13 Ingredients I Keep in My Pantry for Off-the-Cuff Cooking

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What I Keep in My Pantry for Off-the-Cuff Cooking | Wit & Delight
Photos by Sonja Overhiser at A Couple Cooks

Originally published in January 2021

Here’s the odd thing about being a cookbook author and recipe writer. For everyday cooking, I rarely follow a recipe. Yes, my husband Alex and I are professional recipe developers but when it comes down to it, the majority of our meals are completely off the cuff. Honestly, that’s our secret to healthy, plant-forward eating in the long term. Make a few recipes per week, then fill in the rest with impromptu cooking!

Of course, cooking in this way requires a sense of confidence in the kitchen. But the more you learn basic building blocks and meal concepts, the more creative and confident you can become! So to start off the year, here’s a master list of the basic ingredients we keep around and a few simple recipes to illustrate each one. Remember: These are just ideas and examples. Customize them to your tastes, diet, and what you have on hand!

Pantry ingredients (& recipe ideas!)

Let’s start with the actual pantry, then move to the refrigerator. Here are my top picks to keep on hand:

Canned beans

Beans are packed with plant-based protein and ready to eat with little prep! There are so many fast and easy meals you can make with these powerhouses; here are some favorites:

Couscous (& other pasta)

Sure, we all know pasta is nice to keep around for quick meals. But a secret some people don’t know about is this: couscous! It cooks in just five minutes, making it perfect for easy dinners. Use standard couscous or pearl couscous, which is larger and ball-shaped. Try it in:

Farro, quinoa, and rice

Whole grains are clutch to keep around for easy sides. Some favorites of ours: farro, a chewy grain like barley that cooks in half the time, and quinoa, that popular protein-packed fluff. A new favorite alternative to rice: lentil rice, which is made of lentils and cooks in half the time. (Here are a few options.) Try them as:


Lentils are another staple ingredient packed with plant-based protein and fiber. They’re great as a side dish or for bowl meals or tacos. We love them in salads or for lunches too! Eat them as:

Canned tuna (really!)

Does keeping tuna on hand sound retro? Because if so, we’re all about the 1970s pantry full of canned tuna. Why? It’s protein-packed, super shelf-stable, and makes for filling meals. Try it in:


Oatmeal powers us most days, and it’s ideal for whole-grain healthy breakfasts! It’s great for snacks too. Some of our favorite ways to eat it off the cuff:

Old Bay (secret weapon!)

There’s nothing quite like Old Bay for impromptu seasoning! This classic seafood seasoning mix of paprika, celery seed, and lots of secret herbs always hits the spot. Grab it at the grocery store or make your own.

What I Keep in My Pantry for Off-the-Cuff Cooking | Wit & Delight

Fridge ingredients (& recipe ideas!)


Skip them at breakfast and save eggs for dinner! Eggs are full of protein and part of a healthy diet, in moderation. Some of our favorites are:


Gotta have them for all those tacos! And don’t forget quesadillas and quick burritos and wraps. Most of the time, whipping up a quick quesadilla is loads faster than getting takeout or fast food.


Our veggie of choice these days is broccoli: It’s packed with nutrients and the perfect side for all sorts of meals. Try it in a throw-together meal:

Leafy greens: kale or spinach

Throw a few handfuls of greens into just about anything to infuse the good stuff! Pre-packaged baby greens are handy for quick meals. We throw them in soups, stews, scrambles, stir-fries, bowl meals, and of course: smoothies.

Tofu or tempeh

You don’t have to eat vegan to enjoy these tasty proteins. Tofu is part of a healthy diet, in moderation. Tempeh is lesser-known but a favorite of ours, as it has a more robust texture and flavor. Try it in:

Smoked shoyu (secret weapon!)

Lastly, here’s a secret weapon condiment: smoked soy sauce (aka smoked shoyu)! It’s becoming more widely available at grocery stores: check near the Japanese products. The intensely savory, smoky flavor is incredible for using in off-the-cuff recipes as a seasoning. Throw it in any of the recipes above.

What I Keep in My Pantry for Off-the-Cuff Cooking | Wit & Delight
Broccoli makes great impromptu bowl meals.

And that’s it: a little rundown of some of our favorites! Again, the recipes above are meant to be guides. Use them to customize your own experience based on the ingredients you have on hand.

Tell us: What do you make as “off-the-cuff” recipes? What do you like to keep around in your pantry and fridge? Let us know in the comments below!

BY Sonja Overhiser - July 15, 2022

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January 11, 2021 10:30 am

I have a very similar pantry. I keep frozen broccoli since it can go right from the freezer to the oven for 1 sheet pan meals

July 17, 2022 10:16 am

I was happy to read this and see that I do have a number of these; I like the idea of being able to throw something together if/when I need to. Great reminder — thanks!

Jessica Camerata
July 18, 2022 10:19 am

Such a good list of essentials. I need to eat more beans and lentils, they’re always so easy and filling!

xo Jessica
<a href=”https://anindigoday.com/”>an indigo day</a>

July 19, 2022 2:38 pm

What is the recipe for the broccoli, red peppers, and (soba?) noodle dish attached to this article? Looks delish! Thanks for the good reminders of things to keep on hand for easy-ish meals.

July 22, 2022 6:49 pm
Reply to  Abby

Hi, Abby! The recipe is here on the A Couple Cooks site!

December 15, 2022 3:57 pm
Reply to  Kate Arends

could you possibly supply a link for that specific recipe? it would be rather time consuming look through the entire site since there doesn’t seem to be a search option. thanks.

January 3, 2023 4:44 pm
Reply to  emme
December 22, 2022 1:14 pm

Onions, green peppers and garlic.

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