Making Dinner with What’s in the Fridge: A Simple Solution for Busy Days

You arrive home late after a long day of work, and you just don’t have the energy to make it to the grocery store. But you’ve been doing so well with making healthy homemade meals…

Pasta Ingredients and Foods |

Does this sound familiar?

Guess what? All you need to do to avoid that dreaded visit to the store when you are not in the mood is get a little creative!

Unless those cupboards and fridge shelves are totally bare, dinner is just a few minutes away. Really.

Grocery Shopping Woes

I usually love going to the supermarket and imagining all the delicious possibilities, especially here in Mexico City. But there are times when it’s just not going to happen.

This is especially true for me during the summer, when it rains every single afternoon and evening. If the many tasks of a busy day take take over and then the rains start, it’s time to skip the trip to the store and raid the fridge instead, to see what’s there.

Pouring Oil with Garlic |
A little garlic and olive oil with some cooked whole grains or pasta make the beginnings of an excellent fast dinner.

In Argentina we had a tiny store on every block, but they only stocked the basics. Sometimes these just weren’t sufficient, or I didn’t have the energy to trek farther than the end of my own block to a larger supermarket with more variety.

It is pretty much the same here in Mexico City, where the very best option is always going to the weekly street fair and purchasing everything fresh, sold right out in the open.

Tomatoes and Garlic |

There are wonderful homemade moles of every type you can think of, piles of fresh produce… but this is only on the weekends, and they close early. If you procrastinate, it’s too late.

Farmers market schedules are similar elsewhere, and few of us are lucky enough to live just a few blocks away from a full-service grocery store that’s open late. The same applies when you sleep in late on the weekend, and grocery shopping just doesn’t jibe with the relaxing Sunday ahead.

Fortunately, you have options. And I’m excited to share a few of my favorites. They’re all super flexible, and easily customizable to utilize whatever you have on hand, to quickly put together a homemade meal.

Mexican Style

One such morning, I only had rice, garlic, onions, and flour in the cupboard. So I decided to make homemade flour tortillas with Mexican rice.

I did a little research on YouTube, found a video that explained how to make homemade flour tortillas, and prepared a Sunday brunch that was both delicious and easy to prepare.

Baking Pita Bread |
Homemade pita bread, tortillas, and other types of flatbreads can be made simply at home!

I made a huge plate of Mexican rice with homemade, hot flour tortillas, and served it with hot coffee and fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice. And I never had to get out of my jammies or go to the supermarket!

The hardest part was making the tortillas perfectly round, which I still have not mastered. But they taste just as good even if they are oblong or oddly shaped, and mine improved with each roll of the rolling pin.

You sort of get the hang of it as you go along. And the key here is that homemade food doesn’t always have to be picture perfect, or made with a lot of specialty ingredients.

Rice Dish |

I’d love to purchase a tortilla press, which I believe will make them perfectly uniform. But I was very surprised at how easy they were to make when I wasn’t as worried about the presentation, and the fragrance of them cooking was wonderful.

The Mexican rice that I paired with these tortillas is very simple. Just fry up some regular white rice with garlic and onions – staples that you likely have on hand. Add tomatoes (canned or fresh, or even some tomato juice), and water.

Cook it up and enjoy it with those fresh, warm tortillas. If a few fresh veggies are lurking in the veggie bin, even better. Heaven!

When you're too tired to grocery shop, you don't need to resort to takeout every time. Learn how to get creative in the kitchen and whip up a meal with what's in the fridge:

Remember, even if you do not have all of the ingredients that a given recipe calls for, if you can whittle it down to just the basics, it will still be yummy.

No cilantro stems (totally edible, and great in Mexican rice)? Okay, no problema. This dish is still delicious without them.

Argentine Style

Another fun dish to prepare that’s a typical Argentine go-to is a cold rice and tuna salad. You can make this dish in many different variations, and actually clean your fridge out at the same time!

It’s also nice to enjoy any leftovers the next day, when they’re cold and ready to eat. This makes the perfect quick weekday lunch, so make a big bowl of it!

Bowl of Fresh Arugula |
If you have a handful of fresh arugula on hand, throw it into the mix for added color and nutrients.

After you prep your white rice, chill it. Drain a can or two of tuna (salmon works as well), and stir it together with some mayonnaise, salt and pepper, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Then it’s time to explore your cupboards and fridge.

There are so many things you can add that you probably already have on hand. Such as:

  • pitted and chopped olives
  • capers
  • arugula
  • cucumber
  • pickles
  • finely chopped onion
  • canned artichokes or hearts of palm
  • frozen peas (boil and chill, or just throw them in with the rice during the last 10 minutes of cooking)
  • dried fruit like cranberries
  • chopped nuts like almonds
  • seeds like sunflower or hemp

You get the idea. Chill your tuna salad in the fridge and there you have it: a simple, healthy, and easy dish made from ingredients that you already had.

Salad, Pasta, and Boiled Egg |
Soft boiled eggs atop a green salad with cooked pasta also makes a delicious, quick meal.

Adding fresh chopped tomato or herbs like dill, parsley, or cilantro is another possibility. This is a great dish for using up those extra odds and ends from when another recipe that you made earlier in the week called for just a handful of fresh herbs.

You can also change up the grain that you serve your salad on top of. Use brown rice, quinoa, sorghum, or wheat berries for a chewy texture, and to pump up the nutrient content of your dish.

American Style

In the US, chances are that you have bread, cans of tuna, and sliced cheese in the fridge. My go-to here would be an open-faced grilled tuna and cheese sandwich, a.k.a. a tuna melt.

Tuna Melt and Salad |

Again, you can make a quick and satisfying sandwich in so many ways.

If you have a tomato, throw a slice on top while you melt the cheese. If not, it is still delicious and filling without.

If you have a stick of celery or a carrot in the fridge, grate it or finely chop it, and add it to your tuna salad mixture along with your mayonnaise. Maybe add a shake or two of your favorite spices, or some chopped olives.

For extra crunch, I like to grill the bread with just a tiny bit of butter.

No tuna? No problem. Boil up some eggs instead, and prepare a quick and easy egg salad.

Rice Dish with Eggs |
Eggs atop rice with ham, cheese, peas, olives, and a hard boiled egg also makes a satisfying dinner that beats anything frozen that comes on a tray to pop in the microwave.

I also like to put mustard and ketchup on the side, and alternate dipping my bites from one to the other. Ranch dressing, blue cheese, thousand island, hot sauce – time to pull out those long-forgotten condiments to add some zest to a simple meal!

If you have a jar of pickles, great! Add a pickle on the side, and serve.

Italian Style

I could go on and on about this one. A nice hot plate of pasta is always a pleasure to eat, and it doesn’t have to be complicated or planned in advance.

Raw Pasta in Boiling Water |

First, it is very likely that you have a bag of dried pasta in your cupboard. Serve it simply with extra virgin olive oil and grated parmesan cheese, or get a little fancier and fry some garlic chips in olive oil to sprinkle on top, maybe with some hot pepper flakes for a bit of heat.

If you made a big batch of pesto and froze the leftovers in ice cube trays, or froze your extra herbs in olive oil, now’s the time to use them.

You can even throw a chopped tomato into the mix at the last moment, fresh herbs, or an anchovy that will melt away into flavorful goodness.

Prepping Veggies |

I love Italian flat leaf parsley on my pasta dishes. If you have a bit left over, use it up and garnish with it here.

You can also add a little cream to your quick sauce, or a dollop of soft, fresh cheese, creme fraiche, or cream cheese. Mozzarella melted over the top of your creation is a nice addition as well.

Penne Pasta and Tomatoes |

Remember, pasta does not have to be eaten hot. Cold pasta salads are easy, delicious, and very flexible to make in terms of ingredients.

You can follow the same instructions and variations described above for the rice and tuna salad, but serve it with pasta instead. Have half a bell pepper and some radishes? Chop and toss them in for added crunch.

A vinegar and oil dressing on the tuna instead of mayonnaise makes a delicious quick pasta salad too, with elbow, bowtie, or wagon wheel macaroni.

Potatoes, Eggs, and Oven-Roasted Vegetables

Potatoes are an all-time favorite, as are sweet potatoes. And again, chances are that you have a few in the cool dark of your pantry, or in the produce bin in the fridge.

You can slice them up and bake them with salt and olive oil drizzled on top until they are nice and crunchy, or make mashed white or sweet potatoes with roasted garlic.

Time to get creative! Check out our tips for making simple meals with ingredients that you already have in the fridge:

Oven-roasted hash browns also pair well with scrambled or fried eggs. Or you can make a frittata with whatever cheeses and veggies you have on hand, to serve with a few pieces of toast.

Breakfast for dinner is one of the quickest and easiest options out there. So throw convention out the window, and serve up those pancakes or biscuits that you’ve been craving! French toast or omelets work well for a simple weeknight dinner as well.

Roasted Veggies |

Veggies can also be the stars of the show. If you have a zucchini in the fridge, roast it in the same way as you would make the potatoes, with a little sea salt and olive oil.  The same thing goes for carrots, eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower – any vegetable will do, and roasting brings out the delicious sweetness of the vegetables.

Intrigued by all this? Check out our post on roasted root veggies here.

Sometimes I just take whatever vegetables I have, slice them, throw them into a baking pan with nonstick cooking spray, peeled garlic cloves, sea salt, and olive oil. Bake until golden and the garlic is caramelized.

You can even toss some grated cheese on top if you have it. Don’t forget the freshly ground pepper!

A quick Asian-style stir fry can also be made simply with a little garlic and ginger, to serve atop rice. Fried rice with veggies and meats is quick and easy to make, as well.

Try our stir-fried lemon chicken quinoa bowls with a medley of fresh veggies like zucchini, carrots and broccoli!

Steamed veggies atop rice make another tasty option.

Quick, Simple, and Hassle-Free

With all of these simple ideas that you can utilize in your own kitchen to make meals without leaving the house, it’s time to treat yourself to a nice relaxing day.

Though home cooking enthusiasts often love the planning involved in making special dishes for a lovely meal, and the care with which ingredients are selected and prepared, there are always those nights, mornings, or even lunchtimes when something complicated just won’t do.

So clean out those cabinets (maybe even give them a good scrub while you’re at it), and make something wonderful!

Chopping Veggies for Dinner |

What’s your favorite creative and simple solution when you just can’t make it to the grocery store? Share your favorites in the comments below!

Photo credits: Shutterstock. With additional writing and editing contributed by Allison Sidhu.

About Lori Jo Hendrix

Lori was born in southern California and currently resides in Mexico. She is an actress and model who also writes in the fields of nutrition, wellness, and cuisine. Her passions include working as a volunteer with various groups in the rescue and rehabilitation of orphaned and injured animals.

13 thoughts on “Making Dinner with What’s in the Fridge: A Simple Solution for Busy Days”

  1. I have always wanted a tortilla press, but I have just never really made the leap and gotten one, and to be honest I probably would not use it as much as I would like to think, but maybe I would surprise myself. The tortilla route is a good one, though, when you are talking about whipping something up quick with what you have, and quesadillas and little tortilla wraps are always on the menu for me. Good stuff, and thanks for sharing.

  2. This is great! I am homeschooling my kiddos, and our days are very busy with learning new things, and going to swim lessons and gymnastics class, not to mention, keeping up on housework as well. By the time dinner time comes around, I am so stressed trying to figure out what to make! It happens to the best of us. Lots of great tips here!

  3. The possibilities are certainly endless as long as you use a bit of creativity with your pantry and left overs in the fridge. I am the queen of a good leftover’s soup. Just last night I made a wonderful chicken corn chowder out of the night priors dinner and some sweet summer corn that I would have most likely thrown out today or tomorrow. I personally like to keep a well stocked freezer. I find that having a lot of frozen veggies on hand helps me round out a meal. Now, in response to your rice dishes I am very intrigued by your tuna and rice salad idea. We always have left over rice in our house and that is certainly one way we have not used it. I will be giving that a try for sure. Thanks for the great article!

  4. Those are some great suggestions! I like the first one the best; homemade tortillas sound delicious! I like to use leftover roasted or steamed veggies with scrambled eggs and cheese for breakfast, and sometimes if I have leftover rice, I fry an egg and eat that on top of the rice. I really think rice and potatoes are some of the most useful things to have in a kitchen because they stay edible for a long period of time and they can be used in all sorts of different meals.
    Daniconk, making soups is a good idea. I’ve never had the talent for it, but it’s not too late to learn, right?

  5. It seems like this post is made for me! As I’m no cook, anything easy to prepare is heaven on earth for me. Since I saw that post on Tex-Mex fajitas, I tried to check my usual grocery store if they carry frozen tortilla. Unfortunately, they didn’t have it during my recent run. Now, I’m reading that one can go the homemade route – will read it soon. Anyway, I’m with you on the pastas. Haha, they’re practically my life-saver. I usually have them on stock as I find them my very reliable ingredients as they’re so easy to whip up. Nothing fancy just tuna and lots and lots of tomatoes and onions are what I just use for my pasta. Curiously, as I’m from a country that eats rice, I have never actually tried cooking rice with vegetables in it (tomatoes etc.), except when cooking with leftover rice. The picture looks utterly delicious though. I just might try it as you suggested here.

    • Left-over rice is great, I fry up onions, tomatoes and whatever green herbs I have around, then add a finely minced chilly and some chopped up pickled gherkins and cocktail onions. Lastly I add one or two tins of tuna in oil and plenty of grated cheese (I prefer mature cheddar). I mix everything into the rice, add plenty of paprika, check the seasoning, then pile it all into a greased baking dish. More grated cheese on top, sprinkle of paprika and into the oven for about half an hour until the cheese on top is melted and browned. Delicious served with a quick carrot, orange and raisin salad, or coleslaw.

  6. This was very informational. Now, when I’m finally on my own I know what I can make that will easy – since im no Bobby Flay, but I sure know how to use a microwave! Looking forward to a more healthy diet.

  7. I usually don’t have a lot of arugala on hand, but I do use kale. I feel almost embarrassed to admit that I like kale due to the jokes, but it’s a great salad. These are amazing recipes and I think that pasta is one of the all-time greatest foods on the planet.

    Still, it seems like quite a few of them are not the kind that you can just grab out of your refrigerator. I don’t mind that they are fancy and call for ingredients that I don’t have on hand because it’s just fun making new recipes though.

  8. Thanks for the tips. I get home from work AT supper time a couple days a week and those are my least favourite days to cook. This gives me a few ideas to work with when I’m so hungry I can’t even think about food properly. I really like the throw together pasta idea. Makes things simple. And I should really start buying more canned tuna. It looks like it makes for an easy protein.
    One of my go to easy meals is actually already a pasta dish. I like making a milk based Alfredo sauce with fettuccine (or other types of pasta if I’m out of fettuccine). The only problem with that is feeling guilty about not having any vegetables!

  9. The comment about “oblong tortillas” is so funny to me. When I first started making mine, I had so many oddly shaped ones too, but the taste was delicious. I’ve greatly improved and even though I still talk about getting a press-more so to speed up the process, but I still continue to roll them out…..I like the process.

  10. My method is to always keep a spare chicken breast in the freezer. Chicken breasts are great because you can basically throw all of your other odd-n-ends that you have left and make something good no matter what vegetables you have that are about to go bad. Anything from a salad to chinesse.

  11. I think the inability to be creative with ingredients is one thing that leads people to waste money on take-out. I’m guilty of sometimes not being creative myself, but stir-fries are my go-to dish to use up random ingredients – I just fry together literally any meat and vegetable with rice or pasta. It’s a great way to use leftovers too.

  12. I’m going to try out the Mexican rice and tortillas – they sound yummy! And likely to be enjoyed by all my family (as distinct from the tuna which my kids wouldn’t eat, sigh, as that takes out your suggestions and tuna mornay which is a quick go-to I used to have).

    If I have left over roast veggies, I often sprinkle over grated cheese, maybe some fresh herbs and chopped tomatoes then pop the whole lot in the oven for about 20 minutes – easy and delicious!

    I’ve always had a rule of pasta, tin tomatoes and garlic in the house so a basic meal is always available! Onions, herbs and veggies are a bonus of course.


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