Smart Shopping 7: Stock These 5 Kitchen Staples, Whip up Dinner in a Pinch

In our seventh installment of Smart Shopping, Carissa talks about the pantry staples she always stocks for emergency dinners.

I love fresh produce. Unfortunately, using fresh fruits and veggies are not always an option. Money, time, and a trip to the grocery store all factor in when it comes to keeping the kitchen well-stocked with fresh goods. That means when the grocery budget gets slim or it's been a busy week, the kitchen is starting to look scarce. While a scarce kitchen can put a limit on dinner basics, it doesn't have to put a limit on great meals. Some of the best recipes are born out of limited ingredients. You just need a few staples.

When it comes to making something out of nothing, I've become a pro thanks to my five trusty staples. I find that if I have my go-to staples on hand, I can whip up a satisfying meal in a pinch. While meal planning can be the best option to prevent a bare kitchen, life happens. Unforeseen circumstances can get in the way of mapping out a weeks worth of meals. This tends to lead towards making unhealthy food decisions - say, gorging on a tub of ice cream or a whole block of cheese with crackers.

If you keep a couple healthy food items stocked however, you can skip the junk and save dinner. That's why I recommend keeping these five goods in your kitchen. With their help, saving dinner will be a synch.

1. Canned Garbanzo Beans

I can't tell you how many times I've been saved by a can of garbanzo beans. Garbanzo beans of all things! This coming from someone that wouldn't touch a bean as a child. But now, garbanzo beans - or chickpeas - have more often than not saved dinner. And that in turn saved my lunch the next day.

The uses for a can of garbanzo beans can surprise some. What can they do besides make hummus for a dinner party? Although I can easily turn a smorgasbord of hummus, vegetables, bread or crackers, and olives into a meal, garbanzo beans are so much more. One of my favorite recipes for these mild beans is to create a simple salad dressing out of lemon juice and olive oil, then tossed in tomato, cucumber, cumin, and sea salt. No lemon? Sub in red wine vinegar. It's fresh, simple, satisfying, and will meet your dietary restrictions if you're going the low-carb way.

When I'm super busy and really get down to a bare kitchen, there are no fresh staples on hand for my go to salad. That's when I bust out an emergency stashed can of Trader Joe's Grecian Style Eggplant with Tomatoes and Onions. The eggplant with stewed tomatoes mixed with chickpeas is practically as good as a homemade meal.

While you may not stash away a can of eggplant like I do, tasty stews, soups, curries, salads, and bowls can all be made with a can of garbanzo beans - along with the limited ingredients in your fridge. Use them as a meat substitute, toast them in the oven with some paprika, or saute them with onion, garlic, spices, and anything else you like - or have. Whether you're making Mexican, Asian, American, Moroccan, Indian, or Mediterranean, these beans can save the meal.

2. Canned Tomatoes

Let's talk tomatoes, canned that is. I'm guessing you have a can or two of tomatoes hiding in your pantry. Whether they're there because you use them on a regular basis, or thought it could help you out in a pinch, canned tomatoes are a must have when it comes to pantry staples.

But what can you do with a lonely can of tomatoes? Oh let me count the ways. You can bust out a stew, make tomato soup, use it as sauce for pasta, pour it over that lone zucchini sitting in your fridge, or make the best chili you could conjure up with the limited ingredients hiding in your pantry.

One of the best chilis I've made was inspired by a can of tomatoes. With barely anything in the kitchen and a storm brewing outside, a trip to the store was out of the question. Stumbling upon the canned tomatoes, dried lentils, and the few fresh veggies left in the kitchen, I tossed in a bunch of spices and let it all simmer. The result was a surprisingly good lentil chili. Suffice to say, with a can of tomatoes, the options are as endless as your creativity.

3. Couscous

Dinnertime #neareastcouscous

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Some people may opt for a box of dried bow ties or spaghetti, but my pasta of choice is couscous. I could do about a hundred things with a box of couscous. One of my favorites is to mix couscous with a homemade spinach-avocado sauce and add fresh cherry tomatoes. The other is tabouli. The classic Lebanese herbed salad is always refreshing, and satisfying.

The options, however, don't stop there. Couscous is a perfect accompaniment for curries, a filling base for a Buddha bowl, a great substitute for other pastas, and even tastes great mixed with some olive oil, lemon juice, and chopped garlic. I even like to add it to my garbanzo bean salad to make it a bit more filling.

Couscous is an incredibly versatile ingredient. And best yet, it's easy to make. While some may worry about cooking pasta al dente, with couscous there's no need to throw spaghetti noodles against the wall to see if it's done. Simply boil water, add the couscous, and let it sit for five minute. With a grain cooking that fast, dinner will be served in no time at all.

4. Lentils

I love lentils. Hearty, healthy, and cheap, a bag of dried lentils can make a meal out of nothing. Soups, stews, bowls, tacos, and salads can all be amped up with these protein packed legumes. A simple favorite of mine is my mom's lentil salad. While I can't give away all the secrets, if you have jalapeños and lemon juice, you can make a filling meal out of lentils. Even if all you have is lentils, that can of tomatoes, an onion, and some spices on hand you can make a tasty meal.

Lentils have an earthy flavor that is pretty universal. While some may opt for beans as a staple, I find that with my cooking, lentils offer more of a variety across the board. Mexican, American, French, and Mediterranean dishes do really well with lentils.

For an easy after work meal, I'll take some pre-cooked lentils - I'll make a big batch the beginning of the week - frozen spinach, frozen asparagus, red onion, and garlic, then sauté it all together. I'll then squeeze either lemon or lime - whichever I have - for a citrusy kick. When I don't have any fresh citrus on hand, I'll opt for some red wine vinegar. I find that citrus or vinegar enhances this earthy meal for a satisfying dish. And by using frozen veggies, I have time-saving ingredients on hand that bust dinner out faster than prepping with fresh.

5. Eggs

If there is one ingredient that has saved me in a pinch time and time again, it's a carton of eggs. Whether they were the main course itself or the protein boost needed to create a well rounded meal, having eggs on hand are a must.

One of my favorite things to make when the kitchen is getting low on goods is frittata. Frittata is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink dish that fills you up and keeps you satisfied. Onions, that can of tomatoes, frozen spinach, and any fresh veggies you have on hand that need to be eaten can be tossed in.

If it's not frittata, use your other on hand ingredients and make a chickpea shakshuka. Taking canned chickpeas, canned tomatoes, and a few eggs, you can have a meal ready in no time. And the best part? You used all your ingredients that you had on hand 'just in case.'

Watch: Why You Should Drink Kombucha Every Day

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