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In my house, the first rule of mealtime is there are no rules. Provided the options are healthful and balanced, what matters most importantly is that my husband and daughters leave the table feeling satisfied and excited for the next meal. Keeping an open mind when thinking about dinnertime also takes a lot of stress out of cooking from scratch, and gives the feeling that my options are limitless.
Another safety net to help with dinnertime is my pantry. Stocked with a mix of home-canned and store-bought ingredients, I can create a dinner menu based on how much time I have available: canned beans for quick and easy meals, cooked-from-scratch beans when time is more generous. Here are five of my favorite pantry essentials:
Dry Pasta: Get the kids involved when loading up the pantry with this ingredient. I’m amazed at how my oldest daughter turns her nose up to spaghetti, but goes crazy for bow ties. Even though the taste is the same, I’ve learned shape really matters to kids.
Try this recipe: Ravioli With Creamy Tomato Sauce
Marinara Sauce: I can’t imagine life without tomato sauce, but perhaps I’m just a kid at heart since most little ones love it, too. I make home-canned jars during tomato season, but there are plenty of good-quality, store-bought options available too, made with just tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and spices.
Beans, Canned and Dry: Not all brands are created equal, so taste-test a few to find one you like. Some canned pinto beans are overcooked, which is fine for making refried beans and pureeing into dips. Brands that are al dente, meaning the beans have a little bite, are great for adding to salads. If you’re fanatical about perfectly cooked beans like me, then set aside time on the weekend to make a big pot from scratch. They cook up quicker than you think (less than an hour if the beans are fresh), and will last the whole week in the fridge, so you can use them as needed.
Try this recipe: Black Bean and Corn Salad
Herbs & Spices: Herbs, like basil and parsley, are best bought fresh. Some of my favorite dried spices are cumin, coriander and chipotle. A small dash adds a lot of sass to roasted and grilled meats, salsas and even vegetables.
Try this recipe: Cumin-Lime Pork Chops With Grape Salsa
Nuts: Pine nuts may come to mind when you think of pesto, but I’ve used walnuts and pistachios too; the latter has a sweeter flavor, making them a bigger hit with my kids. I find sprinkling a handful over salads piques my daughters’ curiosity too, while adding a protein boost.
Try this recipe: Pistachio-Orange Crusted Scallops
Jennifer Perillo is a recipe developer and food writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her recipes and tips for feeding families homemade meals are a regular feature in Working Mother magazine, where she’s the consulting food editor, as well Relish Magazine, Parenting, Kiwi and her blog, In Jennie’s Kitchen.