A Recipe Developer's Go-To Foods for Easy Last-Minute Meals

What do the kitchen pros keep on hand for last-minute meals? Here's what one recipe developer can't live without.

Eggs. salad greens, peppers, and polenta
Photo: Casey Barber

When I tell people I work in food media as a recipe developer, writer and photographer, I typically get two reactions: "That sounds so fun!" and "How do you organize it all?"

And while it is fun most of the time, a recipe developer's schedule can be unpredictable.

I do my best to create weekly meal plans for myself and my husband, but the specifics of what we'll be eating are frequently based on what my clients want.

Sometimes we're having breakfast for dinner a few nights a week or working our way through the third test of a casserole recipe; other times, we have free rein over our cravings. It truly can be a feast or famine situation.

So when I have nothing planned on the work end, I've learned to stock my pantry and fridge with a few versatile ingredients that can turn leftover odds and ends into satisfying meals without any extra effort on my part.

These are five kitchen basics that I always have on hand, and a few suggestions on how to use them.

Prewashed baby greens

Whether it's spinach, kale, arugula or a mixed blend, having a few fresh greens on hand means you'll get your daily dose of vitamins without a fight.

They wilt down in minutes in a saucepan, and can be paired with grains and pasta or with roasted vegetables, or tossed into leftover soups and stews to bulk out a meal.


This may seem obvious, but eggs are one of the simplest protein sources, and hard-boiled eggs are just the beginning.

Casey Barber

Whisk beaten eggs into simmering broth and make stracciatella soup (even better if you add a handful of greens and some Parmesan); poach an egg and serve it over grains; scramble an egg and add to tortillas with vegetables for tacos that go beyond breakfast.

Boxed chicken broth

Speaking of broth, when it comes to stocking my pantry, I prefer the 1-cup boxes over the quart-sized version. Yes, it's a little more packaging than I would normally prefer, but I find that more often than not, I only need a cup or so of broth to finish a meal.

When you don't have time to make homemade chicken stock and freeze it in portions, boxed broth is there for you.


Many whole grains are hard to make fresh in small quantities, and while I like to keep leftover portions of rice in the freezer, the pantry once again comes through in a pinch when that's not an option.

Bowl of Polenta and greens
Casey Barber

Making polenta is an easy ratio (1 cup liquid, like chicken broth, to 1/4 cup polenta) and it simmers on the stovetop quickly—even faster than your Instant Pot can heat.

Eat it fresh or chill and slice into squares for frying up, and think of it as a blank canvas for the contents of your fridge. Sliced sausage or leftover chicken? Pickled vegetables? Pesto? Ragout? All equally great as polenta toppings.

Banana peppers

I'm serious! Jarred banana peppers are the underrated hero of the condiment world. With just enough acid, sweetness and heat, these colorful rounds instantly brighten up a run-of-the-mill meal.

Chop them up and sprinkle over tacos as you would jalapeño peppers; add a layer to a grilled cheese sandwich; or mix them into salad dressing for an extra punch. And save the brine from the jar when you're done—it adds zing to your regular chicken and pork marinades.

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