meals aren’t just for the humid summer nights when it is too hot to turn on the oven or work up a sweat while cooking: No-cook meals are a survival tool for busy young professionals, harried parents, and those cooking solo. They are also great for times when we don’t have access to the stove — say during a kitchen renovation or while camping.

Most of the items on this list can be eaten raw or are pre-cooked and just need thawing, but there are a few that require boiling water (which can be done in an electric kettle or the microwave) or a few minutes in the microwave. While these maneuverers are technically cooking, they do not require a stove and are all kept under five minutes of cooking time.

(Image credit: Kimberley Hasselbrink)

The Fridge

The refrigerator is a natural extension of pantry. In fact, the definition of pantry, a small room or closet in which food and utensils are kept, easily applies to the fridge as well. While fridge essentials might not last as long as dry storage essentials, there is no reason we shouldn’t include them as the backbone for no-cook meals.

1. Berries: Beyond eating out of hand or filling out smoothies, berries are a sublime addition to salads and a delightful topping for overnight oats.

2. Cheese: You should have the following cheeses on hand: hard, for grating over grain salads or no-cook soups; semi-soft, for sandwiches and stuffing into veggies or wraps; soft, such as goat cheese for spreading on toasts; crumbling, such as feta or ricotta, to toss into salads or add to sandwiches; cottage cheese, a protein-rich alternative to yogurt for breakfast.

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3. Cucumber: Cucumber can be turned into noodles, or filled with tuna, chicken salad, or soft cheese. It can also be puréed with tomatoes for gazpacho or with avocado for a cool, creamy soup.

4. Corn: Sweet corn can be eaten raw or whole ears can be microwaved and eaten straight-up. Corn can be added to salads or turned into soup, too.

5. Jicama: This is a cool, crisp, starchy alternative to potatoes. Cube jicama and add to salads or slice into rounds and use as a vehicle for tuna and chicken salad.

6. Melon: Fill a small cantaloupe with cottage cheese for a super-retro lunch, or toss with avocado and feta for a quick salad.

7. Tortillas: Whole-wheat tortillas can be filled with canned beans, fresh corn, and avocado for Taco Tuesday, or you can use them as a wrap for deli meats, tofu, or salads of any kind.

8. Salsa: Store-bought salsa is a super shortcut to flavor. Obviously it makes a great dip and salad dressing, but also consider it as an addition to soups or toss it with frozen rice and microwave them together for a quick side.

9. Deli meat: Not just turkey or ham for sandwiches — make a pseudo-steak salad or taco with roast beef, or make ham and melon roll-ups. You can also ask for thick slices of ham or turkey to cube for chef’s salads.

Riff on a Recipe: Try this with deli roast beef in place of the steak and sub jicama for the potatoes and rutabagas: Upside-Down Steak Dinner Bowl

10. Prosciutto: Consider this your no-cook bacon alternative and more. Prosciutto lends a salty, meaty flavor to salads and wraps for lunch and dinner, but can also wrapped around fruit (say, melon and peaches) for a quick breakfast.

11. Rotisserie chicken: Queen of the no-cook dinner, a rotisserie chicken can be eaten as is (throw together a salad as a side) or turned into chicken salad or summer rolls, or even added to soups.

12. Tofu: Silken tofu can be worked into smoothies and salad dressings for extra protein, while firm or extra-firm tofu can be marinated and sliced for vegetable sandwiches or cubed for wraps and salads.

13. Lettuces: You’ve probably noticed salads as a theme for no-cook meals in this list, so lettuce has to be here too. Don’t forget that butter and bibb lettuce make a lovely wrap for chicken or chickpea salads.

14. Olives: Olives deliver a briny punch that few foods can replicate (besides capers) and when paired with a few cheeses, some bread, and raw vegetables make a snack platter feel like more of a meal than a snack.

15. Yogurt: Plain Greek yogurt is a simple morning meal topped with some fresh fruit and nuts, but it also makes an incredible base for dips, spreads, and cold soups. I regularly use it as a stand-in for sour cream.

16. Zucchini: We could fill a list of 30 no-cook essentials with just vegetables, but zoodles are the ultimate no-cook reason to keep zucchini on hand. You can zap a pasta craving without turning on the stove with just a few turns of a spiralizer.

(Image credit: Kimberley Hasselbrink)

The Pantry (and Other Dry Storage)

The pantry is an indispensable tool for churning out meal after meal each week; a well-stocked one will keep you fed — cook or no-cook. This portion of the list also includes things you might not store inside the pantry but on a kitchen counter, such as avocados or tomatoes.

17. Avocado: All hail the most perfect no-cook food. I regularly eat half an avocado with salt and pepper for breakfast as I’m rushing out the door, but you can fill half an avocado with tuna salad for lunch or make a quick avocado and black bean wrap for dinner. Avocado can be puréed into smoothies and cold soups for a thick creaminess without any dairy.

18. Bananas: Bananas aren’t just for eating out of hand or blending into smoothies — they can be mashed with chia seeds and milk for a quick no-cook pudding, or combined with oats, nut butter, and a little chocolate for no-bake cookies.

19. Bread: While a typical sandwich loaf is fine, upgrading to a bakery baguette will easily improve no-cook bread-based meals. Use fresh bread for sandwiches, tartines, or toasts, and turn stale bread cubes into panzanella.

20. Canned fish: I’m using the term canned here loosely, as tuna certainly comes in packets and some of the best anchovies are jarred. Mild fish like tuna is excellent for mayo- or yogurt-based salad and summer rolls. Anchovies and sardines aren’t regular pantry staples for most Americans (although they should be), but consider trying canned sardines on top of avocado toast or mincing anchovies into Caesar salad dressing.

21. Instant couscous: While instant couscous does require boiling water, it can be made with just an electric kettle or microwave. Turn cooked couscous into tabouli or a simple salad.

Get a Recipe: How To Cook Couscous

22. Chia seeds: Use these tiny seeds to thicken yogurt and milk into puddings for breakfast or dessert. Combine them with fresh fruit for instant jam for toast or topping ice cream.

23. Canned beans: Canned beans are a workhorse of any pantry — not just a no-cook one. Use drained and rinsed black beans for tacos, top salads with chickpeas, or mash white beans into a fine substitute for tuna salad.

3 Canned Bean Recipes

24. Oats: Use rolled oats for overnight oatmeal or keep quick-cooking oats on hand for no-bake cookies or a warm bowl of oatmeal from the microwave.

25. Pita bread: Don’t just use pita as a pocket for sandwich fodder or bread for dipping — it is an excellent substitute for bread in panzanella or can be used to make fattoush.

26. Rice paper rolls: Yes, rice paper rolls might be exclusively for making summer rolls, but there is no limit to the filling options. Shrimp and vegetables, avocado and tuna salad, strawberries and creamy cheese — the possibilities are endless.

27. Tomatoes: Fresh tomatoes of every shape and size should be on everyone’s no-cook grocery list. Enjoy with them on bread with a smear of creamy cheese, chop them up into salads, or purée them into cool gazpacho.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

The Freezer

The freezer is what I like to call “the secret pantry.” It almost always gets checked last when trying to scrounge a meal together, and so it is also well-stocked. While we could call for you to stock your freezer with pre-cooked dishes that you can simply thaw and enjoy for a no-cook meal, that really takes the fun out of searching for these longer-lasting, but still no-cook essentials.

28. Frozen cooked shrimp: Frozen shrimp should be a freezer staple for everyone — it thaws and cooks quickly — but for those nights when you need to eat without the heat, frozen cooked shrimp is a simple shortcut. Thaw and enjoy on zucchini noodles or salads, or in summer rolls.

29. Frozen fruit: Frozen fruit is smoothie fodder for sure, but frozen raspberries can be mashed with chia seeds for a quick jam or sauce for ice cream. Frozen peaches add body to a cold soup of cucumbers and avocado. Thawed mango can be chopped into a quick salsa.

30. Frozen vegetables: My suggestion is to always have corn, peas, and whole in-shell edamame on hand for no-cook meals. Edamame can be quickly microwaved and tossed with sesame oil and soy sauce for a quick snack, while peas and corn can be thawed and added to salads or soups.

31. Cooked rice: While pre-cooked rice is available in many forms throughout the grocery store, frozen is usually the best quality. Frozen rice can be cooked in just under five minutes, making it a great base for almost any protein or mix of vegetables.

Freeze Your Own Rice: How To Freeze Cooked Brown Rice