8 Powerhouse Pantry Staples Parents Need to Make Dinner Happen

Bust out these essentials for on-the-fly cooking.

September 12, 2021
Photo by Hyesu Lee

Welcome to Kids & the Kitchen, our new landing pad for parents who love to cook. Head this way for kid-friendly recipes, helpful tips, and heartwarming stories galore—all from real-life parents and their little ones.

You live and breathe by lists, Google Docs, or a cryptic collage of sticky notes on the fridge. We’re right there with you, parents. But no matter how organized you are, it can feel like a Sisyphean task to get dinner on the table for the whole crew seven nights a week. Even with the occasional pizza delivery in the mix, a well-stocked pantry is key.

Yes, you’ll want to keep the obvious things on hand, like canned beans (humble chickpeas turn decadent when braised in olive oil) and spaghetti (a sauce of lemon, Parmesan, and olive oil is weeknight nirvana). But miracle-worker staples will expand your on-the-fly cooking repertoire even further, and let’s face it: When it comes to kids, the more dinner options, the better.

Canned wild salmon

Yeah, yeah. “Tuna this” and “tuna that.” Sure, it’s great, but shelf-stable canned wild salmon also has plenty of omega-3s, and can be a protein-packed savior. Toss it into a hearty salmon-forward rigatoni cut with heavy cream. Let kids find the secret salmon playing hide-and-seek in balls of sushi rice for seaweed-wrapped onigiri. Or combine leftover mashed potatoes with salmon, bread crumbs, mayo, and eggs for simple panfried salmon patties.

Oyster sauce

This classic Chinese condiment instantly adds a deep umami note to stir fries (everything from this asparagus and mushroom number to this minced pork and bean sprout stunner) or even fried rice (cue this Thai-basil-spiked delight). Oyster sauce even makes a simple dipping sauce for pan-fried tofu and steamed greens like broccoli or spinach, and is a killer marinade for beef, chicken, and veggies. Don’t worry too much about fussy eaters crumpling their faces at the word “oyster.” When it remains an anonymous player, kids are so bowled over by its salty tang that they don’t ask questions.

Coconut Milk

This magical ingredient instantly ups the drama of whatever you’re cooking and mellows spice levels to accommodate tiny palates. It’s stellar in mildly spiced coconutty dal packed with coriander, turmeric, and cumin, or Southern-by-way-of-South-Asia coconut milk grits, which serve as a perfect base for any stir-fry or simple roast chicken. You can also use it to pep up ho-hum canned white beans cut with wilted chard, or transform a leftover carton of white rice into a super-simple rice pudding for dessert.

Peanut butter

While obviously the key to emergency PB&Js, this stuff is capable of so much more. Doctor it with soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, sesame oil, and a pinch of sugar to toss with hot noodles for the easiest peanut butter noodles of all time. It’s also a fabulous accompaniment to no-cook Vietnamese summer rolls. Speaking of which: Make these a vegetarian affair with avocado, cucumber, carrots, red onion, and mixed greens, or take a walk on the carnivorous side with strips of soy-splashed steak.

Jarred pesto

Chances are, you have a batch of this already in your fridge or pantry. And rightfully so—what can’t pesto do? Chuck it into a bowl of hot pasta with butter and call it dinner. Drape it over canned chickpeas and cubes of mozz for a breezy side. Spoon it over caramelized butternut squash for a study in sweet-savory contrasts. It’s sandwich-friendly, too: Smear it on a toasted roll and just add leftover rotisserie chicken.


If something is crunchy and fried, the likelihood of your child eating it rises exponentially. And guess what? You don’t need to deep-fry to get that golden brown result; panfrying is fast and cleanup-friendly to boot. So consider it your go-to technique for leftover chicken, tofu, veggies, or almost anything else. Panko bread crumbs are generally flakier and dryer than most other types, so they tend to take on less oil during frying for lighter, crunchier fare. You can follow a recipe (this one for herbed chicken cutlets is great), but really all you need is this basic frying formula: Coat your chosen ingredient in flour. Dunk the floured ingredient in egg wash. Cover the whole thing in seasoned panko. Shallow fry in hot oil until golden brown. Voilà! Dinner.

Barbecue sauce

This sweet-salty-smoky standby is like a mealtime Swiss Army knife: It’s a condiment, marinade, and dip, all rolled into one. Brush it onto kebabs stacked with tempeh and veggies, chicken thighs simply sizzled under a flaming broiler, or burger patties in need of some extra oomph. There are few things a top-notch barbecue sauce won’t improve. If one night your kid turns her nose up at dinner, whatever it may be, offer barbecue sauce as a dip and see what happens.


Not every youngster loves olives, but the ones who do are often gaga for them. For those in that camp, olives are a fantastic way to zhuzh up couscous or braised Moroccan chicken dishes. You can even blitz them with garlic, capers, olive oil, and lemon juice for a French-inflected tapenade, ideal for toasts. Olive lovers will appreciate a good variety, from purple-gray Kalamatas to mild green Castelvetranos. If you’re serving them to young kids, just make sure to go for pitted varieties so errant pits aren’t a concern.

What pantry staples do you count on for dinner? Let us know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Writer, editor, eater