32 Essential Foods You Should Always Have Available In Your Pantry

There are all sorts of essentials that you may have overlooked when stocking your pantry. While you likely have the basics, you maybe haven't considered the importance of items like oil-packed vegetables, dried fruit, or even the humble sardine. A lot of the items on this list can be eaten on their own, just out of your hand as a snack or as part of a little afternoon graze. But the best part of all these consumables is that they can all be used in a variety of ways to amp up dishes you might already be making.

We consider these pantry essentials because they all provide simple solutions when you're pressed for time, hungry, and might not have the luxury of a full fridge. The items range from basic to a little higher-end, but they'll all serve you well when looking for an easy way to satisfy your cravings.

Anchovies or other tinned fish

Tinned fish is experiencing a renaissance in North America and it's time to get on board. In Europe and parts of Asia, tinned fish is beloved and incredibly delicious, so we urge you to give it a try.

Added to your cocktail hour menu, a few preserved mussels, baby squid, or sardines will add some serious punch. A couple of anchovies will easily melt into any sauce or salad dressing to give your dish a terrific umami boost without much of a fishy taste, too.


This is a pretty broad category, so it's up to you to pick the beans that you'll use the most. If you're into cold bean salads, maybe a bean mixture is your best choice.

Into Tex-Mex? Pick up a can of beans (pinto or black) and make your own slow-cooker refried beans. Dried versus canned is up to you; dried take longer to cook (soaking overnight, usually), but canned will usually have sodium added (rinse them before using, if that's a concern).


From adding taste to plain rice or potatoes to making a quick soup or a more involved braised dish, a container of stock is something you'll get a lot of use from. Sure, homemade broth is the ultimate addition, but we don't all have the time or resources for that.

We heartily recommend store-bought vegetable or chicken broth, though you might want to reconsider buying beef broth from the grocery store. For beef, try bouillon instead or just sub in chicken stock — no one will be the wiser.

Cake or brownie mix

Not every dessert needs to be an afternoon-long affair. A decent box of cake mix can quell cravings just as easily as an expensive bakery cupcake could. And boxed brownies are even easier — just add a handful of chocolate pieces or your favorite chopped nut and you've already won the upgrade game.

Check out our experiments using extracts to upgrade boxed brownie mixes from good to incredible. And once you add a scoop of ice cream to the top, no one will know that it wasn't made from scratch, anyway.

Canned meat

While "canned meat" might call to mind the delicacy known as spam, we urge you to look into other protein types, including tuna, chicken, or ham, once you've had your fill of simple spam musubi. All of these options are fast, pretty quick, and tasty additions to salads or sandwiches. When shopping to stock your pantry, you can go with pouches or canned meat, depending on what you're looking for, from flavored, to oil-packed, and water-packed.

Canned tomatoes

You might be lucky enough to have a pantry full of Nonna's hand-packed, slow-roasted tomatoes, all lovingly packed into heritage Ball jars (yeah... we're pretty envious). For the rest of us, it's time to start looking into the best type of canned tomatoes to stock in your pantry. Go for whole peeled tomatoes, because they're often the best quality and can be used in most applications; you can always purée or dice them up yourself.

Canned vegetables

If you're like us, you likely have more room in your pantry than in your freezer, so canned veggies just make sense for long-term storage. And yes, we acquiesce that canned vegetables are rarely better than fresh but in a pinch, we have a few canned veggie hacks that you'll wish you knew sooner. Rather than just reheating a can of peas and using them as a side dish, canned veggies work much better when added to soups, stews, or chilis.


Honestly, one of the quickest and often most satisfying meals is a big bowl of your favorite cereal, whether it's Grape-Nuts or Cap'n Crunch. Crushed up, cereal makes a great topping for yogurt or a breading for French toast. We can even show you how to rescue stale cereal if you've left it out for too long. And if you're in the market for something new, here are our top cereals of 2023, so far.


Chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans and chana) are so versatile, and not just for vegetarians. Available in dried or canned versions, they can be used in a number of ways to add flavor and protein to lots of basic dishes.

Smooth garlicky hummus, a perfectly spiced chana masala, or a bowlful of air-fryer roasted chickpeas are just the beginning. There are a ton of uses for the leftover liquid too, including vegan whipped cream and the egg replacement of aquafaba.


Crackers rarely go to waste, so stock up on a box or two of your favorites. We suggest a box of plain ones that will go with anything from strong cheese to topping a rich casserole.

Then, add a second box; the kind that has enough flavor that you can eat straight out of the box. Smash them up if you're out of breadcrumbs, use them to top a casserole, or amp up a quick bowl of soup with them.

Dried fruit

Not only can you simply eat these sweeties out of hand, but they also make a great addition to many of your recipes. We're including freeze-dried fruit in this category too, as they're a lot easier to come across now.

Dehydrated fruit is soft and chewy, making it a sweet addition to baked goods, lunches, and charcuterie boards. Try light and crispy freeze-dried fruit to give a delicious texture to yogurt or cereal.

Fruit preserves

By fruit preserves, we mean the whole gamut — from preserves to jam to jelly — anything that preserves fresh fruit, whole or juice, for future use. A dollop on top of plain yogurt makes everything better, a spoonful slathered onto buttered toast makes a pretty great breakfast. Add it to rice pudding, make a sweet and savory meat glaze with it, or use a spoonful to add some sweet fruit flavor to an otherwise dull cocktail.

Granola or trail mix

Take a handful of granola and toss it into your boring yogurt and you've instantly perked up breakfast. Pack some trail mix into your lunch and you have a delicious and nutritious 2:30 p.m. snack that won't drag you down.

While you could make your own (try granola in your air fryer, darlings), pre-packaged mixes are nearly as good, if you want to save time. Eat it out of hand for a quick snack or, horror of horrors, on an actual trail hike.

Instant ramen

This entry might be a callback to your college days, but instant ramen is big now. There are lots more options than that ubiquitous, crinkly, packet we all know (and love).

Not only can you find a surprising amount of flavors, but there are even self-heating options for people on the go. If you have more time, we'd love to suggest a few easy ways to upgrade your instant ramen to a filling and complete meal.


Another option that can be bought in either canned or dried versions, lentils are a nutritious addition to all sorts of dishes from casseroles to warm salads to veggie burgers. Depending on the type, they can be toothy and firm (brown or green varieties) or can be cooked down and fully integrated into a sauce or soup (red or yellow lentils).

Lentils add loads of protein and fiber without much fuss. Use canned for a quick option or go with dried for an inexpensive bulk purchase.

Marinara sauce

Marinara sauce can be used for a quick pasta right out of the jar, or you can add whatever flavor upgrades you have on hand. Fresh herbs or a little melted butter is all it takes to add a little something special.

Try heavy cream as a simple addition to make a deliciously creamy tomato sauce for your next pasta night. In a pinch, you can even use marinara as a base for pizza sauce, a quick chili, or even tomato soup.

Nut butter

Nut butter has become a big business recently, and you can easily find jars of creamy pistachio, almond, or cashew butter alongside that old-school favorite, peanut butter. While they can often be expensive, nut butter adds healthy fats and a rich taste to snacks, smoothies, curries, and more.

And if you like your peanut butter crunchy, many nut butter brands have the same options of crunchy or smooth just like peanut butter, so you can find the style you like. Stick to jars with just one or two ingredients for the truest flavor.


What can't nuts do? A handful will get you through the 2 p.m. stress-induced snack, chop them up, and they make a lovely addition to your salad, yogurt, pancakes, or anything. In a pinch, whizz them up and make butter (see above) whenever you crave a sweet sandwich.

If you're looking to expand your nut repertoire, we can help you with this primer on the most popular types of nuts. And, head's up, we mean all the seeds and legumes, too.

Oil-packed tuna fillets

A bit of an upgrade from our canned fish option, oil-packed tuna fillets is our top choice for recipes like pan bagnat, salade niçoise, or seafood linguini. Oil-packed tuna is ready to serve, unlike its water-packed counterparts.

Save the water-packed, tinned versions for mixing into casseroles or sandwich fillings, and use these beauties for dishes where the flavor can really shine. The expense is worth it for upgrading recipes where the fish will shine.

Oil-packed vegetables

Much like pickled veggies, the oil-packed versions are useful in lots of situations where you just want a little something-something added to a dish. The biggest differences between the two canning techniques are something to be mindful of when choosing which one to use.

Oil-packed vegetables don't have that crunch or vinegary tang that pickles do; oil doesn't work as a preservative so anything packed in it has to be fully cooked before processing, whereas pickles are often raw. And if you keep the oil level topped up, your vegetables will last longer, too.


This might be divisive if you're not a fan of these salty bites, but they add a lovely bit of umami to an otherwise flat dish. The choice between pitted or whole olives is possibly even more important than green versus black. While there isn't much of a flavor difference between pre-pitted and whole olives, pre-pitted have a softer texture and are better suited to making a quick and delicious tapenade, while whole olives are perfect for tastier snacking.

Pancake mix

Sure, you can whip up pancakes on your own, but a big box of pancake mix is a faster and still delicious option. Like boxed cake mix, you can upgrade your pancakes with a couple of secret ingredients to take them from good to really good (hint — it's mostly mayo). A handful of blueberries, some smashed bananas, chopped walnuts, or chocolate chips can make your Sunday morning at-home brunch something to look forward to.


We all know that fresh pasta is absolute perfection, no question. But making or having fresh pasta is not always feasible; having a few packages of dried pasta in your pantry will go a long way.

A little variety — a box of something long, a box of something short and sturdy, maybe some lasagna noodles, maybe something for soup — and you're set for most major meals. You also don't have to splurge on dried pasta, as they all cook up the same.


When you don't have any fresh herbs on hand, a spoonful of pesto can go a long way to amping up the flavor of your meal. Genovese pesto is made with basil, garlic, pine nuts, and Parmesan, but you don't have to stop there. Check out the shelves the next time you're picking up groceries and find a jar that appeals to you, like one made from garlic scapes, walnuts, cilantro, anchovies, red peppers, or arugula.

While not pesto in the strictest sense, they're still all terrific additions for quick pasta dishes, adding to a boring salad dressing, or just smeared on toasted baguette. Keep your pesto covered with a layer of olive oil to help preserve it for longer.

Pickled vegetables

Pickled vegetables are perfect for snacking right out of the jar as part of a lazy afternoon's picky bits or as a savory garnish for cocktails. But pickled veggies can also be put to use in loads of recipes.

Pickled eggplant, garlic, and peppers can easily be added to pizzas, casseroles, pasta dishes, or anything that could use a bit of zip. Toss some pickled corn or red onions into your next salad or taco for some textural contrast. Finally, keep the juice and try a delicious pickle juice brine.

Pre-cooked polenta

While polenta isn't all that hard to make, sometimes you just need something quick. You've likely seen pre-made polenta and had no idea what it was or how to use it.

Vacuum-packed into a plastic tube, the polenta comes out firm but can also be made into a creamy version with the addition of a little broth, cream, and Parmesan. However, we suggest slicing it up and using it in a myriad of ways, from frying it and topping it with cheese and mushrooms to making a 30-minute polenta lasagna.

Prepared simmer sauces

If you're on this website, there's a really good chance that you love cooking and probably make most things on your own. But even the most serious home cooks can occasionally use some time-saving ingredients. There are so many shortcut sauces available now that you're very likely to find one or two that appeal to you.

These simmer sauces are particularly good if you want to try Indian, Thai, or other international dishes, but don't want to buy all the spices just yet in case the recipe isn't for you. Think of them as a trial run before committing to overhauling your spice cabinet.

Quinoa or other grains

Quinoa, while hailed as a superfood, is pretty divisive. Many home cooks find it hard to prepare properly — it has a bitter coating that needs to be rinsed off, and it's easy to both under or overcook this tiny pseudo-grain.

A thorough soak and rinse will get rid of the bitter coating, and we have the secret for mush-free quinoa. It makes a great replacement for rice but can also be added to salads or soups.


Depending on the dish you're preparing, you'll occasionally be reaching for different types of rice. There are so many different kinds of rice out there that you might feel overwhelmed about what to choose but, for the typical pantry, you'll likely be going with the same one or two types.

If you want to take a deep dive into everything you need to know about rice, we encourage that. Otherwise, start with what you're used to, from jasmine to brown rice, and keep it stocked in your pantry.


Salsa is a super popular condiment for everything from chips to eggs, and it has also recently become a trendy low-price, high-reward charcuterie board theme. With so many different takes on salsa, there really should be something for everyone. Salsa is also a pretty handy workhorse for making a lot of Tex-Mex dishes with little fuss, like this tasty and simple slow cooker chicken tacos recipe, or use it to whip up a quick seven-layer dip when you're craving an upgrade to your snack rotation.

Shelf-stable tofu

Don't write off tofu just because you happen to be an omnivore. While you might be hesitant to try this protein superstar, remember that it's basically tasteless and works incredibly well with marinades, easily absorbing flavors and spices.

But don't stop at just a meat substitute... if you like smoothies, the silky type adds creaminess without having to use a pile of frozen bananas. We have tips for preparing tofu in case you're soy-curious, too.


Canned tomato soup and grilled cheese is possibly the most nostalgic meal ever, so there's not much more to recommend shelf-stable soup than that. But if you want to expand your horizons, canned soup has loads of other options beyond tomato.

Cream-based soups make particularly tasty (and easy) casseroles, while you can upgrade broth-based options with dried pasta, Parmesan shavings, croutons, or even tinned seafood like clams. We even have options for elevating the flavor of that perennial fave, tomato soup.

Static Media owns and operates Tasting Table and Mashed.