What do sweet potatoes, raisins, and pancake mix have in common? If I’m running low on any of these items, I start to panic. I’m a mom of three and these are some of my go-to pantry items for quick breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and dinners for little eaters with big appetites.
I’ll be generous and say my kids aren’t picky eaters. They’re probably pretty average in terms of the food they’ll gobble up happily and the food I have to painstakingly request that they eat throughout a meal. (“One more bite, honey. One. More. Bite. Honey!”)
The truth is, their preferences change like the weather, so on any given day, I try to stick to a few goals: Introduce new foods to them as much as possible. Feed them fruits or vegetables, as much as possible. Don’t sweat it. As much as possible.
One way to keep at it day after day and night after night is to maintain a reliable arsenal of staples in the pantry that help me prepare meals I can feel good about—and most of the time the kids do too. And the key is that all of these foods have multiple uses. Here’s a list of 11 pantry staples I keep on hand at all times:
1. Pancake Mix
Pancakes from scratch are noble and delicious, but show me a kid who doesn’t love pancakes from a mix. Or how about when you make waffles with it?
We make pancakes most Saturday mornings in our house, and we make extras to reheat for a weekday breakfast or breakfast for dinner—a simple but endlessly fun trick for getting kids excited about dinnertime that’s especially handy when you don’t have a plan.
Another breakfast staple in our house is our yellow box of Cheerios, bowlfuls of which land on the table morning after morning, topped with berries and bananas.
The real glow from this trusty box comes on car trips—or at home when I need someone to sit still. A small bag or cup of Cheerios makes a great car snack because kids like picking up the cereal one by one, which buys some serious time.
In a pinch, they’re amazing toys. When I need one of my sons to sit still while I cook, I give him a cup of Cheerios, a muffin tin, and a mix of Tupperware and measuring cups. He sits there pouring the cereal in and out of containers for those precious 20 or so minutes, and now, “cooking with Cheerios” is a go-to pastime for us.
3. Peanut Butter (Or Sunflower Seed Butter)
If my kids don’t ask for peanut butter and jelly for lunch, it means I may need to take their temperature and make sure they’re OK. It’s our sandwich of choice, so I better have the goods on hand. (Depending on the school rules, I may use sunflower seed butter.)
Peanut butter isn’t just essential for PB&J, though. I’ll often spread it on a waffle for breakfast or make a peanut butter and banana sandwich. My personal favorite is a peanut butter and honey sandwich. Peanut butter isn’t limited to breakfast and lunch—try these Sesame Peanut Noodles, part of our regular rotation.
My son came home from preschool one day and told me that if raisins sit out in the sun long enough, they turn into grapes. He was absolutely sure about this—I want to savor this memory forever. Luckily, since I keep raisins in the pantry, I always have the reminder.
Raisins are another great car snack that takes a decent amount of time to eat, an easy treat to hide in their lunch boxes, and a happy surprise if I add them to a stew the Great Skeptics are questioning, like this Lamb Stew with Chickpeas.
5. Canned Pineapple
This may feel a little retro, but canned pineapple is a happy ode to my own mother. A few pieces in a bowl make a pleasing dessert for the kids, and they get excited about fried rice when I add in diced pineapple. Their favorite is my family recipe for zucchini bread, which gets extra moisture and sugar from a can of pineapple.
6. Goldfish Crackers
I’d be lying if I pretend I don’t have my own flavor of Goldfish Crackers hidden in the pantry—my kids each have their own too. We go through a lot of them. It’s a portable snack that I feel OK offering to other children when they come over for playdates and I don’t have time to make something special. We never get bored of the multicolored options, so I’m keeping them around for as long as I can.
7. Sweet Potatoes
From a no-brainer baby food to the star side dish on weeknights, sweet potatoes make frequent appearances on our dinner table—and on the floor (read: baby food).
I roast them in the oven so that they come out extra sweet. But a quick spin in the microwave does the job too. I spread the softened flesh onto a tortilla and sprinkle on cheese and spinach. Add another tortilla on top, cook over low heat, and I’ve got a nutritious quesadilla in five minutes. Whether or not my kids know they’re eating sweet potato or they think the orange stuff is more cheese is an answer I don’t need to know.
When I ask my friends what their kids like to eat, everyone, without fail, says carbs. Some will elaborate and say pasta.
As a pasta lover myself, I get it, and in fact, I’m thrilled. There are endless ways to keep things interesting with pasta, and I see it as an opportunity to get the kids to eat extra vegetables, whether I’m dicing up carrots, celery, and onions into a meat sauce or turning broccoli stems into a luscious green pesto.
9. Rao’s Tomato Sauce
The unfailing, unanimous winning pasta topper for us is Rao’s tomato sauce. We eat it with a plate of penne; we serve it over spaghetti and meatballs (while discussing Lady and the Tramp); and we zhuzh it up with some diced garlic and zucchini. Pasta aside, we smear it over homemade pizza or alongside fried zucchini. I’d honestly eat it plain with a spoon.
Further along the carb train, we come to rice. There are so many varieties, it cooks quickly, is filling and comforting, and has endless uses. Recently I’ve been using half the amount of water that’s called for and adding coconut milk instead.
Or I’ll add a splash of rice wine vinegar and sugar to make sushi rice to serve with salmon and vegetables. I’m always happy to cook more than needed for later in the week—I love kimchi fried rice and rice pudding.
11. Instant Couscous
If I want to serve something different than rice, then I turn to a quicker-cooking box of instant couscous. It’s another blank slate to zhuzh up. (It cooks so quickly that it makes up for the inevitable time to clean the floor after dinner. The tiny bits do like to stick to surfaces.)
I love the way couscous soaks up the juices from a roast and how easy it is to dress it up (Hey, raisins!).