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The Pantry Challenge: Three Emergency Meals with Ingredients You Have on Hand

Updated on July 20, 2015

When I sought suggestions for my next food-related article, my cousin Karen issued a challenge. "How about taking three to five basic ingredients and dishing them up three different ways?" she suggested. "If I have these ingredients on hand, give me three different meals I can make by mixing up the spices."

"Make them easy, quick, and healthy meals my kids will love," my neighbor Deb added. "I could use a few of those."

So from those great suggestions, the Pantry Challenge was born. Karen provided the list of basic ingredients that I needed to use in all three dishes: Chicken breasts, canned tomatoes, frozen mixed vegetables, and onion. She allowed me to swap out the starch for each meal with items always on hand in her pantry: rice, spaghetti noodles, and tortillas. I added herbs, spices and other pantry staples to come up with three distinct dishes that are inexpensive, easy to prepare, and offer a lot of nutritional value. Each recipe makes four generous servings that your entire family will enjoy. As an added bonus, I've included a list of essential pantry ingredients you can use for your next trip to the grocery store.

Do you have any of these ingredients on hand?
Do you have any of these ingredients on hand?

The Basic Ingredients

1. Boneless, skinless chicken breast halves: I tend to spend more on meat to get better quality, so I look for chicken breasts labeled "all natural" or "hormone free." To keep costs low, I bought value packs and froze the extra to use later. Total cost per serving: $.97.

2. Canned diced tomatoes: A 14.5 ounce can contains approximately 4 servings. I purchased a store brand to get better value.If sodium is a concern, look for low sodium or no salt added varieties. Total cost per serving: $.13.

3. Frozen mixed vegetables: A 12 ounce bag contains about four servings. I see no need to spend the extra money on a national brand when the store brands are the same for less money. Total cost per serving: $.27.

4. Onion: I bought a 3-pound bag of yellow onions, which contained 9 medium onions, on sale for $1.50. Each of my emergency meals calls for 1 medium onion, so I had plenty left over for other uses. Total cost per serving:$.04.

5. Tortillas: I purchased a package of 8 fajita-sized tortillas for $1.40. Total cost per serving: $.18.

6. Long grain rice: A 1-pound bag of enriched white long grain rice contains 10 servings. If you want to up the nutritional value, substitute brown rice. Total cost per serving: $.07.

7. Spaghetti noodles: A 1-pound box of spaghetti noodles contains 8 generous servings. Choose a store brand for better value and whole grain noodles for greater nutritional value. Total cost per serving: $.15.

Emergency Meal 1: Chicken Veggie Fajitas

With a nod to Karen's Texas roots, I went Tex-Mex for my first emergency meal. I selected tortillas as the starch and supplemented the basic ingredients with a few other common items from my pantry and refrigerator. A well-stocked pantry should include a variety of spices and seasonings. Chili powder and ground cumin are two must-haves for anyone who enjoys south of the border flavor. (See below for other suggestions on stocking your pantry.)

Cooking the chicken and vegetables for fajitas
Cooking the chicken and vegetables for fajitas
Chicken veggie fajita
Chicken veggie fajita


1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

12 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch strips

1-1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

1-1/2 teaspoons chili powder

14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained

4 ounce can diced green chiles, drained

12 ounce package frozen mixed vegetables, thawed

4 fajita-size tortillas

1/2 cup grated colby-jack cheese

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

Nutritional information:

437 calories (117 from fat)

13 grams fat (21% of daily recommended total)

  • 4 grams saturated fat (20%)
  • 85 mg. cholesterol (28%)

775 mg. sodium (32%)

43 grams carbohydrates (15%)

  • 6 grams dietary fiber (24%)
  • 10 grams sugar

36 grams protein

Recommended daily allowances:

  • Vitamin A: 39%
  • Vitamin C: 57%
  • Calcium: 20%
  • Iron: 18%


Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion; sauté until beginning to soften, about 3 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook for another thirty seconds. Add chicken, cumin, and chili powder and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, until chicken is almost cooked through. Mix in undrained tomatoes and chiles; cook 1 minute. Stir in mixed vegetables; sauté until heated through, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat; cover to keep warm.

Warm tortillas in microwave for 30 seconds. Spoon chicken mixture in strip down center of each tortilla; top with cheese and cilantro. Fold side of tortilla over filling.

Serves 4

Cost per serving: $2.70

Emergency Meal 2: Chicken and Mixed Vegetable Fried Rice

I decided to add some Asian flair to my second emergency meal, which uses rice as the starch. Sriracha, a Bon Appétit ingredient of the year in 2010, is a Thai hot sauce found in the Asian aisle of most grocery stores. Keep a bottle on hand to spice up Asian-style dishes or use as a condiment for everything from soup to seafood to scrambled eggs.

Stir-frying the egg
Stir-frying the egg
Chopsticks add a fun touch to the meal
Chopsticks add a fun touch to the meal


1 cup uncooked long grain rice (about 3 cups cooked)

2 cups water

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

12 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 3), cut crosswise into 1/4-inch strips

12 ounce package frozen mixed vegetables, thawed

14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes, drained

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon sriracha (more or less to taste)

2 eggs, beaten

Nutritional information:

453 calories (81 from fat)

9 grams fat (13% of daily recommended total)

  • 1.5 grams saturated fat (7%)
  • 169 mg. cholesterol (56%)

879 mg. sodium (37%)

54 grams carbohydrates (19%)

  • 5 grams dietary fiber (19%)
  • 8 grams sugar

35 grams protein

Recommended daily allowances:

  • Vitamin A: 31%
  • Vitamin C: 25%
  • Calcium: 8%
  • Iron: 19%


Combine rice and water in a saucepan, then bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, until water is absorbed, about 13 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, tightly covered, 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork. Rice can be made ahead and refrigerated, covered, for up to 2 days. (Chilled rice is easier to stir-fry because the grains don't stick together when cold.)

While rice is cooking, prep the other ingredients so they are ready when you begin stir-frying.

Heat oil in large nonstick skillet or wok over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add onion and stir-fry until lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, and red pepper flakes and stir-fry, about 1 minute. Add chicken and stir-fry 2 minutes until chicken is almost cooked through. Add mixed vegetables and tomatoes, and stir-fry 2 minutes longer. Add rice and stir-fry until heated through. Stir in soy sauce and sriracha.

Make a well in the rice in the center of the pan and add eggs and let set for about 30 seconds, then stir to scramble. When eggs are cooked through, stir into rice. Remove from heat and serve immediately.

Serves 4

Cost per serving: $1.80

Emergency Meal 3: Mediterranean Chicken with Herbed Mixed Vegetables

My third emergency meal uses spaghetti noodles as the starch. With the addition of a few "secret-weapon" ingredients I always have on hand (olives, bacon, and red wine), this meal is posh enough to serve to dinner guests, yet easy enough for quick week-night supper.

Nutritional information (combined for both dishes):

605 calories (140 from fat)

12 grams fat (25% of daily recommended total)

  • 3 grams saturated fat (13%)
  • 92 mg. cholesterol (31%)

952 mg. sodium (40%)

67 grams carbohydrates (23%)

  • 6 grams dietary fiber (24%)
  • 12 grams sugar

43 grams protein

Recommended daily allowances:

  • Vitamin A: 32%
  • Vitamin C: 26%
  • Calcium: 16%
  • Iron: 24%

Ingredients for Mediterranean Chicken:

8 ounces spaghetti

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

1 medium onion, chopped (reserve 2 tablespoons for herbed mixed vegetables)

1 clove garlic, minced

14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained

1/4 cup dry red wine

1 teaspoon sugar

1-1/2 teaspoons oregano

1 bay leaf

1 tablespoon water

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1/4 cup pimiento-stuffed olives, sliced

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese


Cook spaghetti according to package.

While spaghetti is cooking, heat olive oil in nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken and cook for 10 minutes, turning to brown evenly, until tender and no longer pink. Remove from skillet and keep warm.

Add onions and garlic to skillet and cook over medium heat until onions are tender. Add undrained tomatoes, wine, sugar, oregano, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

Combine water and cornstarch in a small bowl then stir into tomato mixture in skillet. Cook and stir until thickened and bubbly. Return chicken to skillet and add olives. Heat through.

Serve chicken and sauce over cooked spaghetti. Garnish with grated Parmesan cheese.

A colorful and delicious meal
A colorful and delicious meal

Ingredients for Herbed Mixed Vegetables:

2 slices bacon, chopped

2 tablespoons minced raw onion

1 teaspoon dried thyme

12 ounce package frozen mixed vegetables, thawed

2 tablespoons water


Cook bacon in nonstick skillet over medium heat until brown. Remove from skillet with slotted spoon and set aside.

Drain bacon fat from skillet. Add onion and thyme and cook until onion is tender. Add mixed vegetables and water. Bring to boil, then reduce heat. Cover tightly and steam for 3 minutes. Remove lid and increase heat and continue to cook until all water evaporates from skillet, a minute or two longer. Stir in cooked bacon.

Serves 4.

Cost per serving: $2.80

The Emergency Meal Poll

Which emergency meal are you most likely to make?

See results

The Well-Stocked Pantry

Keep your pantry and refrigerator stocked with these essential items to make meal preparation easier:

  • Bacon: Because everything's better with bacon; use it to add flavor and crunch to salads and vegetable dishes
  • Balsamic vinegar: Get a good bottle of balsamic to use in salad dressings and sauces
  • Beans (canned): Black, red, garbanzo, etc., for quick soups, stews and salads
  • Black pepper (or peppercorns if you have a grinder): For cooking and table use
  • Bread crumbs: For breading, toppings and stuffing
  • Butter: Buy the unsalted variety
  • Canned cream soup: Use for side dishes, soups, casseroles and other dishes.
  • Cheese: Keep a variety of hard and soft and white and yellow cheeses (cheddar, Parmesan, mozzarella, goat, cream, etc.) on hand for sandwiches, snacking, casseroles, pasta, salads or sauces
  • Cornstarch: For thickening sauces, stews and gravies
  • Dijon mustard: For making salad dressing, marinades and sauces
  • Eggs: For cooking, baking or a quick omelet or frittata
  • Flour: For baking, breading and thickening sauces and gravies
  • Garlic: No pantry should be without it
  • Ginger (fresh): Freeze it to make it last longer, then grate into soups, sauces and stir-fry dishes for a unique flavor
  • Green chiles (canned): Use to add flavor to soups, chili and casseroles
  • Herbs (dried): Must-haves for seasoning dishes include oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage and bay leaves
  • Herbs (fresh): Keep a few pots of fresh herbs like parsley, chives, basil and cilantro on your windowsill to use for flavor and garnishes
  • Honey: For sauces and salad dressings, and to satisfy your sweet tooth
  • Hot sauce: Have one each of Tabasco and sriracha to add a touch of heat to your meals
  • Kosher salt: For cooking and table use, in moderate amounts
  • Lemons and limes: Use fresh juice in salad dressing and sauces or use the zest in cooking.
  • Olives (black and green): Use in salads, pasta dishes and pizzas; combine with cream cheese to make a quick spread for crackers
  • Olive oil: Use for cooking and making salad dressings
  • Onions: another pantry essential for adding flavor to any savory dish
  • Rice (white and brown): Don't bother with quick-cook rice; regular rice isn't that difficult to make and has more nutritional value
  • Pasta: Keep a couple of varieties on hand for quick meals
  • Soy sauce: For flavoring and stir-frying
  • Spices: Must-haves on the spice rack include cumin, cayenne, red pepper flakes, paprika, nutmeg, cinnamon and chili powder
  • Stock (chicken and beef): If you don't have time to make your own, buy it in cans or cartons to make soups, stews and sauces
  • Sugar: For baking, cooking and seasoning
  • Tomato paste: For making pasta and pizza sauce
  • Tomatoes (canned): For multiple uses, including sauces, stews, soups and casseroles
  • Tortillas: Use for Mexican dishes, wrap sandwiches and mini-pizzas
  • Tuna fish: For sandwiches, salads and casseroles
  • Wine (red and white): Like the old saying goes, I always cook with wine. Sometimes I even put it in the food.

More Cooking Challenges

If you are looking for additional ways to expand your culinary horizons:

Throw a Chopped Challenge Dinner Party


Thai One On with a Thai-Inspired Dinner Party


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