The 10 Most Versatile Foods in Your Pantry

Looking to streamline your pantry? You can assemble quite a stock of simple staples that will make countless meals on a dime. I've done the hard work by identifying the ingredients you need to maximize your options — now put these 10 foods on your grocery list and start cooking!

1. Eggs

I don't know about you, but eggs are a huge hit in our house — and you can cook them easily in five different ways. (Six, if you count omelets!) We scramble or fry them as the main protein with breakfast. Poach and sit over asparagus for dinner. Every other week, I hard boil a dozen for quick snacks or use in egg salad sandwiches. And, yes, I even soft boil them on occasion for a fancy brunch item.

2. Rice

We also couldn't live without rice. We usually keep brown rice around, but you can use most any kind in soups and stews. On its own, rice is a strong side for a multitude of dishes from stir-fries to burritos to baked fish. Heck, you can even make dessert using rice by mixing cooked leftovers with spices, milk, raisins, and eggs. (See also: 25 New Ways to Spice up Rice)

3. Bananas

When I was vegan, I learned many tricks for using price-friendly bananas in new ways. Aside from eating them plain (or maybe with some peanut butter), bananas give my smoothies the dreamiest texture along with a dose of potassium. Have you ever thought to make a banana scramble sandwich? It's delicious, I promise you. Freeze slices of bananas on a cookie sheet and then blend in a food processor for a quick, dairy-free soft serve dessert. They also make a great egg substitute in most baked goods — just mash 1/4 cup of ripe banana well to replace one large egg.

4. Potatoes

I had a habit of bringing a sweet potato to lunch with me when I worked my last desk job. I learned how to cook it in the microwave by punching holes in it with a fork, zapping on high for a few minutes, and then flipping to cook a few minutes more. I'd slice and load with Greek yogurt, and pile in other toppings for a healthy lunch. And that's just one of the jillion options for cooking sweet potatoes. You can also make potato pancakes, cook up hash browns, slice into fries, boil, and chop into soups and stews.

5. Beans and Lentils

Whether dried or canned, beans are a vegetarian's best friend. Even if you eat meat, beans (and lentils!) can be a wonderful complete protein to stock in your cupboard. It took me a long time to figure out how to cook dry beans from scratch, but I'm so glad I learned the method. The trick is letting them soak overnight before simmering in your pot. Beans and lentils go well in slow cooker recipes, veggie burgers, warm and cold salads, dips and spreads (like hummus) — just to name a few.

6. Garlic and Onions

Flavor is big no matter what meal you're cooking, so keep a few garlic bulbs and onions in your kitchen at all times. Pretty much every savory recipe you'll ever cook up will require these two ingredients, and — without them — your resulting meal could be quite bland. (See also: 10 Great Uses for Onions)

7. Rolled Oats

We eat oats for breakfast almost every morning. It can get boring at times, so when I found myself with an excess of oats on our last break, I started making flour with them by pulverizing dry oats in my food processor. From there, I made chocolate chip cookies, pancakes, and other baked goods that were outrageously good. I also use uncooked rolled oats to bulk up veggie burger recipes, veggie loaves, and add filling power to my smoothies. (See also: 11 Ways to Eat Oats When You Hate Oatmeal)

8. Frozen Vegetables

In the winter months, I have trouble keeping up with produce. So, I often fill my freezer with local and store-bought frozen veggies of all varieties. I especially like stir-fry mixes that pour out of the bag and onto the pan for 10-minute meals. (Just add a protein on the side and maybe some rice for a complete meal.) One of my other favorites, chopped frozen spinach, can be tossed into smoothies, burritos, dips, pizza crusts, and the list goes on. Bonus: Less food waste! (See also: 35 Tasty Ways to Use Frozen Spinach)

9. Peanut Butter

I know most of us think of the standard PB&J sandwich when we pick up peanut butter. I use peanut butter in cookies, on my morning oatmeal, and even as a base for tasty sauces. For example, you can take frozen veggie stir-fries from blah to amazing with this Thai peanut sauce that combines peanut butter with coconut milk, soy sauce, fish sauce, and other spices. Oh, and you can even make your own peanut butter to your specifications.

10. All Purpose Flour

And then there's flour. Over the years, I've slowly started baking almost all the bread we consume. That might sound crazy, but it's mostly mixing, rising, and then baking, and eating or freezing. Sliced bread is just one example of what flour will give you the power to create. Think about all the homemade pizza, dinner and hamburger rolls, pastas, muffins, and various other cookies, cakes, pies, and other treats you can bake up. Don't forget to pick up a packet of yeast.

Any small pantry staples I've overlooked? Please share your favorites in comments!

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Guest's picture

Pasta! It's cheap, filling and goes with everything. I buy the whole wheat or veggie versions for better nutrition. Be flexible with brands/shapes and buy what's on sale.

Guest's picture

I totally disagree with this and find it way high carb and for most of us, we should be eating healthier. Most are over weight or have diabetes. I truly would have chosen differently.( For example, yams are better option than sweet potatoes and flour---no way plain flour---and their was not mention of olive oil which has been proven to be very healthy)

Guest's picture

The list works for me. Even the potatoes, which are nutritious, though I agree that yams and sweet potatoes are even more so and should be utilized more. However, I would add cornmeal. As for the flour, I still use unbleached white and whole wheat flours, though I do know people who swear by their gluten-free diets. Humans have long eaten flour without becoming obese or developing diabetes. I suspect that sedentary habits; fast food; prepared foods with added sugar; and portion creep are more responsible.

Guest's picture

I agree with all of these except peanut butter - that is a luxury we bring over from the UK and is only really eaten in sandwiches.

Guest's picture

Glass jars of organic passata (pureed tomatoes). I try to always have six on hand at any one time. I use it for soups, chili, tomato sauce, etc.

Guest's picture

The list works for me. I'd add cornmeal, which helps complete the protein of beans. Raisins are great to have on hand: they can go in oatmeal, salads, cookies and quick breads or muffins, rice pudding, peanut butter sandwiches. I also keep the pantry stocked with cans of evaporated milk, chicken stock, tomatoes.