The 5 Best Pantry Staples for Emergency Last-Minute Lunches

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

Some days we have our acts together. Some days we just plain don’t. That’s life. For the days when those good intentions to make lunch ahead don’t go quite as planned, here are a few pantry staples that make a very good emergency lunch.

These pantry staples can be re-combined in countless ways — with each other and with other odds and ends you have in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. Get creative! I often start with one of these as a base and then look around my kitchen for what else I might add: chopped cucumber, a handful of greens, some rice from last night’s dinner, crumbled goat cheese. Before too long, I have a lunch worth looking forward to.
  • Cans of Beans: Chickpeas are a particular favorite of mine, but black beans, Great Northern beans, or any other favorite bean will do. Depending on what else you have on hand, they can be used to make a container of greens into a satisfying salad, used in a sandwich wrap or pita pocket, or smashed to make a dip for veggies or a quick sandwich spread.
  • Canned Fish: Tuna is the ubiquitous lunch staple, but I also keep cans of salmon, smoked trout, and sardines to have some variety. Mix them with mayo for a quick sandwich or add them straight into salads.
  • Crackers and Pretzels: If you’re out of sandwich bread, crackers make an easy stand-in. They can scoop up both tunafish salad and bean dip (like hummus), or help make up a farmer’s lunch of cheese slices, nuts, and fresh fruit. I’ve also been known to  use crackers as a crouton stand-in with salads.
  • Peanut Butter and Nut Butters: A PB&J sandwich might make you feel like you’re back in grade school, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Peanut butter can also be whisked into a quick dressing for green salads, leftover steamed veggies, or cold noodles (or all three of those, combined!). Think of peanut butter as something that can transform your otherwise boring and unrelated fridge gleanings into a tasty lunch.
  • Old-Fashioned Rolled Oats: I admit that I’m stretching a little on this one, but don’t knock a good bowl of oatmeal (or meusli!) for lunch. Particularly if you round it out with things like nuts, dried fruit, shredded, and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Don’t be afraid to go savory with oatmeal, either. Doctored with soy sauce and Sriracha, a bowl of savory porridge makes a decent vehicle for leftover veggies.

What other pantry staples are essential for your emergency last-minute lunches?