How to stock your pantry: canned & jarred staples

May 23, 2013

OneHungryMama stock a pantry

Babies don’t come with a handbook, but motherhood certainly comes will a million books and competing ideas of how to do it “right,” especially when it comes to feeding. The good news is that you’re doing way better than you think you are. (That goes even if you think you’re doing an awesome job—because you are!) The even better news is that being a great family cook is simpler than you think, you just need to learn the ropes. That’s what my “Family Cooking School” series is all about.

This is the second installment in a series of posts dedicated to family cooking basics that will help you move from pre-baby cooking to family cooking. The difference between the two? Family cooking is big on flavor, but made short on time; meals are efficiently planned and made; and ingredients are healthy enough for everyone to share.

Together with my first “Family Cooking Series” post How to stock your pantry: rice, grains, pasta, this will help you get your pantry in tip top shape.

Check out my list of must-have canned and jarred staples below, then chime in:
What are your favorite family cooking pantry staples?

And if you’re looking for more help with your pantry and mealtime, drop me a line at to schedule a FREE Family Meal Breakthrough session. I’d love to give you personalized pantry tips and answers to your burning questions about how to make life as the family cook easier.

Broth is an essential cooking ingredient, whether chicken, beef or veggie. I like to have all three on hand in varying quantities. I keep store bought in my cupboard and homemade—mostly chicken and veggie—in my freezer. Quick tip: store broth in ziplock bags so that you can freeze them flat and save room!

  • Chicken Broth: I tend to use mostly homemade, but always have a few boxes of low sodium, organic chicken stock around.
  • Beef Broth: I rarely use this, so just a little box does me well for when I need it in a pinch, mostly for wintry beef stews. Check out this awesome post on making brown stock if you want to make it homemade.
  • Veggie Broth: Like chicken, I make this homemade when possible (use those veggie scraps!), but I also keep a box of veggie stock on hand.

Canned Tomatoes
Canned tomatoes are another essential family kitchen ingredient, though they have become more controversial because of BPA-laced packaging. If you don’t want to can your own tomatoes, look for tomatoes that come in a tetra pak box (e.g., Pomi) or the new Muir Glen cans which are now BPA-free. Bionaturae and Trader Joe’s also offer BPA-free canned tomatoes.

  • Chopped Tomaoes: These are my all-purpose, go-to canned tomatoes. I use to buy whole, but realized that all the squeezing (and splattering) that it took to break the tomatoes down yielded a result very similar to the chopped kind.
  • Tomato Sauce: This is different than jarred pasta sauce; tomato sauce is a simple tomato puree that you can use to make stews or your own pasta sauce like this easy Sausage Bolognese.
  • Tomato Paste: Great for when you need a hit of concentrated tomato flavor. If you don’t want to use canned, there are a lot of great imported options that come in squeeze tubes (which makes storing leftover much easier).

High Quality Jarred Tomato Pasta Sauce
I used to refuse to buy jarred tomato pasta sauce. Most of it tastes horribly sweet (and contains tons of sugar). Lately, though, I’ve discovered a couple of brands that taste good to me. Now, I always keep a jar on hand for when I’m in a pinch or to make something like these Quickest Curried Eggs. I don’t use jarred pasta sauce often but, when I need it, I’m always really happy that it’s there! It’s ridiculously expensive, but my preferred brand is Rao’s.

Canned Beans
If you have the inclination, it’s best to buy dried beans and prep them ahead of time. It really doesn’t take much if you’re a planner. That said, I always have a variety of canned beans on hand for when I’m more crunched than I thought I’d be (which is nearly always). You should, too, especially if you’re not realistically going to prep dry beans. Stock your pantry with whatever beans you love. These are the two that I make sure to always have on hand. And, p.s., while not all of Trader Joe’s canned goods are offered in BPA-free cans, their canned beans are.

  • Canned Chickpeas: More than any other bean, I use the canned version of these most. Partly because dried chickpeas always feel like they take longer. Also, the canned version don’t need cooking to be good. I can open a can and throw them in the food processor to make impromptu hummus or throw them on a salad for extra protein.
  • Canned Black Beans: I also use canned black beans frequently. They are great for school lunch (tucked into a quick quesadilla) and also for salads. I’ve been known to put this 3-Minute Corn and Black Bean Salad on frequent dinner rotation. Can you guess why? (Hint: it takes 3 minutes to make.)

Chipotles in Adobo
If, like me, you’re a sucker for smoky, spicy flavor, make sure to keep chipotles in adobe in your pantry. The way that these elevate the flavor of simple, thrown together meals, not to mention soups, stews and chilies, is like magic. The big problem with these is that you often end up opening a can only to use one or two peppers. Throw the rest in a small ziplock baggie or, even better, an ice cube tray (one pepper with adobo per compartment) and store in the freezer.

Light Coconut Milk
Like chipotles, coconut milk is great for giving your meal a quick flavor boost or international flair. I use it for everything from making soup (like this Coconut Chickpea soup with Lemongrass) to stews (like this Jamaican Chicken Curry), making meatballs (like these Indian Style Meatballs) or roast chicken (like this Coconut Mango Roasted Chicken).

Jarred Salsa
I recommend this with a bit of hesitation. Like jarred pasta sauce, it’s hard to find a quality, tasty jarred salsa, especially a tomato based one. (Don’t a lot of them taste like cooked tomatoes? Ick!) I’ve had much better luck with green salsas and now always keep a jar of Trader Joe’s salsa verde on hand. If there’s a salsa you like, make sure to keep it in your pantry, too. You can use it to turn plain scrambled eggs into a festive breakfast or school lunch, transform bland black beans into a bona fide side, and dress up a simple quesadilla for a quick dinner.

Jarred Pickles or Cornichon
If you like pickles, make sure to have a jar in your pantry at all times. They make a fun, easy, healthy snack. I also like to jazz up egg salad, tuna and sandwiches with chopped or sliced pickles. Throw them into your next grilled cheese: so good!

Jarred Capers
If you and your kiddos love pickles, you might also consider keeping capers on hand. I pull them out nearly anytime I default to a simple butter or olive oil sauce. It turns plain pasta or chicken cutlets into a quick, elegant meal.

Jarred and/or canned Artichokes
I like having both around: jarred marinated artichokes for snacking, panini and pasta, and canned artichoke hearts (in water) for everything else. If you’re not big into artichokes, I’d got with hearts in water which are the most versatile option.

Jarred Roasted Red Peppers
Like capers, roasted red peppers can be throw into nearly any simple dish made with a butter or pan sauce. In fact, you can pair the two for something like pan roasted pork chops with capers and roast red peppers.

[Late addition!]
Canned and/or Jarred Tuna
I can’t believe that I forgot this the first time around. (Thanks, Ashley, for the reminder!) I always have canned tuna in my pantry. I’m a sucker for tuna salad and so are my kids, but everyday I’m finding more ways to use this quick hit of protein. My recent recipe for Tuna Empanadas used two new-to-me products by Bumble Bee, Tuna with Jalapenos and Tuna with Chipotles and Olive Oil. I also have to admit that I’ve been digging this Lemon Pepper Tuna from Bumble Bee. They sent me a few cans to sample and I’ve started buying it on my own. I keep it just for me: I’m in desperate need of 5 minute nutrient dense lunches and, for better or worse, I eat this right out of the can!

However you use tuna—whether you prefer jarred in olive oil or canned in water (canned chunk light tuna is reportedly the lowest in mercury)—there are so many ways to use it. Just check out Ashley’s suggestions in the comments below!

Did I miss a must-have from your pantry? Let me know what canned and jarred staples are essential in your kitchen.

7 Responses

  1. Ashley says:

    Jarred tuna – tuna sandwiches and tuna puttanesca or quesadillas are my usual quick meals.

    Great list 🙂

  2. One Hungry Mama says:

    Thank you for the reminder Ashley. I cannot believe I spaced! Added tuna b/c you are absolutely right that it’s a must have! Glad the list is helpful!

  3. Great list! I wouldn’t add much – perhaps a few jars of organic pumpkin puree for when my freezer stash runs out. And canned lentils are pretty good for quick veggie burgers or soups.

  4. lyn says:

    Add a variety of pickles to your pantry – I make my own, very easy. Such as pickled beets, carrots (dilly are excellent), pickled garlic, pickled green beans (dilly, too!), pickled cauliflower – good way to add veggies to dishes and they are in the pantry, ready for cold green salads, added to pasta salads,an easy lunch with goat cheese on toast, topped by a pickle (or combo of pickles). I’m always finding kids love most any kind of pickles!

  5. One Hungry Mama says:

    I love that Iyn – and ’tis the season! I better get started. (Pickled green beans are my favorite!)

  6. Jamie says:

    I would also add a variety of vinegars (balsamic, red wine, etc.) and olive oil. 🙂

  7. One Hungry Mama says:

    Yes, Jamie, great addition!!!

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