Cooking Tips

Level Up Your Meals with a Little Help From Your Pantry

Unlike Old Mother Hubbard, your cupboards should never be bare.

Published July 17, 2020.

Indulging in the delight of dining alone is one of life’s greatest pleasures. If you're one of the 36 million Americans who live alone or one of the countless others who cook for themselves for other reasons, you'll love our cookbook Cooking for One, which has more than 160 perfectly portioned recipes, along with approachable tips that will help you become a smarter, more confident, and less wasteful cook.

Camila Chaparro

Building a well-stocked pantry is critical to being a successful for-one cook. Even on nights when you don’t feel like cooking something elaborate, or you didn’t make it to the supermarket, you should be able to create a meal out of what seems like thin air. You can also use your pantry items to add heft to meals or tailor them to your tastes. We’ve got an extensive list of what to keep on hand in Cooking for One, but there are key flavor-boosting elements that will help make your cooking even more interesting, and add another layer of texture, flavor, and excitement to your meals. 

Cooking for yourself is all about flexibility, and your pantry helps you become a more flexible cook. Often, having a particular ingredient—a specific nut or herb, for example—matters less than just having something crunchy or fresh to finish a dish. Low on vinegar? Opt for lemon juice instead. Fresh out of walnuts? Toast up some panko bread crumbs and sprinkle them over the finished dish for a similar satisfying crunch.

To build our pantry, we followed a few guidelines. Every item in the pantry should:

  • Have a long shelf life
    When you’re cooking just for yourself, it might take you longer to get through different items. You shouldn’t have to replace these items all the time.
  • Be versatile
    None of these items are single-use. You’ll turn to them for a wide variety of recipes, regardless of cuisine.
  • Be seasonless
    Our pantry items don’t vary from season to season. Their quality is the same year-round.
The Delight of Dining Alone

Cooking for One

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The actual items you have on hand may differ depending on the kind of cook you are. Hate mayo? Skip it. Vegan? You won’t have cheese on your list. You know your cooking best. If there’s something you use frequently, add it in, and if it’s something you’ll never use then feel free to leave it out. These categories are flexible and adaptable depending on your own kitchen. 

No matter your style, here are our recommendations for what to stock your cupboards with so you’ll never eat a lackluster meal again.

Something acidic, briny, or pickled

When a dish feels flat, adding salt or acid can frequently be the solution. Brined and pickled elements hit both of those factors, and they keep forever. And vinegar is a great backup for fresh citrus if you don’t have any (or vice versa).

Stock up: Citrus (lemons and limes), capers, kimchi, olives, pickles, pickled jalapeños, sauerkraut, vinegars (apple cider, balsamic, red wine, rice wine, and/or white wine)

Something crunchy

Don’t forget how important texture can be to making a meal feel complete and composed: a sprinkle of toasted nuts or seeds, golden bread crumbs, crispy microwave fried shallots or roasted chickpeas bring crunch and richness to a dish, help wake up leftovers, or transform a side dish into the main event.

Stock up: panko bread crumbs, nuts (almonds, cashews, peanuts, pecans, pine nuts, and/or walnuts), seeds (pepitas, sesame seeds, and/or sunflower seeds)

Something umami-y

Umami, a quality of meaty savoriness that brings depth to many dishes, is widely considered the fifth taste. (There’s a reason everything tastes better with Parmesan cheese). These ingredients add deep flavor and a savory, mouth-watering punch in no time. 

Stock up: Anchovies, capers, cheeses (cheddar, Parmesan or Pecorino Romano, and/or feta or goat), fish sauce, miso, soy sauce, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce

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Something drizzle-able

An extensive condiment selection is key for whisking together a quick dipping sauce or vinaigrette, adding flavor to otherwise blank slates, and leveling up your meals. Use peanut butter on more than your PB&J’s—stir up a peanut sauce to drizzle over a stir-fry or toss with noodles in our Spicy Peanut Rice-Noodle Bowl. And yogurt is more than a vehicle for granola—we love it thinned out to make a creamy sauce, or mixed with lime juice as a stand-in for crema on our tacos (just make sure it’s plain!).

Stock up: Mayonnaise, mustard, hot sauce, ketchup, honey and/or maple syrup, barbecue sauce, nut butter, Asian chili-garlic sauce, gochujang, harissa, hoisin, tahini, Thai curry paste, mirin, canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, dried fruit, plain Greek and/or regular yogurt

Want more info on cooking for one? Check out this collection of time-saving tips and other helpful resources, and our Cooking for One cookbook.

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