Off-the-Cuff cooking: 13 ingredients to have on hand

What I keep in my closet for side cooking |  Wit & Delight
Photos of Sonja Overhiser at A Couple Cooks

Editor’s Note: This post, first published January 2021, is here to tackle your last minute meal troubles. Keep these ingredients on hand and you’ll never wonder what’s for dinner again.

This is the weird thing about being a cookbook author and recipe writer. For everyday cooking, I rarely follow a recipe. Yes, my husband Alex and I are professional recipe developers but when it comes to it, most of our meals are completely take off the cuffs. Honestly, that’s our secret to long-term, healthy, plant-based eating. Make a few recipes each week, then fill in the rest with impromptu cooking!

Of course, cooking this way requires confidence in the kitchen. But the more you learn the basic building blocks and meal concepts, the more creative and confident you can become! So to start the year off, here’s the master list of the basic ingredients we keep and a few simple recipes to illustrate each ingredient. Remember: These are just ideas and examples. Customize them to your taste, diet and what you have on hand!

Food ingredients (& recipe ideas!)

Let’s start with the actual pantry, then move on to the fridge. Here are my top picks to stay up to date:

Canned beans

Beans contain a lot of vegetable protein and can be eaten right away with no preparation required! There are so many quick and easy meals you can make with these electrics; Here are some favorites:

Couscous (& other pasta)

Sure, we all know pasta is great to save for quick meals. But a secret that some people don’t know is: couscous! It cooks in just five minutes, making it the perfect dish for a simple dinner. Use standard tercous or pearl couscous, larger and ball-shaped. Try it in:

Farro, quinoa and rice

Whole grains are covered to keep sides easy. Some of our favorites: farroa chewy grain like barley cooked in half the time, and quinoa, a fluff that encapsulates that ubiquitous protein. A new favorite alternative to rice: lentil rice, made with lentils and cooked in half the time. (Here are some options.) Try them like:


Lentils are another staple ingredient high in plant-based protein and fiber. They are great as a side dish or for a meal of bowls or banh tet. We love them in a salad or for lunch! Eat them like:

Canned Tuna (really!)

Keeping tuna on hand sounds classic? Because if so, we’re all talking about a 1970s pantry full of canned tuna. Why? It’s packed with protein, is super stable and helps fill meals. Try it in:


Oatmeal fuels us most of the day and it’s ideal for a healthy whole grain breakfast! It’s also great for light meals. Some of our favorite ways to eat it off the cuff:

Old Bay (secret weapon!)

There’s nothing like Old Bay for impromptu spice! This classic seafood condiment includes paprika, celery seeds, and lots of secret herbs that always stand out. Get it at the grocery store or make your own.

What I keep in my closet for side cooking |  Wit & Delight

Refrigerator ingredients (& recipe ideas!)


Skip them for breakfast and save your eggs for dinner! Eggs are full of protein and should be part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. Some of our favorites are:


Must have them for all those pancakes! And don’t forget the quick and wrapped quesadillas and burritos. Most of the time, getting a quick quesadilla loads faster than buying takeout or fast food.


The vegetable of choice today is broccoli: It is packed with nutrients and is the perfect addition to all kinds of meals. Try it in a throw together meal:

Green vegetables: kale or spinach

Throw a few handfuls of greens at just about anything for good! Pre-packaged young greens are handy for quick meals. We throw them in soups, stews, stir-fries, stir-fries, meals in bowls, and of course: smoothies.

Tofu or tempeh

You don’t have to be vegan to enjoy these delicious proteins. Tofu is part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. Tempeh is less well known but is our favourite, as it has a stronger texture and flavor. Try it in:

Smoked Shoyu (secret weapon!)

Finally, here’s a spice secret weapon: smoked soy sauce (aka smoked shoyu)! It is becoming more widely available at grocery stores: check near Japanese products. The rich smoky flavor is incredible for use in recipes other than the cuff as a condiment. Feel free to toss it into any of the recipes above.

What I keep in my closet for side cooking |  Wit & Delight
Broccoli makes great impromptu meals.

And that’s it: a little recap of some of our favorites! Again, the recipes above are meant as guides. Use them to customize your own experience based on the ingredients you have on hand.

Tell us: What do you do according to the “off-the-cuff” formula? What do you like to keep in your pantry and refrigerator? Let us know in the comments below!

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