For the past few weeks, most of us have been asked to stay home. For many of us this means we have been doing more cooking at home than ever before. It has also been more difficult to get foods we are familiar with than ever before. With that in mind, this month’s Niagara Eats is going to be a little different, too. Consider it a pantry cooking primer.

What do you have lying around in the back of the cupboard or pantry closet? What did you get from a friend, neighbor or pantry that you are unfamiliar with? There are some creative ways to get those foods cookin’ in no time.

Rice: Rice is a grain and a tasty way to add filling fiber to meals. If you have brown rice on hand, you’ve got a whole grain! It will keep you feeling fuller longer. Pair rice with beans to get a meal with protein and fiber. One serving of rice is about one-half cup.

Beans: Dried or canned, these nutrient powerhouses contain both fiber and protein. And, they count as two food groups, protein and vegetable. A serving of beans is about a half cup.

If you have dried beans on hand, give them a rinse, put them in a bowl or pot, and cover them with a few inches of water. Let them soak overnight. The next day, drain the old water, rinse the beans again, and cover them with a few inches of water. Bring the pot to a simmer, but not to a full boil. Add just a tiny amount of salt, and onions, garlic or any herbs and spices you may have. Simmer the beans for 90 minutes to two hours until the beans are tender.

You can enjoy those beans over rice or a sweet potato, or mash them into patties and cook them in a skillet like a burger.

If you made a large pot of beans, let the beans cool in the cooking liquid, drain the cooking liquid and freeze the beans in small containers or plastic bags for future use.

Quick note 1 — If you forgot to soak your beans, don’t worry. Try the quick soak method. Put your beans in a pot and cover them with a few inches of water. Bring it to a boil, cover the pot, turn off the heat, and let the beans sit for at least half an hour. Then proceed with cooking the beans.

Quick note 2 — If you have canned beans, be sure to rinse and drain them well before using them to reduce the amount of salt in the beans.

Lentils: Dried lentils can be a mealtime staple. I use them in place of ground meats often. Rinse the lentils, add them to a pot of water, and simmer them uncovered for about 30 minutes. Try topping lentils with a fried egg over salad greens, or mix lentils with sloppy joe sauce or salsa and add to a baked sweet potato.

Pasta: White or whole grain pasta can be a great meal starter and a real comfort food. Whole grain pasta cooks for a few minutes longer than traditional white flour pasta. You can top pasta with just about anything to make it a meal. Try some of these combinations: canned tuna, onion or onion powder, celery, carrots and Italian dressing; crushed or canned tomatoes, garlic or garlic powder, white beans and canned, frozen or fresh spinach; peanut butter, cabbage, garlic powder, soy sauce, shredded carrots, hot sauce and canned chicken or cooked chicken breast.

Canned vegetables: They're just as good for you as fresh or frozen vegetables. Just be sure to rinse and drain them well to lower the salt content. Adding veggies to every meal is a great way to stay healthy and help boost your immune system. Vegetables are loaded with vitamins and minerals. Try adding veggies to eggs, pasta, rice, or ground meat when making burgers or meatloaf.

Canned fruit: They're also just as good for you as frozen or fresh fruits. Just be sure to rinse them well to reduce the added sugar. Adding fruit to each meal is a great way to stay healthy. Fruits are filled with vitamins and minerals that can help support a healthy immune system. Try fruit for dessert instead of cake or cookies.

If you have some pantry food finds that you aren’t sure how to use or make taste great, reach out to the SNAP-Ed team at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Niagara County. Find us on Facebook @cceniagaracounty or send an email to We will share some of your pantry finds and fixes on our Facebook page.

USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides nutrition assistance to people with low income. To find out more, go to or contact 1-800-342-3009.

Justine Hays is a lead nutritionist for Eat Smart NY Western Region, which is funded by SNAP. To find classes on how to make affordable, healthy meals, visit

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