Coronavirus Lock Down: Meal Ideas When the Cupboard is Bare

We’re all trying to get through the COVID-19 scare. And that means less food shopping and more making do. Here are some ideas from the managing editor of Tufts’ Health and Nutrition Letter when you’re down to a few boxes of pasta.

Pasta mixed with vegetables is one way to create a dish.

If you mix pasta with whatever else you have on hand, you can create a creative, delicious dish.

Anna_Shepulova | iStock/Getty Images Plus

One thing we typically have a lot of in our pantries is pasta! “Pasta is the staple carbohydrate source in the Mediterranean diet,” says Nicola M. McKeown, PhD, associate professor at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “Considering that evidence consistently supports the health benefits of a Mediterranean-style dietary pattern, I think pasta can be part of a healthy diet provided you are conscious about your portion size.”

Pasta is the perfect base for dishes hot and cold and it pairs well with just about everything. By mixing cooked pasta with whatever is on hand, one can create a wide variety of creative, delicious meals, miles from the everyday spaghetti with red sauce or macaroni and cheese. Here some ideas that use only non-perishable foods one might find lurking in freezers and on pantry shelves:

  • With canned tuna or chicken, canned cream soup, and canned or frozen peas, you have the makings of a family-friendly casserole.
  • Or toss the tuna with cold pasta, beans, and canned (or thawed frozen) veggies and coat with bottled dressing or a homemade vinaigrette for a tasty salad.
  • Use black or chili beans, corn, and salsa for a Mexican flair.
  • Make a lo-mein-style stir fry with spaghetti, whatever veggies are on hand, and a dash of soy. Add edamame, shrimp, chicken, or beef if you have it.
  • Cook smaller pasta shapes with chicken broth, canned diced tomatoes, and beans for a hearty pasta fagioli soup.
  • Stir canned anchovies into diced tomatoes with capers and olives for an out-of-this-world pasta Puttanesca.

Feeling inspired yet? The options below can help you come up with your own meal ideas. If possible, include a protein, plenty of vegetables, and a flavorful sauce.

Proteins: Beans, canned seafood (tuna, salmon, clams, anchovies, crab, shrimp), and canned chicken or ham are all great tossed into pasta dishes, hot or cold. Cheese is a protein option as well if you have it. And don’t forget about nut butters! (Yes, really. See Sauces below.)

Add-ins: All kinds of canned vegetables (like peas, carrots, corn, tomatoes, and olives) are great mixed into pasta dishes. Those marinated artichoke hearts, capers, or sundried tomatoes you bought but never used add wonderful flavor. Moving out of the pantry, frozen vegetables are always a great addition to pasta dishes.

Sauces: If you run out of jarred red sauce, move on to cans of diced or stewed tomatoes – whole or pureed. Add some of those herbs and spices languishing on the spice rack. Oregano, basil, garlic or onion powder, and ground black are some classics, but many other dried herbs would work well too. Try red pepper flakes or a bit of cayenne if you like to kick it up a notch!

Move away from tomatoes by using other pantry staples. Drizzle pasta with olive oil. Dress a pasta salad using bottled vinaigrette (or shake up your own by mixing three parts olive or other non-tropical plant oil and one part vinegar plus herbs and spices). Puree canned beans (with the liquid) for a rich pasta topping. That can or jar of olives, roasted red peppers, or sun-dried tomatoes make great add-ins, but can also be pureed to make an amazing sauce.

For a real change of pace, try peanut butter mixed with a bit of oil and some low-sodium soy sauce over a low heat for the base of a satay-style Asian sauce. Use plenty of garlic if you have it and spice it up with some red pepper flakes of Sriracha if you like it hot. Or mix that can of pumpkin puree with evaporated milk, nutmeg, pepper, and garlic powder.

With a little imagination and a box of pasta, whatever you have on hand can become an appealing, satisfying, healthy meal.

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Judith C. Thalhaimer, RD, LDN

Judith C. Thalheimer, a registered dietition nutritionist, has been managing editor of Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter since 2018. Before taking this position, she was a regular contributor to Today’s … Read More

View all posts by Judith C. Thalhaimer, RD, LDN

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