Have you ever come home from work full of intention and motivation to cook dinner at home, only to find an empty pantry and nothing to work with? Sometimes cooking at home sounds totally do-able, but making that extra stop at the grocery on the way home is where I lose steam. Making sure you have a few pantry staples can be that make-or-break factor between whipping up something homemade or grabbing your phone to order from Postmates, yet again.
Stock Your Kitchen: Pantry Staples
This list of pantry staples are the items that I like to keep on hand to help me whip up meals on the fly. They’re basic, versatile ingredients that are used frequently, are usually fairly inexpensive, and have a long shelf life (pantry, refrigerator, or freezer). Your personal list will take shape as you begin to cook regularly and develop favorite recipes or flavors. In the mean time, use this list as a guide for slowly building up your pantry over time. You don’t have to buy everything at once! Buy one or two items, as needed, but always check if you need to restock on these items before you do your weekly shop.
Need ideas for what to make with your pantry staples? Check out these 19 Quick and Easy Weeknight Dinners, designed specifically to use pantry staples and require little planning ahead!
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Dry goods are usually the least expensive and most versatile ingredients in your kitchen. I like to buy these items from bulk bins, if possible, to cut down on packaging, and because I can buy any quantity needed. If you don’t have fancy containers to store your dry goods, don’t fret. A heavy duty zip top food storage bag will do the job. Just make sure they stay dry, cool, and away from sunlight because flavors and freshness don’t last forever.
- Flour: all-purpose, whole wheat
- Sugar: white, brown, confectioners (powdered)
- Rolled Oats
- Rice: long-grain white, brown, or jasmine rice
- Baking Powder
- Baking Soda
- Dry Beans: black, white (cannellini, navy), kidney, garbanzo
Oils, Vinegars, and Sauces
Oils, vinegars, and sauces are essential to giving life to your food. They add flavor, zing, and can be used to make a million different dressings and sauces that will liven up even the most boring meals. Again, these items are pretty basic and inexpensive, and most have an extremely long shelf life. Don’t worry yourself over buying top quality when you’re just starting out. Until you become more experienced in the kitchen and your taste develop, you may not be able to tell the difference between generic and high end. Stick to what you can afford and I promise you’ll still be able to make good food!
- Oils: vegetable or canola, extra virgin olive oil, toasted sesame oil, non-stick spray
- Vinegar: apple cider, red wine, rice, balsamic
- Soy Sauce*
- Worcestershire Sauce*
- Mustard*: yellow, Dijon
- Hoisin Sauce*
- Peanut Butter*
*Refrigerate after opening
Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices are my arsenal in the kitchen. They can turn boring, flavorless food into a drool-worthy creation. Spices have a fairly long shelf life, especially if kept in an air-tight container, away from heat and sunlight. There is no exact expiration date for herbs and spices, but a good way to determine their potency is to give them a sniff. If you can’t smell your spices, you won’t likely be able to taste them in your recipe, either. For super fresh and affordable spices, look for spices sold in bulk (this is becoming more popular in grocery stores) and check international grocery stores.
This list is highly personalized and will differ greatly depending on what kind of cuisine you like.
- Salt (fine sea salt and coarse kosher salt)
- Whole Peppercorns (with grinder – see photo above, far right)
- Crushed Red Pepper
- Cayenne Pepper
- Smoked Paprika
- Curry Powder
- Chili Powder
- Garlic Powder
- Cocoa Powder
- Vanilla Extract
Obviously these ingredients don’t have as long of a shelf life as dry goods, but it’s good to keep them on hand.
- Milk: dairy or non-dairy
- Eggs (large)
- Plain Yogurt
- Grated Parmesan
- Mayonnaise, Mustard (also listed under sauces)
- Shredded Cheese (can be kept in the freezer for long term storage)
- Tortillas (almost anything can be made into a quesadilla for a quick meal!)
In lieu of trying to keep a variety of fresh vegetables on hand (keep dreamin’, Beth) I like to keep a variety of frozen vegetables on hand. Frozen vegetables are the next best thing to fresh because they don’t have any extra salt or preservatives added (make sure you’re not getting the kind that come with a sauce). They’re always there ready and waiting to be tossed into a soup, casserole, pasta dish, or even tossed onto pizza, without worry that they’ll go limp and begin to stink up the fridge.
- Broccoli Florets
- Fruit: blueberries, strawberries, peaches
- Shelled Edamame
- Corn Kernels
I also like to make sure I have a little meat stashed in my fridge for quick meals. When I encounter meat sales, I stock up and stash the goods in my freezer for later.
I don’t use canned goods often, but they’re extremely convenient and usually fairly inexpensive, so they can certainly be a life saver. I try to stick to canned goods with as little additives as possible.
- Tomatoes: paste, diced, sauce, crushed/puréed
- Beans: black, kidney, white, garbanzo
- Pumpkin Purée
- Pasta Sauce (for when there’s no time to make your own)
- Coconut Milk
- Soup Base: I used Better Than Bouillon, chicken, beef, and vegetable. Refrigerate after opening.
So there you have it—my most valuable pantry staples that I rely on to get me through busy days and last minute meal requests. What about you? What have I forgotten? What ingredient can you not live without having on hand at all times?
Share yours in the comments below!
Post originally published 11-19-14, updated 7-5-18.
I am a senior citizen trying to learn how to create small meals just for me and healthy meals.
Hi, Lynda! Welcome to our site! There is a drop-down menu on every recipe card that will allow you to adjust the serving size of the recipe to make things just for one. I hope that helps! ~Marion :)
I am hooked on this blog. I have been needing this for a while.
A staple I have that is not on your list is Evaporated milk and sweet condensed Milk. Evaporated milk has come in hand for days when cant get to grocery store and ran out of milk. It tastes way better then powdered milk. Sweetened Condensed Milk is great for deserts when craving something sweet, whether is pumpkin pie or ice cream.
Food grade – Sodium Citrate. This magical white powder is an emulsifier (and other things). It’s used in the food industry such as gelatin mix, ice-cream, jams, sweets, milk powder, processed cheeses, carbonated beverages, and wine. I find it best for Nacho cheese fondue/sauce/dip/soup or where the ingredients dont normally mix. No need for cornflour, and the sauce will NEVER set into a hard lump.
I’ve been using ‘Modernist cuisine’s’ recipe: https://www.foodrepublic.com/recipes/take-modernist-cuisines-nacho-cheese-sauce-for-a-spin/
I do a lot of stir-frys and keep jarred minced ginger in the fridge….
I also can’t imagine having some type of ready to eat chocolate somewhere in my kitchen…..
Evaporated Milk :)
Thanks for all the great help!
marmalade, dried kelp, coffee. Love ya!
I can’t emphasize enough how helpful it is to have an expansive spice collection. I built mine up over time during covid because we were all getting so bored of the regular recipes in rotation. I got of the less common (for western cooking) ones on Amazon when I couldn’t find stuff in stores. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of adding:
cloves, allspice, ground coriander, dried mint, garam masala, onion and garlic powder, turmeric, cardamom, smoked paprika, dried or frozen ginger
Thank you! I am cooking for 2 now any suggestions on how to cut a recipe back and still make it taste good would be appreciated. Thanks again for all the great information. Karen
You can usually just cut all of the ingredients’ quantities in half and it should taste fine
I love this list but I want to point out a possible point of massive money savings.
Pasta Sauce (for when there’s no time to make your own)
Pasta sauce can just be a can of crushed tomatoes & seasoning. Which is generally 50% cheaper than a can of pre-made pasta sauce. It could even be tomato sauce with seasonings and some pre-sauteed veg (some onions & garlic).
Anyway, the rest is perfectly fine.
When I’m short on time….
I keep frozen potatoes (cubed hashbrowns) for quick mashed potatoes or potatoes salad. I’ve even used them in soups and stew.
I always keep dry cake mix and cans of pie fillings on hand. A quick dessert for the family or if company shows up.
Spice cake/apple pie filling
Yellow cake/canned peaches
White cake/cherry or blueberry pie filling.
Wow Beth! I love your site. Creative uses for core, cheap but pure ingredients is what peasants of the world have done for centuries to feed their (often large) families for next to nothing. The best meal I’ve ever had in my life was a bread and potato palya purchased from a lady in a hut on a donkey sanctuary in rural India. I feel she, you, and I would all be friends. Thanks for taking the time to put this site together.
I love your comment. I’d like to join the gathering too and be friends!
Thanks so much for the tips! Definitely will put to use in the future.
Is there a printable version of this somewhere?
No, unfortunately, I don’t have that, but I should make it!