With these simple meal-plan tips and our easy-to-follow formula, you'll be able to plan and create healthy meals for every night this week.

Victoria Seaver, M.S., R.D.
April 28, 2020
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Sometimes when I do a grocery shop, I simply restock my pantry stores (including some freezer items and long-lasting fridge items, too) rather than making my shopping list based off of any sort of meal plan. That's what happened at my last shop, so now I’m in the position where I have plenty on hand but need a plan to actually use what I have. Sound familiar?

These simple meal plan tips and the easy-to-follow formula for creating pantry dinners means you'll be able to come up with a week of healthy meals using what you have on hand. And don't miss the easy meal ideas below, which are delicious examples of how to use these tricks to make healthy pantry meals!

Simple Meal Planning Tips for Making Pantry Meals

While there's a lot I can say about meal planning these easy tips are the most helpful ones when planning a week of meals.

Give each night of the week a theme

Giving each night of the week a particular theme can help you craft exciting meals and use up the different ingredients you have on hand. This can be something like a night where you do pasta or a Mexican-inspired night, curry night and Mediterranean night. And be sure to plan a night (or two) where you do leftovers or takeout to give yourself a break in the kitchen. You'll see these themes stand out in the recipe ideas below.

Use your fresh items first

Use fresh items like veggies and meat or seafood in the beginning of the week, so they don't go bad. Prioritize the veggies that aren't long lasting, like salad greens, over veggies that are long lasting, like sweet potatoes. If you do want to save a certain cut of meat or piece of fish for later in the week, plan on freezing it to keep it as fresh as possible.

Reuse ingredients

While it's always good to try and waste as little as possible, it's especially important now that we're all shopping less frequently and trying to make the most of what we have on hand. So plan on reusing ingredients as often as you can, so you can get through what you have before it goes bad.

Easy 4-Step Pantry Dinner Formula

Victoria Seaver

With this easy formula, you’ll be able to look through your pantry and piece together a week of healthy meals.

1. Choose a healthy carb that will act as the main ingredient

This can be a can of beans, brown rice, quinoa or a sweet potato. These items are shelf-stable ingredients that we often have in our kitchens, plus they're easy to build from. And choosing a carb first ensures we'll have a healthy source of fiber at every meal, which comes with some major health benefits. Fiber keeps you feeling fuller for longer, feeds your healthy gut bacteria and overtime can help ward off chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

2. Pick a healthy protein source

Just like high-fiber carbs, protein has its benefits, like helping to keep you feeling full and satisfied after a meal. Think canned tuna and salmon, eggs, tofu, frozen meat or fish as well as canned beans. Certain whole grains double as both a healthy high-fiber carbohydrate and protein source, so choosing items like quinoa or bulgur is a bonus.

3. Add in a vegetable or two

Whether it’s canned fresh or frozen, adding in veggies where you can helps make these pantry dinners balanced meals. Think canned tomatoes, corn, peas, frozen cauliflower florets or whatever fresh veggies you may have on hand.

4. Lastly, add in flavor boosters

To bring the meal together, add in a flavor booster or a few. This can be a jar of tomato sauce or curry sauce or a spice mix, pesto or a combination of a few!

Easy Pantry Dinner Ideas to Try

Assuming you do leftovers one or more nights and take-out another, here are 5 pantry dinners you can make this week. Each follows the 4-step formula from above—you'll see the carbohydrate listed first, the protein next, then the vegetable and lastly the flavor booster (or boosters!). Some foods double as both a carb and protein, like chickpeas, as do things like sweet potatoes, which counts as a healthy carb and vegetable at the same time.

Pasta + white beans + sautéed kale + pesto

Victoria Seaver

Pasta night! There are so many yummy combinations you could create with all the different types of pasta out there. This is just one tasty idea.

Here's how to make it:

  1. Boil your pasta according to packaged directions. In the last 30 seconds of cooking, add the chopped kale to the pot to cook. Drain pasta (reserving about a half cup of water) and kale and return to the pot.
  2. Stir in rinsed white beans, pesto and a little pasta water to help thicken things up.
  3. Enjoy!

Chickpeas + sliced carrots + coconut milk + curry powder

Curries make for a great pantry meal, as you can add just about any combination and it'll be delicious. This 4-ingredient pantry curry uses long-lasting carrots as the veggie but you could use whatever you have on hand. Cauliflower, spinach or broccoli would be nice additions!

Here's how to make it:

  1. Combine chickpeas, coconut milk, curry powder and sliced carrots in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer. Cook for 5 minutes or until the carrots are softened slightly.
  2. Enjoy!

Brown rice + black beans + frozen corn + salsa + sour cream

Taco bowls make for an easy Mexican-inspired theme night! I always cook extra brown rice and freeze a bunch so that I always have some on hand for easy dinners like this one.

Here's how to make it: 

  1. Cook rice according to package directions (or follow this recipe for Easy Brown Rice). As the rice cooks, rinse black beans and defrost corn in the microwave, according to package directions.
  2. Combine rice, beans and corn in a bowl and top with salsa and sour cream.
  3. Enjoy!

Baked sweet potatoes + ground turkey + taco seasoning + salsa + sour cream

You can just about stuff a sweet potato or white potato with anything and it'll be delicious. Here we lean into the Mexican-inspired theme again with the taco-seasoned turkey, salsa and sour cream.

Here's how to make it:

  1. Prick sweet potatoes with a fork in several places and microwave on High until tender all the way to the center, 12 to 15 minutes.
  2. While the sweet potato cooks, heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat; add ground turkey and let cook until no longer pink. Add taco seasoning, salt and pepper.
  3. With a sharp knife, make a cross cut in the middle of potato. Push in and up at each end to open. Add turkey mixture and top with salsa and sour cream.
  4. Enjoy!

Chickpeas + canned tomatoes + Italian seasoning + crushed red pepper + milk or cream

Victoria Seaver

This Mediterranean-inspired meal is a more basic take on the Eggs in Tomato Sauce with Chickpeas & Spinach, which is pretty much a pantry recipe as is. You can jazz this dinner up even more by adding some feta cheese and parsley.

Here's how to make it:

  1. In a skillet over medium heat, simmer tomatoes until slightly reduced. Add in milk or cream, chickpeas, salt, pepper, Italian seasoning and crushed red pepper (if using).
  2. Make wells in the sauce roughly large enough to hold the egg and crack an egg into each well, so that the yolk and most of the white is contained (some white may spread out). Cover with a lid and cook until eggs are set but yolk is still runny, about 6 minutes.
  3. Enjoy!