Creative Cooking from Half-Empty Pantries

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by the author of  The Ultimate Guide to Frugal Living and the online course Build a Better Pantry on a Budget

Last month, I was trying to pay off some bills, and I skipped my regular grocery trips. I have a pretty hefty pantry, so I wasn’t risking going hungry. But toward the end, I was left with some odd combinations. And it got me thinking.

Some of the concoctions I created from the odds and ends of my pantry were amazing – even better than my original recipes. Some others were not so great. But all in all, it was a great exercise in creativity. It was important to make meals that were tasty enough I wouldn’t be tempted to dial 1-800-BRING-PIZZA.

Oh – and before anyone comments, I do have extra food stashed away in my storage unit. The point of this exercise was to use things I had here in my apartment.

Here are some of the things I made.

Last night, I was making coleslaw, and I realized that I didn’t have two of my regular ingredients – granulated sugar and apple cider vinegar. I substituted balsamic vinegar and brown sugar and mixed that with mayo, salt, and pepper. I also shredded a radish from my little patio garden onto it and topped it with some fresh green onions. It was probably the best coleslaw I ever made.

creative cooking

I also used my balsamic vinegar to make a tasty dish with chicken breasts and canned peaches. I browned the chicken in some cooking oil on the stove top; then I mixed the syrup from a can of peaches with balsamic vinegar, garlic powder, onion powder, and cayenne pepper. I poured that mixture over my chicken, added in the peaches, and baked it at 375 for45 minutes. At the end, I removed the chicken and peaches, then thickened up the sauce with some flour on the stove top until it was a nicer consistency. I served this over rice and added some green beans from the freezer. Delicious!

Stale crackers? I crushed them up, added some favorite seasonings, and made my own “shake and bake” pork chops.

I made some chilaquiles with tortillas that were no longer soft and pliable and used some leftover cooked ground chicken spiced up with Mexican seasonings to add protein.

The point isn’t to get “recipes” – the point is to use up everything, waste nothing, and use your creativity to make tasty meals with what you have on hand.

Substitutions to consider in your creative cooking

Here are some things I’ve found to be all but interchangeable over the years.

  • Pasta <—> Rice <—> Potatoes – use whichever one you happen to have as a base for your favorite sauce or casserole. We often use rice for beef stroganoff and bolognese sauce and pasta under meat with gravy. Potatoes can be interchangeably delicious in a lot of recipes, too.
  • Ground whatever <—> If your recipe calls for ground beef, you can use whatever ground meat you happen to have on hand. Just be sure to account for the differing amounts of fat for your recipe.
  • Apple cider vinegar <—> There’s no need to be a vinegar purist. You can use almost any vinegar interchangeably.
  • White sugar <—> You can use brown sugar or honey in many cases if you happen to be out of white sugar.
  • Plain yogurt <—> Sour Cream (savory dishes only) – strain the yogurt to make it thicker.
  • Applesauce <—- Eggs (in baked goods)

There are all sorts of substitutions that you can use – the key is to be creative and not try to adhere to the norm when you can probably use something else with great results.

Seasoning is everything!

When you’re concocting new things from your existing ingredients never forget the power of seasoning to turn a leftover into something totally new. Got some leftover meat? Make it…

  • Mexican – add chili powder and cumin, top it with salsa or chopped tomatoes, and serve it in a tortilla.
  • Italian – add basil, garlic, and oregano and drench it in tomato sauce.
  • Indian – add curry powder, broth, and yogurt and serve it over rice or potatoes.

You get the idea, right? Flavoring things differently takes the boredom out of leftovers and allows you to create all-new combinations using inexpensive pantry staples like rice, tomato sauce, and pasta. Here are some more yummy ideas for leftovers.

Don’t be stuck in your ways.

Quite often, I think the refrain of “there’s nothing to eat” just means that you’re missing an ingredient or two for your normal recipes. (Obviously, this isn’t always the case – if you truly have no food and are unable to purchase any, I urge you to visit your local food bank and keep yourself and your family fed.)

Don’t hesitate to “color outside the lines” in the kitchen. You may come up with some tasty combinations that are better than your original meals!

What are some successful substitutions and recipe alterations you’ve made? Share some of your tastiest experiments in the comments.

About Daisy

Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, adventure-seeking, globe-trotting blogger. She is the founder and publisher of three websites.  1) The Organic Prepper, which is about current events, preparedness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of liberty; 2)  The Frugalite, a website with thrifty tips and solutions to help people get a handle on their personal finances without feeling deprived; and 3), an aggregate site where you can find links to all the most important news for those who wish to be prepared. Her work is widely republished across alternative media and she has appeared in many interviews.

Daisy is the best-selling author of 5 traditionally published books, 12 self-published books, and runs a small digital publishing company with PDF guides, printables, and courses at SelfRelianceand You can find her on FacebookPinterest, Gab, MeWe, Parler, Instagram, and Twitter.

Creative Cooking from Half-Empty Pantries
Picture of Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is an author and blogger. She's the single mom of two daughters and credits extreme frugality and a good sense of humor for her debt-free lifestyle. She is the author of numerous books, the editor of, and is the founder of a small digital publishing company in the emergency preparedness niche.

5 thoughts on “Creative Cooking from Half-Empty Pantries”

  1. One very tired Friday night during the years when my husband returned to college to use up his G.I. Bill, it seemed like we didn’t have enough of anything to make supper out of. He sauteed some onion and raw rice in a skillet, then added water, a can of chicken and a cube of chicken bullion and cooked it for 20 minutes. When it was done, he tossed it with some shredded lettuce and served it up. It was delicious! Over the years, he would add whatever else we had: some finely sliced celery or carrots, a bit of egg scrambled. A real treat was a can of water chestnuts. The first time he made it, we were watching Star Trek on television as we ate, and whenever we ate it after that, it seemed like something was missing if Kirk and Spock weren’t on the tv.

  2. Stale crackers crisp right up in a 350 oven for about 12-15 minutes.
    I tend to keep ‘blends’ of herbs/spices – curry powder, Italian seasoning, Garam Masala, Taco seasoning packets, Fajita seasoning packets – and use them when I’m concocting main dishes out of whatever I can come up with. Amazing how the same basic ingredients morph from Italian to Indian to Mexican. My basic recipe is onion &/or peppers browned in a little oil, add some beef, chicken or tofu and brown that up. Then add 1-2 cups chopped greens from the Earth Boxes on the lanai or sprouts or cabbage,carrots,celery or any combo of those. Wilt them down, add the chosen spice/herb mix and then a liquid – water, broth, tomato liquid/juice, thicken if necessary and taste – adjust seasonings as needed.

  3. Recently we had some leftover Mexican Rice that needed to be used and I asked my husband (who does most of the cooking; I do the cleaning up), “why not a Mexican stir-fry?” So he did, adding a can of Ro-Tel, a can of pinto beans and more garlic and spices. We ended up rolling it into burritos with some cheese and it was very good!

  4. I thought fondly of “using the whole buffalo” when I got ahold of a massive box of tomatoes last weekend. I made tomato sauce, pizza sauce, and tomato soup. Put the bad spots and stems in the compost. I also found some delicata squash – wasn’t sure what to do with it. So I improvised, a la this article! I made pizza flavored squash for lunch today and it was awesome. Talked the spouse into tomato soup and sourdough for dinner. It was a first, and it was AWESOME.

    One other substitution that might be useful – I didn’t want to use apple sauce for my protein muffins, so I tossed some mushy leftover watermelon into the blender and used that instead. I just used that instead of the liquid too but got a nice fluffy texture without oil.


    Really, I have been doing this for so long that it’s completely second nature by now. Recently I have discovered that nightshade vegetables make my arthritis and fibro pain worse, so I have been trying to cut them out – difficult when most of the free not-quite-rotten-but-not-sellable veggies available here are tomatoes and peppers! I make tons of salsa every year, and not being able to use tomatoes has become very difficult. So I often replace tomatoes with tinned fruit (my pantry has lots of that), onions, and spices mixed together. Because rice is so cheap and easy to store, I cook a lot of it. Basically any leftovers can be mixed with watered down cream of something soup and poured over rice, with maybe a side salad (now that the garden is producing some greens) or some steamed veggies. My garden produces rhubarb freely every year, but sweet rhubarb pies are something I can frankly take or leave. I don’t hate them, but I don’t love them either. So I more often use my rhubarb as a vegetable. Wash, chop, mix with a bit of lemon juice and sugar, then lay fatty chicken legs with skin on top (you can’t use skinless chicken, the fat in the skin is a critical ingredient.) Bake until chicken is done inside, serve over rice, with green veggie on the side. Another quick and easy ‘struggle meal’ is cooked pasta tossed with butter, a bit of grated cheese, pepper, and garlic salt.

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