Some nights there’s just no time to cook. Or, let’s be real, you just don’t want to cook! We’ve all been there. But on nights like that, you don’t have to order out, hit the drive through or go out to eat, if you have a few key items stocked in your pantry.
Personally, I prefer to go out to eat when it can been enjoyed and savored by all, not just because I’m tired or there’s nothing ready to eat at home.
So here are the eight grain and bean-based pantry staples that help me through those exhausted, hectic or don’t feel like cooking nights.
They’re perfect for when you need to cut yourself a little slack and take an easy route.
Disclosure: Some of the product links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
1) Soba or Udon Noodles
When I’ve got a hungry family and I’m out of time and energy, I often put a pot of water on to boil and get out some soba or udon noodles. Udon noodles are Japanese wheat noodles and soba noodles can be made with either wheat and buckwheat flour or all buckwheat flour for a gluten-free option. My family loves the chewy texture of these types of noodles and I love the fact that they cook in just 4 minutes!
While the water heats up, I stir fry some veggies and tofu or tempeh like in my Rainbow Tofu Vegetable Stir Fry or if I’m really at my rope’s end for the day, I toss some kale or other greens right in the pot with the noodles like in my Sesame Noodles with Greens and top with tamari and a little toasted sesame oil.
Soba and udon noodles can be found in the international aisle of most grocery stores, but I like to buy them by the case to save money and make sure I never run out.
Let’s just say that pretty much anything served over couscous in my house is a hit. Couscous is like the tiniest pasta you can imagine, made from semolina flour.
Two types of couscous are commonly found in grocery stores. Moroccan couscous is the smallest variety and is often prepared just by mixing it into boiling water, turning off the heat and covering the pot. Minutes later, the couscous has absorbed the water and is ready to eat. Israeli couscous, which is larger, may need to cook for up to 8 minutes (which is still pretty darn quick).
Of course, I often use couscous in my Moroccan Chickpeas & Vegetables, but you could use couscous in place of rice or pasta in any of your favorite recipes. Mixed with some cooked frozen vegetables and a little vegan butter or olive oil, it also makes an easy side dish.
For a gluten-free alternative to couscous, or just a higher protein choice, you can also try “instant” quinoa, which is basically quinoa that has already been cooked and just needs to be reheated.
3) Corn or Flour Tortillas
Fold tortillas in half and call them quesadillas, fold the ends in and roll up and you have a burrito. What you put inside is up to you, but the possibilities are almost endless.
Using up leftovers for filling a tortilla is an especially easy option. We often like to use cooked potatoes or sweet potatoes, winter squash, sautéed onions, peppers or greens, summer squash or zucchini, eggplant, beans and avocado.
A stuffed tortilla is also a great option when you need a hearty snack quickly or are feeding just one person. When I’m alone at lunch time, this is a go to option for me. Plus it gives me the satisfaction of craftily using up leftovers, which probably makes me more excited than most. Since I hate to waste food, I love it as a way to use up odd bits of things I find in the fridge -- with minimal effort.
Feeding a crowd? Tortillas also come in handy for my Easy Cheesy Mexican Lasagna.
If you’re feeling in the mood for Italian food, polenta is the fast and easy answer. Polenta is a dish made of boiled cornmeal, that you can season with salt and pepper and herbs. Quick cooking varieties can be prepared in five minutes, but even when using coarse grind cornmeal polenta it can be ready in 15 minutes.
Top your bowl of polenta with marinara sauce, sautéed vegetables and the protein of your choice. We like ours with cannellini beans and broccoli or lots of spinach and garlic.
Pour any leftover polenta into a loaf pan, cover and refrigerate. You can slice into polenta “fries”, pan fry and dip in marinara sauce for a fun snack another day.
5) Rolled Oats
Who doesn’t like breakfast for dinner? Or a make your own dinner buffet? A big pot of rolled oats can cook on the stove while you defrost or chop up all kinds of fruit and get out nuts, seeds, coconut flakes, grated carrots or zucchini, nutter butters and any other toppings you have on hand to offer. Then everyone creates their own bowl and digs in.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also try savory mix ins for your oatmeal, like spinach and garlic, sautéed mushrooms and onions or peas and carrots with herbs.
When everyone’s had a tough day and is in need of a bowl of comfort, an oatmeal bar like this can be just the ticket. With just one pot to clean, post dinner clean up is a breeze too. (Especially when you have someone else do it. Thanks, kids!)
6) Canned Beans
Beans, beans, the magical… dinner maker.
I cook at least one large pot of beans a week. I used my vintage 1989 slow cooker for years, but have recently switched to using my new Instant Pot. Still, I keep a few cans of beans on hand for those time crunched, too tired nights when they are quite simply a complete life saver.
Our favorites are chickpeas, black beans and pintos. Cook them with some sautéed greens and onion, shallots or garlic or combine them with other vegetables you have on hand and use to top leftover grains or toast.
You can buy individual cans or buy a case of your favorite kind (for which stores often discount the price). Whichever brand you buy, check to see if they use BPA-free cans to avoid ingesting bisphenol-A, a chemical linked to brain, endocrine and reproductive problems.
Have a can of black eyed peas and in the mood for tacos in a hurry? Try my 15 Minute Cajun Black Eyed Pea Tacos.
7) Canned Chili
Another way I stock up on beans is in the form of chili. While canned chilis tend to be higher in salt and fat than those I’d make myself, a can or two can be stretched into a meal for the family by serving it over potatoes or sweet potatoes (cooked in the microwave on busy nights), leftover grains, couscous or pasta.
Our favorite canned chili is this one from Amy’s (it's in a BPA-free can).
Or skip the grains and serve over a bed of lettuce with diced raw onions, tomatoes and peppers for a hearty taco-y salad, topped with those crumbs at the bottom of a bag of tortilla chips (I know I usually have one hanging out the pantry).
8) Refried Beans
When I was young and my parents went out to dinner and left us with a babysitter, we’d often get TV dinners, cooked in aluminum divided trays. Yikes. The quarter cup of mashed potatoes in the top left corner was always my favorite part.
I keep a can of refried beans on hand, so when I’m headed out and have no leftovers at the ready, my girls can make themselves simple quesadillas with refried beans, onions and tortillas.
If you have a pizza crust or pitas on hand, you can also use refried beans for the saucy base of a Mexican inspired pizza. Just top with diced tomatoes and peppers, avocado, lettuce, olives, salsa and the optional vegan cheese shreds and bake a few minutes in the toaster oven.
So that’s it. These eight staples save me on the busiest of nights. Nothing gourmet, but good, filling meals, in minimal time and effort and NO trips out in the car.
Are there any other bean or grain pantry staples you rely on when you’re out of time and energy?