8 Great Time-Saving Ingredients That'll Perk Up Your Meals

I get asked, a lot, about what's in my pantry and what others should stock in theirs. In fact, I've been asked so often, I offer a service called the "Pantry Raid," where I come into your kitchen and rifle through your fridge and cupboards, help you to clean out the junk and give you personalized recommendations for things to stock depending on your lifestyle, family habits and tastes and dietary restrictions.

But today's advice is free! Here's my top-eight-great-go-to items to help you take your at-home meal prep to a new level . . . An easy, more carefree level! With these goodies in your arsenal, there're a lot of choices when it comes to whipping up vittles on a whim. Be the master of your domain and stock these this weekend!

  1. Prepared pesto: Sure, you can have it on pasta, but that's trite. How about a dollop on some steamed or sauteed vegetables? Over a piece of fish? Whisked into a vinaigrette? What about swirled into mashed potatoes or polenta? Used as a sauce for pizza? Now you're talking. Extra points if you make up a giant batch of your own pesto this summer and free portions - but if you're not that kinda guy or gal, the supermarket has lots of varieties to choose from. We love this one I get at Whole Foods - spendy, but a little goes a LONG way.
  2. Apricot Jam: Slather it on a chicken breast before broiling, or serve with pork chops after they've been cooked. Add a schmear to a turkey sandwich and add thin slices of brie and some arugula. You'll feel so fancy! Use it instead of syrup on pancakes or waffles, or stir some into a bowl of unflavored yogurt and top with nuts or granola. Buy some pre-prepped crepes and layer jam and creme fraiche for a delicious sweet treat, topped with berries.
  3. Roast Chicken: Takes minutes to prep and an hour or so to cook - but having one at the ready in your fridge during the week yields endless possibilities. Add it to soups, use as a base or a topping for salads, throw it into quesadillas, or serve it over brown rice. And don't you dare throw away that carcass! Remember my Roast Chicken Twofer? Make stock and freeze it up for future use!
  4. Lentils and Canned Beans: Lentils, white beans, black beans, kidney beans and chickpeas are super EZ to toss into salads, use in quesadillas, mix with sauteed greens, chicken sausage and pasta, or throw into soups. They're all high in fiber and protein. Try to find beans that are packed in BPA-free cans, like Eden Organics.
  5. Pre-prepped Pizza Dough:  From pizzas to flatbreads to calzones, breadsticks, pretzels, foccacia, rolls . . . the sky's the limit for sweet or savory applications. Refrigerator leftovers seem a lot more fun if they're atop a pizza or at the center of a pillowy calzone, don't they?
  6. Bagged/Boxed Baby Spinach:  The ultimate convenience food! Pre-washed and ready to serve raw as the base for salads or in smoothies. Or take 2 minutes to saute some, swirl it into your favorite soup or risotto, or use it to bulk up your favorite jarred pasta sauce with extra nutrition.
  7. Whole Wheat Couscous: The fastest side dish in the East OR West. Heat up your liquid (use chicken or veg stock for extra flavor), throw in the couscous, take it off the burner, let it rest, and in a mere 5 minutes, it's done. Whole wheat couscous is a great intro. to whole grain pastas because it's still so mild in taste and the texture is the same as regular couscous - and yet, you'll get health a boost from its fiber and protein content.
  8. Quinoa: Either as a side dish, or as in our house, the main dish, quinoa cannot be beat for its versatility and nutritional profile. Cook a big batch and use it throughout the week for quick lunches and dinners: add some pre-cut veggies, a squeeze of lime or lemon, some soy sauce, some beans or tofu or edamame, and you've got a vegan lunch that's packed with fiber and protein. Use some of that shredded roast chicken to whip up a salad with greens and quinoa and a light vinaigrette. Warm it in the micro with your favorite milk and top it with dried fruit and nuts for breakfast.

Ok, your turn! What do you have on hand all the time, and how does it save you time in the kitchen?

Image: Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net