Supposing that you already have your cheese drawer stocked and ready for action, it’s time to take a peek at how well the rest of your kitchen is set up to help you smoothly pull off the façade of being an ever-prepared at home cook/entertainer. Having a few staples beyond an array of condiments can make it easier to cook an easy meal at home or cross a must-try recipe off of your list. Keep these domestic must-haves on hand, and you can pick up other fresh/specialty items throughout the week as needed (e.g. fish from the seafood counter, a seasonal vegetable, a dairy item such as ricotta or fresh herbs).
Not only do eggs have a solid shelf life, but they are one of the most versatile foods you can have at the ready. Fried rice, kale salad, English muffin? Fry an egg over-easy and throw it on top—boom, you have a photo-worthy masterpiece. Feel like baking some brownies or cookies? Bring a couple of eggs to room temperature and blend them in. Scramble some up and serve them alongside bacon and toast for breakfast, whip one into lasagna filling, hard-boil a few for a snack… the versatility of this humble and inexpensive ingredient is not to be underestimated. Whether serving yourself or guests, these thin-shelled beauties pack a protein and convenience two-in-one punch.
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2. Versatile Cheese
Outside of your cheese drawer goodies for entertaining, I love having shredded mozzarella and Parmesan tucked in my fridge. Homemade pizzas are one of my favorite things to make—both for fun weeknight meals or casual (yet totally impressive) dinner parties with a couple of friends—so I’ll keep shredded and a fresh mozzarella ball in the fridge, to add some texture and extra cheesiness. And in my humble opinion, Parmesan shaved right off of the block as needed adds a better, more intense flavor than other options, such as pre-grated or shredded, and melts more smoothly. I usually always keep a hunk of Parm in the fridge, and add some to everything from roasted veggies to pasta to soup and salads for that extra (not to mention easy) touch of something special. Plus, a block of Parmesan cheese will last significantly longer in the fridge than a tub of the pre-grated. I don’t know about you, but I’ll trade the convenience factor of a couple seconds saved for a few more mold-free months anyday.
3. Dry Pasta
Pasta is one of the fastest weeknight meal options out there, folks. It can help you whip up a quick and simple dish (just cook and add olive oil, herbs and some veggies), it can be thrown into a cheesy bake, or it can add some density to salad. If you’re not a fan of white pasta, try whole-wheat or one of the many varieties of gluten-free noodles on the market now, such as Banza chickpea pasta. (If you aren’t on-board with pasta at all, give farro or quinoa a try.) I like having rigatoni, spaghetti and a fun noodle like gemelli or elbows in my cabinets. Trust me, having a little stash in your cupboard will always pay off in a pinch.
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Learn to leverage your freezer! Nearly all of the meat I buy goes straight into the icebox. Take a few minutes to individually wrap each cut in plastic baggies, and then place them into a larger Ziploc Slider Freezer bag so that they’re ready to thaw and use as needed. My fiancé’s heart was nearly crushed when I simply slid a Styrofoam tray of pricey ribeye steaks into the freezer... and they all stuck together, creating a bit of a mess. Don’t make my mistake!
Costco offers great quality and price for the varieties I like to have: ground beef, chicken, Italian sausage, and steaks. If you opt to freeze, simply move what you need a day or two in advance from the freezer to the fridge and voila, you’ve saved yourself a trip to the store. A fresh rotisserie chicken is also a fantastic option to pick up on any given grocery run and is usually around $5-$9. You can enjoy it by itself, in salads or soups and even in enchiladas, the possibilities are endless.
Obviously, if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you can scratch this one off the list and add your go-to proteins of choice.
I know I sit comfortably in the minority on this one, but I find chopping garlic to be one of the most soothing tasks to do in the kitchen. If you want to feel like a culinary boss, having a kitchen that smells like garlic (at least when cooked properly!) is going to do the trick. Fresh garlic is called for in so many different recipes, it rarely goes bad before I use all of it. I buy the jumbo bulbs, which I find easier to work with and more fun to smash and chop.
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This bright, fragrant fruit not only looks pretty in a simple bowl on your countertop, but it also has a variety of practical uses to get you through the week. Many recipes call for lemon to bring extra brightness and acidity to the dish, and are perfect for whipping up a simple salad dressing. On their own, lemons can be thinly sliced to top off a martini or vodka-soda with a twist, squeezed into warm water to jumpstart your digestive system in the morning, or added to hot water as a caffeine substitute. If you don’t have the opportunity to consume them by week’s end, you can always squeeze their juice over your cutting boards (along with a generous sprinkle of kosher salt) to clean them with a natural agent clean or slice them up and toss into the garbage disposal to freshen up your sink.
Another versatile beauty, onions have an incredible shelf life of 1-2 months in the summer and up to 6 in the winter. I find that I mostly cook yellow onions down as the base for sauces, but they have hundreds of uses and I personally consider them to be the most versatile onion. I usually also have a red onion kicking around, which adds some extra crunch and punch to my favorite simple salad (diced cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, crumbled feta, olive oil, and salt & pepper.)
8. Marinara Sauce
An awesome store bought marinara sauce can save you hours in the kitchen (as well as your pride) if you don’t have the time or capacity to make sauce from scratch. After weeks of telling my, at the time, new boyfriend that lasagna was my ultimate specialty, I decided to pull out all the stops and not only cook lasagna as one of the first meals I made for him, but to make the sauce from scratch. My sauce was watery, bland, and also smoky thanks to the small fire it caused in my oven after overflowing. Once the smoke cleared, the fire alarm stopped blaring, and my tears dried, the lasagna went straight into the trash and out came a frozen pizza to save the day. (Actually, I’d probably add frozen pizza as #11 on this list of must-haves). So yeah, I would save yourself the time and embarrassment and sub in premade sauce when cooking for company… ya know, if you’re not some sort of sauce master.
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Rao’s brand is a splurge but if you can find it on sale, stock up. If not, season up a less-expensive jarred sauce by adding some garlic, red pepper, basil, and even onion or spinach to make it feel more like your own. Or heck, who cares, just say it is your own… this is part of your so-got-it-together armor!
It never ceases to amaze me how impressive having a dedicated, organized shelf full of a variety of LaCroix is to guests. I keep my three favorite flavors—Passionfruit, Apricot, Mango, and occasionally Strawberry Pineapple or Blackberry Cucumber—in my fridge at all times. They’re appealing on many different levels: It’s a fun option beyond plain water, it’s a great booze-free beverage that everyone, particularly pregnant guests, loves and it also acts as a fantastic ready-to-go mixer for cocktails. Line them up and keep them chilled so guests (and you!) can enjoy whenever the mood strikes.
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10. Fresh Flowers
Depending on your budget, fresh flowers can admittedly be a bit of a splurge item (although, I rarely spend over $10/week for flowers). Trader Joe’s has a wonderful selection that can be notably less expensive. I love coming home to a seasonal bunch that brings extra life and coziness to my apartment, especially in the dreary winter months. Keep a medium size vase on your bar cart or countertop that you can refresh week after week. Bonus points if you can keep a ‘kitchen’ candle burning. Mrs. Meyer’s has a lovely line of fresh scents (basil, lavender, and lemon verbena are my favorites) or you can go for a sweeter scent from the Boulangerie jars at Anthropologie such as coffee, vanilla & fig, or espresso.
My kitchen has gone through an evolution over my adult life that I’m sure is familiar to many of you… frozen dinners + condiments + cheap beer in college, week-old white wine + carryout leftovers (and still, condiments) during my 20s in NYC, to a fully stocked, organized kitchen of pride as I rolled into my 30s, living back in Chicago. I find that keeping these ten items in my kitchen really does make me feel (and appear) like I know what I’m doing, which definitely makes it more encouraging to get myself into the kitchen to cook with confidence. And even when I don’t feel so confident (or like cooking at all), having the right staples around makes it that much easier to just happily pretend.