Cooking · Dining · Food · Meal Building Blocks

Pantry Staples That Make Meal Planning Easier

Keeping these items in my pantry make meals easy to put together and less stress on my budget.

Pantry Staples


I try to keep a variety of dried pasta shapes on hand, but in a pinch every pasta shape will work no matter what you put with it. While some of the more expensive pastas will have a better flavor, even the cheap boxes are worth trying out. I also keep some cheese stuffed tortellini in the freezer (talk about an easy mac & cheese) but there are other types there in addition to the ready to cook, rather than dried, versions.

Think mac & cheese, baked casseroles, soups, pasta and sauce, salads.

Bread, Tortillas or Buns

As a rule, I don’t tend to keep a lot of bread on hand because I can bake it myself when I take the urge. That being said, I do keep bagels for breakfast and I do enjoy tortillas every once in a while.

A grilled cheese or quesadilla takes less than 10 minutes to make, and are both quite versatile for whatever ingredients you already have.

Tortillas can also be turned into wraps, burritos, enchiladas, or even breakfast tacos.

Buns can be used to for sandwiches, hamburgers or even garlic bread in a pinch.


Rice is just as versatile as pasta, and can be used to make stir fry, burrito bowls, casseroles, soups, or as an easy side dish.

I love to have it with chicken as a simple meal.

Pasta Sauce

I used to buy pretty much anything organic and at a reasonable price. However, I recently tried Raos and now it is the only brand I buy. To be clear, I’ve never eaten pasta sauce from a jar before I tried the Raos. Now, I have to remind myself that the sauce it to go on the meal first. LOL!

You can use pasta sauce not only to make spaghetti or lasagna, but also as a pizza sauce or a dipping sauce for breaded mozzarella cheese.

Freezer Staples

Ground beef – good for a variety of meals from hamburgers to soups, to casseroles.

Chicken – Plain chicken pieces can be cooked for a variety of meals.

Breaded Chicken – These make a great quick meal along with a salad or rice. Find a brand you like and keep it in stock.

Tater Tots – I use these in a variety of ways. As a replacement for prepared hash browns they are a quick and easy substitute. You can either bake them as is or put them in a large skillet with a little bit of oil and break them down as you cook them. Tots are great accompaniments to burgers, too.

Pasta – Stuffed ravioli, tortellini or shells make a great meal that is easy to prepare, you simply boil the pasta, drain and add sauce. Viola!

Frozen Fruits and Vegetables – Packed at the peak of their freshness, frozen veg is a quick, easy and cost efficient alternative to canned. Easy to use, easy to store, these items can be part of a great meal.

Fridge Staples


Eggs are flexible and easy on the budget. They can be used in a variety of meals, as part of salads, alongside breakfast meats or in baking.


I always have cheese on hand. I buy a variety so I can use them in different ways and, when necessary, a variety of cheeses makes an amazing Clean Out The Fridge Mac & Cheese.

Don’t forget to pick up some soft cheese to spread on crackers.

Mix and Match

You can mix and match pretty much all of these items to make some great meals without having to have a lot of items on hand.

That being said, adding fresh fruits and potatoes or onions to your pantry, trying different things like couscous or grains will stretch your meal options even further.


Kitchen Conundrums

Or, things you learn by accident.

Yesterday I pulled out one of my favorite pans and rediscovered it again. I haven’t used it in a long, long time, which is a bit odd as I really like the pan. It is the right size, it has a clear glass lid, and it can go into the oven.

Why don’t I use it? Simple. It is too heavy. Empty. When you add food into it and proceed to use it for what it is intended to be used for, it can be unwieldy and potentially dangerous to use.

I bought the pan from an open stock inventory a few years ago when I was trying out cookware to replace a set that is almost as old as I am. I had some criteria I wanted from the new set. It had to be oven safe. It had to be easy to use and care for. It had to be a reasonable price point. What I didn’t expect, or even consider, was the weight of the pan.

That test pan is, as I said, a favorite but I didn’t buy the set it came from, I looked elsewhere and found a set of pans that met all my criteria and were of a weight that I could wield when full without fear of harming myself.

Kitchen tools can be tricky things. We purchase what we think we want without always knowing all the questions to ask. When we don’t use them, or we don’t actually cook, we often don’t realize that the problem isn’t that cooking is hard, it is that the tools we use aren’t doing their job, which is really to make the job easier, more efficient, more user friendly.

Kitchen knives are another item that you might think is a no brainer, but if you don’t have the knife that fits in your hand and becomes an extension of that hand, if it is difficult to keep sharp, you have a tool that is not only dangerous but makes the process difficult and frustrating. And, make no mistake, a knife that is not properly sharpened is a danger to the user. You will have more potential for problems with that knife than with one that is properly sharpened, that does fit your hand.

Using measuring cups and spoons are the most direct method for either accuracy or ruining a recipe. Don’t kid yourself, they are NOT all the same. Some can be off by small amounts, others by quite a bit. All impact the end result giving you either an fantastic product or a disaster. Those cute designs could be sabotaging your cooking.

When you watch cooking shows you are constantly reminded to purchase the best food products you can afford as it will impact the end result. What they often don’t tell you is that you need to apply that same rule to the tools you use in the kitchen to make that recipe.

I would like to suggest you take a look in your kitchen and identify those items that you don’t use, or haven’t used, in a while and ask yourself why. I’m not talking about those specifically holiday oriented, although it would be a good idea to address those, too. I’m talking about the mixer, blender, food processor, spoons, knives, cookery tools, etc.

I gave up my microwave over 20 years ago because I never used it for anything other than heating water and steaming vegetables. Things I use my stove for. I gave up a blender that I inherited not because it was old, but because I rarely ever used it. Why keep things that just take up space? I’ve said before, my kitchen is postage stamp sized. I don’t have the luxury of storing things just for the fun have having them around.

When you find those items you don’t use, please give them a new home so someone else can make use of them. Instead, find items that work for you so you can do the kind of cooking and baking that you want to do.

Happy cooking!

Cooking · Dining · Food · Meal Building Blocks

When You Need Inspiration in the Kitchen

Or, what to do when you just aren’t in the mood to think about menu planning.

I’ve said before that traditional (?) menu planning and I aren’t friends. I just don’t live in a way that requires, let alone supports, planning ahead for every meal.

However, flying by the seat of my pants can sometimes be an issue, too. I tend to keep things in my pantry that allows for last-minute ideas for meals. But what happens when you just don’t have any ideas?

That’s where I was this week as I planned for my shopping. I’d put aside a couple of ideas from Mandy In The Making, but when it came time to actually shop for the things needed for those recipes… <sigh>

This week, when I just wasn’t interested in choosing a particular meal or two, being able to rely on my pantry for quick and easy meals has been such a treat! I like to be able to have things ready to go so I don’t have to do a lot of prep work. It also helps me keep a balanced diet. I love vegetables but don’t want to spend the time prepping them. (I never said I wasn’t a lazy cook!)

I had an interesting chat with my Schwan’s delivery guy this week. He brought my order and let me know what the specials were and we got to chatting about some of the things I’d tried recently – and loved – and because we both enjoy cooking and good food, we got to talking about putting things together to create some great meals.

Schwan’s has a new Italian Chicken that is wonderful. Beautifully flavored, it fits the profile for many different breaded chicken meals, but the thing that stood out for me was to take that chicken, add it to pasta and a jar of Rao’s marinara sauce and you have the best and easiest Chicken Parmesan ever! In the time it takes to bake the chicken you can have the pasta ready and the sauce heating through. Easy.

That chicken is also great for a fried chicken salad. Yum!

Ground beef also has space in my freezer. I like to use it in pasta dishes, make my own burgers or meatloaf. I’ve got an idea to use it with canned biscuits. I’ll let you know how they turn out. 🙂

By the way, if you are interested in checking out Schwan’s click on the link to get 40% off your first order. They have a wide variety of foods for a variety of tastes. I’ve been a customer for several years and have never had a complaint. Their site is easy to use, has lots of recipe ideas and you can read reviews from other customers before you buy. Some areas have delivery to your door while others provide shipping to your door. Check out their service HERE.

Cooking · Dining · Food

Tater Tot Hot Dish – A Lesson in Recipe Fluidity

Came across this article from the Minnesotan and thought I’d share.

In a recent post I talked about how recipes and food taste change and evolve. This article is a prime example of only one dish.

Take a look and then, if you haven’t already tried it, give it a go. Using your own variations, of course.


Cooking · Food · Meal Building Blocks

Rethinking Leftovers

Cook once, eat twice, thrice or more!

Want to save yourself time and money in the kitchen? Start by buying and cooking larger quantities to use in later meals.

I know some folks just don’t love leftovers. I get it, I really do. But when you take a moment to change ‘left overs’ to ‘meal prep’ or ‘meal planning’ things change a bit.

Consider: You pick up a family pack of chicken, cook all and portion for the freezer. By tossing that chicken into a slow cooker or your oven you’ve prepped enough chicken for enchiladas, a casserole or two, maybe a chicken soup. All from one pack of chicken and session in the cooker.

What if you pick up a larger roast than you might need for Sunday dinner? You can save what you haven’t eaten, portion it up and freeze it for later use in pulled sandwiches, use with au jus over noodles, or top nachos.

Same with ground beef. You might be considering tacos for dinner but buy purchasing more than what you need for that meal and cooking before adding the seasoning for the tacos, you have the makings for a pasta sauce, pizza topping, sloppy joes, to name but a few ideas.

You can do the same with veggies, too! Picking up a large quantity of onions could lead to tucking some away in the freezer for later cooking projects (soup, anyone?). Peppers and celery can also be prepped and tucked into the freezer without need of cooking.

We hear a lot about meal prep these days, but what I’ve suggested is a tried and true method that actually is part of meal prep. In this time of shortages and higher prices, it is important that shoppers look for ways to economize where they can – and not just in the wallet but in the time spent in the kitchen.

This works no matter how many people are in your home, too!

If this has given you, pardon the pun, food for thought, please let me know by clicking the ‘like’ button!

Cooking · Dining · Food

Kitchen Adventures – How They Change

I’ve been cooking for over 5 decades.

That’s quite a statement, I know. When I contemplate it, I won’t lie to you, it is more than a bit astounding.

So many things have changed over the years. When I first began my kitchen adventures, my mother started me out with small tasks which led to simple meals which led to me being in charge of dinner for the family each and every night.

It did not hurt that my mom was a great cook and a great teacher. It also didn’t hurt that I enjoyed the end product of my efforts, too! LOL!

As I look back, I can see many things have changed over time. For instance I remember coming across a recipe in a magazine for tuna fritters that were deep fried. It was easy, tasty, and everyone loved it. Not bad for a 12 year old, right?

I came across that recipe recently and was tempted to try it again, but without the deep fat fryer as I no longer own one. Turns out, the recipe works well fried in a skillet with minimal oil.

My dad was a ‘meat and potatoes’ man. As a farmer, he worked long, hard hours and needed good hearty food to keep going. Our meals reflected that need, and to be honest, those tastes. Now, however, I find my preparation methods have changed even though I still love a good potato along with a good roast or steak or burger. Or, more likely, a good piece of chicken or pork.

Back then salmon came in a can unless you lived near a coast where fishing was prevalent. This is something that confuses so many today as food is moved around much more efficiently.

I still enjoy salmon but prefer it grilled rather than in a croquette. Although, a good croquette is nothing to sneeze at, either. LOL!

The thing is that food changes, evolves, updates simply because people shift, move about, change tastes, learn more. It is actually more fluid than you might think. Many of the favorites we grew up with evolved from recipes that moved with people as they moved from one country to another, from one area to another.

As growing and harvesting processes have improved, so, too, have transportation processes making availability easier and much less expensive. The downside to that is the customer might tend to look for fancier foreign foods rather than take advantage of locally grown items. This not only enlarges the carbon footprint, but has negative affects on local farming.

We need to support our local farmers. Period.

Food choices continue to evolve for a variety of reasons. Frankly, I applaud efforts to learn more. Dependence on certain foods can have major impact in areas we don’t always recognize, let alone acknowledge. Health benefits, too, have a major impact of consumption. That, too, is worth paying attention to.

There will always be food fads. Some are worth exploring and experimenting. Many will fall by the wayside.

For a long time I wanted to be one of those cooks who always had a kitchen garden. Trouble was, I never had space for, knew how to care for, or even had time for a kitchen garden. Definitely not a win/win for me!

I’ve come to terms with the reality of age, ability, desire, and willingness when it comes to tackling ‘projects’. As a result, I prefer dried garlic rather than fresh because even though the flavor is different fresh garlic won’t last long enough to be used in my kitchen. Trust me, I know. Ditto for fresh herbs.

Basically, it comes down to picking my battles.

These days I depend upon things that I can put into my oven or slow cooker. I love a good casserole and won’t object to left overs. Sometimes those left overs are better the second (or third) time around! And did I mention they save me time?

If you are new to the world of home cooking and a bit apprehensive, take my advice, start slow. Make the time to make a list of what you like to eat and find out how to make it yourself. Hey, those restaurant recipes had to come from somewhere! Give yourself room to make mistakes and to fail. Everyone does at one time or other. That ‘fail’ might actually be an unexpected success.

Remember that tuna fritter recipe I mentioned? I played with it a bit and after a few tries, I found a way to make it using a biscuit mix and you know what? After a while it was as good as the original recipe. And that was before I tried making it without a deep fat fryer.

That’s another thing, learn to play with your food. Really! Think about the flavors you love and learn to incorporate them into different foods. It is astounding to discover how many recipes use ranch dressing or dressing mix.

Whatever your cooking and/or eating style enjoy yourself. A good meal is a great gift not only to friends and family but to yourself.

Happy Cooking!

Jacques Pepin
Cooking · Dining · Food

Cozy Comfort Food For A Cold Day

I treated myself to some broccoli cheese soup and some of my favorite cornbread today.

You can choose your own favorite soup and accompanying bread, but I offer the recipe I use for you to try:

Copycat Marie Callendar’s Cornbread

Not quite the original but tasty just the same.
Course Side Dish
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Total Time 40 minutes
Servings 9


  • 2 Cups Bisquick or other baking mix.
  • 1/2 Cup Corn Meal
  • 1/2 Cup Sugar use less if desired
  • 1/2 Cup Butter Melted and cooled
  • 1 Cup Milk
  • 1 each Egg
  • 1/2 Tsp Baking Powder


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 8 x 8 inch baking pan.
  • Mix all ingredients and pour into pan.
  • Bake – Check for doneness at 25 minutes.


Cooking · Food

Thinking About Bread?

I’m one of those folks who absolutely love bread. Well, most breads. 🙂 When I discovered how easy it is to make bread, cinnamon rolls and, yes, even pie crust, it was a multiple epiphany. Why multiple you ask? Well, I learned these things over several years.

If you are interested in learning how to bake breads, CONGRATULATIONS and WELCOME TO THE CLUB!

A little over the top? Let’s just say that if you are interested in dipping a finger into making one of the most basic foods there is, you are embarking on a wonderful journey.

One of the best resources I’ve found is the Fleischmann’s Yeast website. They have great recipes for all levels and loads of instructions, tips, and techniques to help you succeed.

As you embark on your journey, or continue with what you’ve learned, don’t forget to enjoy the process. 😀

Cooking · Food

Are You A Cookbook Kind of Cook?

Or do you have a stash of books and recipes you fall back on?

Or, do you just keep a few tried and true recipes you depend on?

My mom enjoyed cooking but wasn’t the most adventurous cook. She did, however, have quite an interesting collection of both books and clipped recipes. I inherited her numerous recipe boxes that are stuffed to bursting with clipped recipes, recipe cards, and the hand written notes from family and friends.

Me? I have a carefully (yeah, right) curated collection of cookbooks that focus on particular products or chefs in addition to some general use books. That means I have an inordinately large collection of Bisquick books (I’m not sure but I think there are 8.) I have at least 2 versions of the Betty Crocker book. One Taste of Home. A couple of Jacques Pepin … make that 3 or 4. Several Julia Child books including the entire two-volume set of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I have one copy of the Joy of Cooking that goes back several years and another, electronic version that is relatively new.

My collection of what I call the Aisle End Cap Mini Cookbook Extravaganza books is, to be honest, astonishing. These are the small books that focus on either a product, brand, or theme. Think holiday or chocolate or freezer meals.

Speaking of cooking magazines, I’ve managed to acquire quite a few Taste of Home editions with a few Better Homes and Garden publications.

Do I cook from these? Some more than others. Some not at all. Why do I have them? Quite simply I enjoy reading them and discovering new ideas. Pretty much the same reason I love cookery shows.

Food is not only an art form but a great way to spend time with folks. A good meal eaten with friends and family can be a wonderful experience. A bad meal can also be quite an experience – especially when you be sure to add in a touch of humor.

I’m focusing on cooking from what I already have in my library. While I occasionally waver and pick up a new book I’m finding a treasure trove of recipes and ideas that have been patiently waiting my attention.

One thing that caught me by surprise was discovering that reading cookbooks for the pleasure of reading them is actually quite fun. Mastering the Art of French Cooking is amazing on several levels – the very least of which is the way many of those techniques that were carefully documented and explained are very common today. Check them out – you might be surprised! On the other hand some books are very dated and don’t wear well. Decades ago I bought a copy of a popular magazine cookbook that relied mostly on prepackaged foods. Total waste of money.

Check out this latest entry from Voracious at the Washington Post. Maybe you’ll find a book or two that piques your interest:

Cooking · Dining · Food

Nibbles For When You Don’t Want a Meal

In my house, we have what is referred to as a Nosher’s Run. This is a collection of nibbles, or snacks, that are collected in lieu of a full sit down meal. It is a great option for movie night, game night or when we just want something a bit out of the ordinary.

The Domestic Geek posted a great appetizer recipe that is very versatile and easy to make. Check out the video:

You can find the recipe here.

Not into Brie or cranberry sauce? How about substituting cream cheese along with a different fruit or bacon? Why not check out the puff pastry cups instead of the crescent dough?

Speaking of cream cheese, why not take advantage of the flavored cheese spreads or make your own?

You could go a bit crazy and start playing with chicken nuggets mixed into the cheese mixture. Think buffalo flavors or perhaps an oriental flavor profile. Or, how about pulled pork?

If you receive a pot of chutney or onion jam for the holidays, why not try those?

These versatile nibbles could be a great option on a snack buffet.

How would you make this recipe your own?