Demand for grocery delivery has gotten so popular thanks to Covid-19 that Amazon had to put new customers on a waitlist. With delivery slots seemingly impossible to snag even for those who’d already signed up, lots of people are relying more on their pantries and freezers for ingredients to make breakfast, lunch and dinner.
But cooking three times a day with what you’ve already got doesn’t have to mean boring, flavorless food. According to Talia Koren, founder of the popular meal-prepping company Workweek Lunch, all you need are a few key ingredients and pieces of equipment to zhuzh up your everyday meals.
CNN talked to Koren about her favorite ways to keep mealtime interesting. From versatile flavor combinations to toppings that can brighten even the saddest bowl of rice and beans, we’ll walk you through everything you need to keep mealtime exciting even when you can’t leave your house.
Learn new flavor profiles
Experimenting with new dishes is a great way to get out of a cooking rut, and you don’t have to be a pro to whip up something delicious. “You can make cooking with what you’ve got easier by learning what spices and herbs tend to taste good together,” says Koren. “Building meals around these versatile flavor profiles is really easy!” Koren’s go-tos are “Tex-Mex (think chipotle powder, cumin, paprika) and Asian-inspired (think soy sauce or miso paste, rice vinegar, mirin, a sweetener of some kind and sesame oil).”
The pantry-friendly flavor profiles we’ve broken down below can’t cover all the nuances of global cuisine, but they’re a good start for experimenting with flavor combos rather than being tied to the same old recipes — and you also probably have a lot of this stuff on hand already:
Top if off
As any sundae connoisseur will attest, toppings can make or break a dish. Even the blandest dish can be transformed with a sprinkle of nutritional yeast or some spicy chili crisp. Here are some toppings we love:
Bushwick Kitchen Weak Knees Gochujang Sriracha Hot Sauce ($10.99; amazon.com)
The classic sauce gets an update here with Korean fermented gochujang chili paste. Drizzle it on everything from eggs to macaroni and cheese for a spicy kick.
Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp (prices vary by location; instacart.com)
This “cult condiment” goes on pretty much everything (even ice cream), so it’s not a bad idea to stock up on it.
Bragg Premium Nutritional Yeast, 2-Pack ($14.45; amazon.com)
Beloved by vegans as a dairy-free alternative to Parmesan, nutritional yeast (aka “nooch”) is a nutty, cheesy topping that also happens to be loaded with B vitamins. Shake it onto pasta, eggs, popcorn and anything else that could use some umami.
Fresh Gourmet Garlic Pepper Crispy Onions, 6-Pack ($16.60; amazon.com)
Perfect for adding a delicious, savory crunch to salads, sandwiches and casseroles.
Don’t forget the herbs
Herbs can add a big flavor kick to boring meals, but it’s often difficult to use up a bunch before they wilt. Rebuying fresh herbs is expensive and impractical, but you can make herbs you have last longer by freezing them. Koren says, “I’ve absolutely had success with freezing herbs for cooking,” though she adds the warning that “frozen herbs never work if you intend to use them fresh. For example, I keep frozen dill on hand to add to soups, and I’ve used chopped frozen rosemary to season turkey meatballs.” You can also grow your own herbs easily with a few cheap supplies. In fact, you can grow some of your own food or subscribe to a CSA farm share too if you’re feeling adventurous.
Garden Republic Indoor Herb Garden Starter Kit ($29.97; amazon.com)
A highly rated kit that comes with everything you need to get started with a windowsill herb garden, including organic cilantro, thyme, parsley and basil seeds.
Easy Release Stackable Ice Cube Trays With Lids, 2-Pack ($13.99; amazon.com)
“The best way to freeze herbs is to chop them up and stick them in ice cube trays, then transfer them to a plastic bag or container once frozen,” Koren says. “They’ll keep for a few months this way!” This dishwasher-safe tray features a lid, which can help prevent any odd freezer smells from getting into your herb cubes.
Make your own sauce
Lots of the condiments and dressings you love can be made at home — often more healthily — with stuff you’ve already got on hand. Koren, for example, often makes sweet chili garlic sauce from pepper flakes, garlic, sugar, cornstarch, water and ketchup, and what she deems “poor man’s pesto” from kale and walnuts.
You can also make your own spicy mayo by mixing mayonnaise with some sriracha or, for a smokier Tex-Mex version, a bit of the liquid from a can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. “Five really useful ingredients for making a wide variety of dressings and sauces are soy sauce, Dijon mustard, tahini, ketchup and honey,” says Koren.
Hummus is far more than a condiment, of course, but it’s another thing that’s easy to make with pantry staples (Koren herself makes it fresh once a week). Canned chickpeas are perfectly fine to use — just rinse and drain. You’ll also need olive oil, lemon juice (fresh if possible, but from concentrate works too), tahini and garlic. Whip it together in a food processor or blender, like the Ninja Express Chop ($19.49; target.com).
Pickle your vegetables
Pickled onions, cucumbers and peppers are simple to make with pantry ingredients (and a smart way to use up any produce in danger of going bad). You can put them on everything from tacos to omelets for a kick of tangy sweetness, and they last for weeks in the fridge. All you need are one to two parts vinegar (white, rice, red or apple cider can all work) to one part water. Extras like sugar, honey, mustard seed, dill, or whole peppercorns (the contents of the spice rack are the limit!) add even more flavor.
Ball Wide Mouth 16-Ounce Mason Jars, 6-Pack ($36.99; amazon.com)
Classic Mason jars are perfect for pickling: The lids are snug, the glass won’t absorb odors from food and the jars are dishwasher-safe. They also make great food storage containers for pantry goods, leftovers in the fridge or premade lunch salads for the workweek.
Malabar Black Peppercorns Flatpack ($6.49; thespicehouse.com)
Invest in some high-quality spices for even more flavorful pickles. These from The Spice House are organically sourced from India’s Malabar coast.
Yellow Mustard Seed Flatpack ($4.49; thespicehouse.com)
Perfect for adding a subtle kick of heat to your pickling projects.
Add international flair
If you’re getting bored with the basics (or can’t seem to find them in stores), why not experiment with some new flavors from around the world? These days, it helps that it’s actually sometimes easier to get deliveries from local international shops than from big supermarket chains. Says Koren, “Having just come back from Japan in February (I came home right before the lockdown) I now keep kombu, cooking sake, bonito flakes and matcha powder on hand too, because I just really miss it. All of those items are super shelf-stable.” To follow her lead, pick up some of these ingredients:
Miko Brand 35.2-Ounce Shiro Miso Paste ($10.38; amazon.com)
Make all the miso soup you want, no takeout required. But that’s just the beginning for this mighty pantry staple. It makes delicious salad dressings, marinades and sauces to add a new dimension to otherwise standard fare.
Japanese Bonito Flakes ($6.42; amazon.com)
Another item Koren recommends, bonito flakes are perfect for making soups and broths or using as a seasoning on salads, veggies and tofu.
Kiss Me Organics Matcha Green Tea Powder ($14.99; amazon.com)
Matcha powder is perfect for tea, smoothies, baked goods and more. You can also of course use it to make matcha lattes if you want a break from your morning brew.
Emerald Cove Silver Grade Pacific Kombu ($5.70; amazon.com)
Kombu is a kind of dried seaweed that can add an umami flavor to broths, beans and salads.
Ajishima Foods Nori Fume Furikake Rice Seasoning ($4.93; amazon.com)
This sweet and salty seasoning mix is delicious on rice, and also pretty much anything else you sprinkle it on.
Prevent meal fatigue
You’ll inevitably get tired of food when you’re having the same thing for every meal. One of the best ways to stave off meal fatigue is simply to freeze your leftovers properly so you don’t feel obligated to eat the same thing three or four times in a row. Freezing individual ingredients is also a great way to save money and be sure you have everything you need on hand to jazz up future meals. Koren herself often buys her groceries in bulk and then puts much of them away in the freezer. Here are the food storage staples she recommends.
Souper Cubes Extra-Large Silicone Freezing Tray With Lid ($19.95; amazon.com)
Says Koren, “My favorite tool for freezing meal preps is definitely Souper Cubes. This tool allows you to freeze any meal in neat, easy-to-stack cubes.” Once you’re ready to use your food, “run hot water over it for a few seconds and it will easily pop out of the container.”
Prep Naturals Glass Meal Prep Containers ($25.99, originally $29.99; amazon.com)
“We are huge fans of glass meal-prep containers,” says Koren. “These are my favorite because they seal well and they’re a perfect size.”
Bino Stackable Plastic Organizer Storage Bins, 2-Pack ($13.99, originally $14.99; amazon.com)
Koren says, “I also love these freezer bins to help keep the freezer organized.”
Stasher Silicone Food Bag, Sandwich Size ($9.68, originally $11.99; amazon.com)
Yuc Small Magnetic Dry Erase Board for Fridge ($16.99; amazon.com)
Koren also recommends a magnetic whiteboard “to keep track of freezer inventory.”
When all else fails, turn it into a pizza
One of the easiest ways to make any meal more exciting is to cover it in cheese. “You can pretty much turn any meal into a pizza or quesadilla,” says Koren, who takes a “transform it” approach when meal preps don’t go according to plan or she’s sick of something. When transforming food, she says, “It’s helpful to think in terms of meal templates, like pasta, tacos, pizza, quesadillas, curry, etc. I’ve had luck turning sad salads into comforting mac ‘n’ cheese meals like this!” Check out our guides to making your own pizza party or taco night for more inspiration.
Nordic Ware 3-Piece Pizza Baking Set ($11.39; target.com)
Pick up this popular pizza stone and cutter combo to create a makeshift meal that feels 100% legit.
Lodge Cast-Iron Skillet ($14.88, originally $26.68; amazon.com)
Or maybe attempt something more innovative. Says Koren, “One hack for pizza I did learn is that you can actually flip over a cast-iron skillet and use that to bake pizzas on!” Cast-iron pans can also be used for macaroni and cheese or frittatas, two famously forgiving ways to mix up random ingredients or to use up leftover meat and veggies, making it a great investment.
Finally, Koren says the best way to keep things interesting might be to simply break the rules. “Not everything has to ‘go’ together,” she says, especially in times like these. “Just because you don’t usually find tomatoes in a stir-fry doesn’t mean you can’t add them to yours.” Happy cooking!
Note: The prices above reflect the retailers’ listed prices at the time of publication.