Just 9 Really Easy “Emergency Meals” I Rely On When My Stomach Is As Empty As My Wallet

Just 9 Really Easy “Emergency Meals” I Rely On When My Stomach Is As Empty As My Wallet

Just 9 Really Easy “Emergency Meals” I Rely On When My Stomach Is As Empty As My Wallet

I don’t know about you, but I’ve just about had it with grocery shopping — and that’s coming from someone who considers himself a pretty savvy shopper. Maybe it’s the reality of lugging a hulking tote bag in each hand on the subway in steamy NYC summer weather. Or perhaps it’s the fact that even some of the cheapest recipes I love require so much money (and so many ingredients!) just to make a few measly servings. Either way, I’m low-key sick of it, and I’ve been in a big cooking rut as a result.

Woman receiving a packaged food delivery with a smile at her doorwayWoman receiving a packaged food delivery with a smile at her doorway

Rockaa / Getty Images

So, lately, when I manage not to give into the always looming desire to say screw it all and grab some takeout, I’ve been relying on what I like to call “emergency meals.” Basically, they’re all made possible by keeping a handful of cost-effective, long-lasting, and versatile ingredients in my kitchen at all times. By minimizing the number of ingredients I’m buying during each grocery run and focusing on foods that won’t go totally rotten a few days after you buy them, I’ve been enjoying cooking a whole lot more — and it’s saved me some pretty serious money, too.

When I say “emergency,” I’m not talking about those “just add water” meals intended for true life-or-death situations; I’m talking about homemade meals for those all too common moments in life when dinner or lunchtime rolls around, your stomach grumbles, and you peer into your rather empty-looking kitchen just to discover that there’s no way in hell you can come up with a meal. Your options: a run to the grocery store (expensive and annoying), dining out, or takeout (even more expensive…but fun!). With food costs being what they are these days, I know firsthand that these situations often do feel pretty dire.

To me, a proper emergency meal needs to meet three very important criteria. First, it must be easy enough to make on a chaotic weeknight. Second, it’s got to be cost-effective — duh. Third (since an emergency meal relies almost entirely on staple foods), if it does require new ingredients, they must be minimal and easy enough to grab on an in-and-out grocery run. If the definition of emergency meal still isn’t clear enough, behold this completely unnecessary flowchart.

Close-up of a wooden surface showcasing various wood grain patterns and texturesClose-up of a wooden surface showcasing various wood grain patterns and textures

Breakingthewalls / Getty Images

So, what ingredients am I even suggesting you keep around to make these meals possible? In my own home, these are the pantry, freezer, and fridge staples that make every meal in this roundup possible; the core ingredients below (all of which have a pretty solid shelf- or fridge-life, BTW) can be combined with just one or two “new” ingredients to become a full-blown meal. If it sounds too good to be true, believe me, it’s not!

Pantry:

• Pasta (like orzo, fettuccine, and/or shelf-stable gnocchi)

• Rice and other quick-cooking grains

• Garlic & onions

• Canned chickpeas and black beans

• Full-fat coconut milk

• Chicken stock (or Better Than Bouillon)

Freezer:

• Frozen spinach

• Bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

• Shelled edamame

• Frozen, breaded fish fillets

• Sliced Korean rice cakes

Fridge:

• Parmesan cheese

• Feta cheese

• Cottage cheese

• Tortillas, pita, and bread (yes, I keep these in the fridge; they last longer!)

• Tofu

• Plain Greek yogurt

• Cabbage

• White miso paste

Below, you’ll find my nine absolute favorite emergency meals that check all the boxes, and they range from dishes impressive enough to impress guests (see #2) to solo meals you can whip up for yourself in under 15 minutes (see #9).

1.Crispy Gnocchi & Edamame — If you ever need a high-protein dinner, a Grace Elkus recipe will always deliver. This one just so happens to be the lowest of low-effort, too, and fitting for this roundup, it’s almost entirely made of fridge, freezer, and pantry staples.

Hand holding a white bowl of gnocchi with peas and grated cheese over a stove with a frying pan nearbyHand holding a white bowl of gnocchi with peas and grated cheese over a stove with a frying pan nearby

In her recipe, Grace uses mini gnocchi, but if you can’t find ’em, regular-sized gnocchi will be just fine. Shelf-stable gnocchi is the way to go here over frozen gnocchi, too; the former crisps up really nicely in a skillet, no boiling required, which saves you time while cooking and, later, cleaning. It’s a one skillet wonder.

Pan of gnocchi and peas cooking on a stovetopPan of gnocchi and peas cooking on a stovetop

Ross Yoder

🍴 You can find the recipe for crispy gnocchi & edamame here. Honestly, it’s already a true “emergency meal” — no ingredient swaps necessary!

Just as a preview, though, here’s what you’ll need to make it:

Pantry, fridge, or freezer staples:

• Frozen shelled edamame

• Cottage cheese

• Feta cheese

• Garlic

• Shelf-stable gnocchi

• Grated parm

Buy fresh:

• Fresh herbs (like chives or parsley)

• Lemon

2.Miso Butter Quick-Braised Chicken Thighs — IMO, “marinating” and “emergency meal” cannot exist in the same sentence. Like, having the time or forethought to marinate a protein inherently contradicts the nature of an emergency! So here, crispy chicken thighs quickly braise in a salty-funky miso butter sauce, which provides all the flavor of a solid marinade without any of the pre-planning.

Four seasoned pork chops cooking in a skillet on a stoveFour seasoned pork chops cooking in a skillet on a stove

🍴 Here’s how to make them:

[Serves ~3–4]

Pantry, fridge, or freezer staples:

• 6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (defrosted, if frozen)

• 3 tablespoons white miso paste

• 5-ish garlic cloves, smashed

• 3 tablespoons butter, cut into small chunks

• Rice vinegar or white wine

Buy fresh:

• 1 bunch scallions, roughly chopped

How to make them:

1. Preheat oven to 400ºF. Pat chicken dry and season all over with salt and pepper.

2. Place a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the seasoned chicken skin-side down and cook until the skin is crispy, about 8–10 minutes. Turn the chicken over so they’re skin-side up, and turn off the heat.

3. In a jar or other vessel with a tight-fitting lid, combine the miso with 1/3 cup warm water by shaking until completely combined. Pour the mixture into the skillet all around the chicken thighs. Scatter the scallionssmashed garlic, and chunks of butter all over the saucy chicken, then drizzle with a few splashes of rice vinegar. Bake for 13–15 minutes or until the meat is cooked through.

4. Serve each piece of chicken with LOTS of miso butter sauce. It’s (very obviously) the best part and tastes especially delish with some bread or rice to mop everything up. To keep this dish “emergency-approved,” serve alongside some steamed frozen veggies for an extremely low-effort meal.

3.Tofu with Spicy Soy Garlic Sauce — When the weather gets hot, this no-cook dish will always save the day. Served with some warm leftover rice, the contrasting temperatures delight my tastebuds every time, and not having to turn on the stove is the biggest blessing of all.

Plate of rice with tofu topped with green onions and sauce on a wooden tablePlate of rice with tofu topped with green onions and sauce on a wooden table

🍴 Here’s my “emergency method” for tofu with spicy soy garlic sauce:

[Serves 2]

Pantry, fridge, or freezer staples:

• 1 block medium or firm tofu (cold or room-temperature)

• Soy sauce

• Rice vinegar

• Sesame oil

• Chili oil or chili crisp

• 2 cloves garlic, minced

• White sugar

• White rice (either freshly made or leftover, warmed)

Buy fresh:

• 4 scallions, thinly sliced

How to make it:

1. Drain your block of tofu and pat dry. Slice into large cubes (about 1″ in size, but it’s not an exact science).

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, chili oil, and garlic (measure all of it with your heart), plus a little sprinkle of sugar. Toss the tofu in the sauce and allow to sit for a few minutes.

3. If you’re making rice fresh, do that now! Otherwise, microwave some leftover rice until warm. Serve the saucy, cold tofu over the warm rice and spoon any extra sauce overtop.

Note: If you’d rather make it the real way, you can find the actual recipe for spicy cold tofu (or liangban tofuhere from Woks of Life.

4.Kale Sauce Pasta — When I’m in the mood for good pasta but my dwindling food budget suggests I should chow down on a packet of instant ramen instead, I turn to this packed-with-greens dinner that combines the creamy goodness of mac ‘n’ cheese with the incomparable vibes that can only come from downing a quarter pound of kale.

Hand holding a bowl of pasta with green sauce and grated cheeseHand holding a bowl of pasta with green sauce and grated cheese

Frankly, this recipe consists of all pantry staples except one: the kale. That said, you can skip grabbing a bunch of kale at the store if you keep a one-pound bag of frozen kale, or even spinach, in your freezer. You likely won’t get the same vibrantly green result, but it’ll still taste lip-smackingly delicious.

Pasta being cooked in a pot with tongsPasta being cooked in a pot with tongs

Ross Yoder

🍴 Here’s my “emergency method” for kale sauce pasta:

[Serves ~4]

Pantry, fridge, or freezer staples:

• Garlic

• Olive oil

• 1 lb. pasta

• Parmesan cheese

Buy fresh:

• ~1 lb. kale (or swap in frozen)

How to make it:

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, sauté some chopped garlic (measure with your heart) in olive oil for just a minute or two until fragrant.

2. Remove the tough ribs from one bunch of kale and simmer in the boiling water until wilted and tender, 3–4 minutes.

3. Cook a pound of pasta in the same boiling, salted water until al dente, then drain, reserving about one cup of the pasta water.

4. Add the tender kale to a blender using tongs, and pour in the garlic and oil mixture, along with a splash of the boiling water, salt, and pepper. Blend until totally smooth; remove the small cap from the lid and cover with a kitchen towel to allow steam to release.

5. Combine the kale sauce with the cooked pasta in the same pot and top with grated parmesan cheese if you have it on hand. Perhaps even a little drizzle of olive oil! Garnish as you choose.

Note: If you’d rather make it the real way, you can find the actual recipe for kale sauce pasta here, adapted by Home Cooking Collective.

5.TJ’s Shortcut Korean Rice Cakes with Garlicky Cabbage — While it may look pretty beige, this meal actually has lots of veggies. Warning: Once you make it a point to keep a bag of these sliced Korean rice cakes in your freezer, you’ll never go back.

A person holding a bowl of cooked pasta with ground meat, being served from a panA person holding a bowl of cooked pasta with ground meat, being served from a pan

🍴 Here’s how to make it:

[Serves 4–6]

Pantry, fridge, or freezer staples:

• 1 package TJ’s (or non-TJ’s) sliced Korean rice cakes, frozen

• Neutral oil (like avocado or canola)

• 1 block extra-firm tofu, drained and pat dry

• 1 large carrot, shredded

• 1 package TJ’s stir-fried garlicky cabbage

• Your favorite teriyaki sauce

Optional: Sriracha

How to make it:

1. Bring about an inch of water to a boil in a large skillet, then add the frozen rice cakes, breaking them up as needed. Simmer for 4-5 minutes or until softened, then drain, reserving about a 1/4 cup of the starchy water.

2. Return the skillet to medium-high heat. Once dry, add some oil and crumble the tofu into small pieces. Sauté the tofu in the oil until it turns golden, around 5–6 minutes. In the last 2 minutes of cooking, add the shredded carrot.

3. Meanwhile, reheat the garlicky cabbage in your microwave according to package instructions.

4. Once the tofu is golden and the carrots have slightly softened, add the reheated cabbage and drained rice cakes to the skillet, tossing with a few good glugs of your favorite teriyaki sauce, the reserved starchy cooking water, and a drizzle of sriracha, if you’d like. Stir everything together until the sauce is thickened, around 3–4 minutes.

6.Buffalo Chickpea Cauliflower Wraps — A vegan and flavorful smash hit from the Plant-Based RD, I love making these filling wraps (or even pita pockets) whenever lunch or dinnertime hangriness inevitably rolls around. Though the actual version is a true 10/10, the quicker “emergency” method is also quite delicious, IMO.

Two pita tacos filled with sautéed cauliflower, carrots, and cabbage, served on a black plateTwo pita tacos filled with sautéed cauliflower, carrots, and cabbage, served on a black plate

🍴 Here’s my “emergency method” for buffalo chickpea cauliflower wraps:

[Makes ~4 wraps or ~8 smaller pita pockets]

Pantry, fridge, or freezer staples:

• 1 15-ounce can chickpeas (drained, rinsed, pat dry)

• Olive oil

• 2 teaspoons garlic powder

• 2 teaspoons smoked paprika

• 1/4 cup Frank’s Red Hot (or another buffalo sauce of your choosing)

• Maple syrup

• Burrito-sized tortillas or pita bread

• 1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt

Buy fresh:

• 1 head cauliflower, chopped into small florets

• Greens of your choice (baby spinach, shredded carrots, or even bagged slaw mix)

How to make them:

1. Preheat oven to 425ºF and combine chickpeas and cauliflower with 2 tablespoons olive oil and the garlic powder, paprika, and salt and pepper to taste. Roast until they’re golden brown and the chickpeas are crisp, around 20–30 minutes.

2. While the chickpeas and cauliflower roast, combine yogurt, buffalo sauce, and a splash of maple syrup in a medium bowl using a whisk. Fold in the roasted chickpeas and cauliflower until nicely coated.

3. To serve, top your tortilla (or fill your pita pockets) with your greens of choice and a heaping spoonful of the buffalo chickpea mixture. Wrap everything up and devour!

Note: If you’d rather make it the real way, you can find the actual recipe for buffalo chickpea cauliflower wraps here.

7.“Cheater” Fish Tacos — The frozen, breaded cod fillets at Trader Joe’s make, and I’m really not exaggerating here, one of the best fish tacos you could ever create in your own kitchen.

Two fish tacos served on corn tortillas, topped with shredded cheese, radish slices, and a side of lime wedges on a white plateTwo fish tacos served on corn tortillas, topped with shredded cheese, radish slices, and a side of lime wedges on a white plate

🍴 Here’s how to make them:

[Serves 2]

Pantry, fridge, or freezer staples:

• 4 Trader Joe’s frozen breaded cod fillets (or: fish sticks!)

• Green cabbage

• Olive oil

• Mayo

• Hot sauce of choice (preferably chipotle-based)

• Corn or flour tortillas

Buy fresh:

• 2–3 limes

How to make them:

1. Pop your frozen breaded cod fillets into the air fryer or oven and cook according to package instructions.

2. To make your quick slaw, finely shred cabbage (as much as you’d like) and combine it with a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of fresh lime juice, and some salt to taste. You can add other finely shredded veggies if you’d like, like radishes or carrots, but it’s up to you.

3. Once the fish is cooked through, remove it from your oven or air fryer and sprinkle with salt. For extra flavor, you can even sprinkle with chili powder, oregano, and/or cumin.

4. Mix together a spoonful of mayo with a decent amount of your favorite hot sauce; I dig a chipotle-based hot sauce for this, so you end up with a quick chipotle mayo-like condiment.

5. Warm some tortillas, swoop a spoonful of your hot sauced mayo on top, then top with your crispy fish and slaw. Serve with lime wedges for squeezing.

8.Pastina-Style Creamy Orzo and Spinach — I’ve been making pastina for years, but one of my favorite twists is substituting toothsome orzo in place of tinier pasta shapes for a meal that feels heartier while still coming together in under 15 minutes.

A bowl of creamy spinach soup with a spoon in it, shown from above. There is a bar of butter and some kitchen items in the backgroundA bowl of creamy spinach soup with a spoon in it, shown from above. There is a bar of butter and some kitchen items in the background

🍴 Here’s how to make it:

[Serves 1, but doubles or quadruples easily!]

Pantry, fridge, or freezer staples:

• 2 tablespoons butter

• 1/2 cup orzo

• 2 cups chicken stock (or Better Than Bouillon diluted with water)

•  3/4 cup frozen chopped spinach

• 1 egg, beaten

• 2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese

How to make it:

1. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small saucepan and add orzo. Toast the orzo over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until it begins to brown and smell nutty.

2. Add the chicken stock and spinach and reduce heat to low to bring the mixture to a gentle simmer. Cook for just about 10 minutes, or until the orzo is cooked through and the “soup” has reached a porridge-like consistency.

3. Off the heat, stir in the remaining tablespoon of butter, followed by the beaten egg; stir quickly so the egg doesn’t curdle. Then, stir in the grated parmesan. Taste for seasoning and add some salt and pepper if you’d like.

4. Spoon into a bowl and top with more parmesan if your heart desires.

9.Creamy Curried Spinach and Tofu — I’ve been making this weeknight-friendly vegetarian meal for years, but lately, I’ve become quite fond of the “emergency” version, which basically just requires dumping ingredients into one pot and waiting.

A white bowl with rice and palak paneer, an Indian dish with spinach and cheese cubes, placed on a wooden surfaceA white bowl with rice and palak paneer, an Indian dish with spinach and cheese cubes, placed on a wooden surface

🍴 Here’s my “emergency method” for creamy curried spinach and tofu:

[Serves 6]

Pantry, fridge, or freezer staples:

• 1 13-ounce can full-fat coconut milk

• 1 16-ounce package extra-firm (or super-firm) tofu, pat dry and cut into 1-inch cubes

• 1 lb. frozen chopped spinach

• 1 tablespoon curry powder

• 1 teaspoon sugar

• 2 teaspoons garlic powder

• 2 teaspoons onion powder

• 1/4 cup heavy cream or Greek yogurt

• White rice, cooked

How to make it:

1. Add coconut milk, cubed tofu, frozen spinach, curry powder, 1 cup water, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, sugar, garlic powder, and onion powder to a medium saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Place over medium-high heat.

2. Once simmering, reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring frequently, until the spinach is very soft and the curry has thickened considerably. Off the heat, stir in the heavy cream or Greek yogurt.

3. To serve, spoon into bowls alongside steamed rice.

Note: If you’d rather make it the real way, you can find the actual recipe for creamy curried spinach and tofu here.

What’s the simple, minimal-effort meal that you always keep ingredients around to make? Tell me about it in the comments or DM me — and let me know if you try any of these “emergency meals” yourself.