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Skip the grocery store! Shop from your pantry and save on dinner

by Jean Chatzky / / Source: TODAY

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There are those days — sometimes weeks — where life happens. You think you’re going to get to the grocery store and you don’t. But you still have to make dinner.

Before you throw on the apron and call for takeout, which is almost always more expensive than making your own meal, chances are pretty good you can make it with what you have in the house. How? By shopping your own pantry. You no doubt have the makings of at least one fabulous meal. Many people, when they head down this road, find they have the ingredients to pull together a week’s worth of meals. Sometimes more. Here’s how to go about it.

Shop from your pantry – tips on expanding recipes with stuff you already have in your cupboard
Shop from your pantry – tips on expanding recipes with stuff you already have in your cupboard.Getty Images

Know what you have. If it’s been a while since you’ve gone through your stash take a few minutes to take inventory. Start with the freezer. If you’re lucky (as I have been from time to time) you’ll find a meal you froze not too long ago. Barring that, keep in mind that most meals are built on a combo of a protein, grain and veggie. Make a list of things that fit into each category. Then move to the fridge, then pantry and do the same.

What will happen as you go through is you’ll get ideas of things you can combine to build dinner.

For example, even if the fridge is bare, a couple cans of tuna, some pasta, some pickles and some cheese gives you all the building blocks for "Clementine Tuna Macaroni Salad." The recipe may call for ingredients like "cornichon" and "chow chow," but go easy on yourself. Anything vinegary, like relish or mustard, is an acceptable substitute.

Think like a "Chopped" chef. Watch a few episodes of "Chopped" and you start to see tricks you can apply in your own kitchen. You want to crust a chicken breast but have no breadcrumbs? No problem. Throw crackers, cereal, or a bagel into the blender with some salt and pepper — done. Hamburger patties don’t have to be hamburgers. If you break them up and brown them, they’re a topping for nachos, a base for chili, or the meat in a spaghetti sauce.

Remember! Lettuce isn’t just salad. The leaves can be a wrap for pretty much any protein you want to dress up with soy sauce and that single red pepper or few remaining carrots you found in the fridge.

Turn yesterday’s leftovers into tomorrow’s meal. I made a leg of lamb for the holidays this year and overdid it. When I don’t want to just serve leftovers, I hit the internet and type in "leftover" and the name of the food you have leftover.

This particular time I hit on recipes for shepherd’s pie (which I’d never made before). I didn’t have every ingredient, but by reading a few I got the basic steps: chop up the lamb, cook it with some carrots and onions. Make a flour and butter roux and turn it into a sauce by adding some beef broth and Worcestershire. Mix em together. Top with mashed potatoes and bake. Delish.

You can do this with pretty much whatever you served earlier in the week. Or you can go to a site like supercook.com where you can tell it what ingredients you have and it’ll turn it into a meal.

Breakfast for dinner is always an option. Finally, if all else fails, you probably have eggs! If you have bread you can make French toast. If you have flour, pancakes. Neither? Scramble ‘em up or fold into an omelette. Add a bit of greens and mustard on the side and you could be in Paris... or at least with the money you're saving on food and groceries a little closer to being able to afford to fly there.

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