Easy steps to making a delicious weeknight meal using what you’ve got on hand

Are you a strict recipe follower or do you like to experiment? Are you learning to cook for the first time or are you just trying to expand your kitchen repertoire? 

If you’re a recipe follower, great! You probably have less of those “well that didn’t work out like I planned” moments, but I like to follow my heart in the kitchen! I like to think of cooking as an art. The more you learn to follow your own instincts in the kitchen, the more fun you can have!

Wouldn’t it be amazing to turn the “ugh, what am I going to make for dinner?” thought into “Ooh! What am I going to create today?”

Here’s how I go about it…

What do I have on hand?

If I don’t already have a specific dish in mind I usually start by scanning my inventory. The first step should be seeing what fresh/perishable items you have in the fridge. Focus on using that item in your meal. 

Next, look in your pantry and at other ingredients you have on hand. Ask yourself, what would go well with what you found in the fridge?

Say you combed through the kitchen and this is what you found:

Fresh items:

Lettuce, sour cream, mushrooms, cheese, chicken, tomatoes

Freezer items

Frozen peas, broccoli


Quinoa, black beans, tuna, rice, canned corn, bread crumbs, coconut milk, chicken bouillon (concentrated broth), canned diced tomatoes

Classic spices, herbs & condiments: Olive Oil, butter, salt, pepper, garlic, paprika, onion powder, curry powder, cumin, red pepper flakes, italian seasoning, white wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, hot sauce etc…

Flavor and Balance

Next you want to think about what flavors you’re working with. For example, do your ingredients point towards mexican or asian flavors? 

The goal is to have a balanced flavor profile. That means, generally, you want to cover all these bases with your ingredients: 

sweet (ex: caramelized onions, carrots, honey)

acid (ex: lemon, vinegar, tomatoes)

bitter (ex: dark leafy greens, coffee)

salty (ex: salt, soy sauce, bacon)

umami ( aka savory, fatty- ex: mushrooms, seafood, meat) 

Think of BBQ sauce… it’s got all of those elements combined and the result is a deliciously balanced sauce! 

Important: Don’t be overwhelmed by following the rules!! Think of these as tips for success or guidelines. Remember, that’s the joy of cooking- have fun with it, make it your own! 

For each meal I strive for balance and variety- I typically aim to have something from each of the following categories: Grain/Carb, Protein, Vegetable, and a Sauce or Topping. 

Do any meals ideas come to mind? Are you looking at that list thinking, “what in the world can I make with all that random stuff, and without a recipe?” 

Fear not! Watch a few episodes on Food Network or Tastemade, you’ll be feeling inspired before you know it! If you’re on a budget, I LOVE the series Struggle Meals on Tastemade. This show takes a very similar approach to cooking as I do, it’s a great and fun resource!

Recipe Ideas

Here are some examples of what you could make with the above ingredients in your inventory:

♦ Healthy Mexican inspired bowl with Quinoa, black beans, grilled chicken, shredded lettuce- top with sour cream, cheese, tomatoes, cilantro and hot sauce!

♦ Tuna and rice casserole with frozen peas or broccoli and topped with bread crumbs

♦ Coconut Chicken Curry with broccoli and mushrooms served over rice with fresh herbs

♦ Southwestern Chicken Soup with black beans, corn, rice, tomatoes (canned or fresh), chicken, chicken bouillon, topped with sour cream, cheese, cilantro and hot sauce

♦ Green salad topped with quinoa and chicken. You can make a creamy salad dressing by mixing sour cream with finely chopped fresh herbs and lime juice.

More tips for success

Everytime I make rice or quinoa, I add bouillon (chicken, beef or veggie) to the water, this is a simple way to really take it up a notch!

Seasoning canned beans goes a long way! For example, in the mexican inspired bowl above, I would add cumin, paprika and garlic then heat on the stove to dissolve any grainy bits.

Garlic and onion are a great base for almost every cooked dish!

Nearly all recipes benefit from fresh herbs. I ALWAYS have fresh parsley and cilantro in my fridge or growing on the counter! 

Taste as you go, listen to your taste buds and instincts when seasoning! If it’s tasting kind of bland… add salt! Salt helps bring out all the other flavors in the dish.

Goodluck and HAVE FUN!


If you found this post useful, feel free to share it using the buttons on the right! And if you make something using my tips- please comment, I’d love to hear what you came up with! 🙂



  • Vanessa

    I am just getting back into healthy living and meal planning and preparation. This was super helpful, thank you so much for sharing. I love the way you broke down the flavor profiles and added in some recipes. I will certainly be referring back to this post.

    • Kate

      Awesome! So glad you found it useful! Goodluck getting back on the healthy food train! I find it SO much easier when I meal plan for the week and have everything I need for healthy recipes so I don’t veer to far my good intentions haha

  • Beckie

    Thanks for this! I needed the encouragement. Although I like to follow recipes, I rarely have everything on hand when it is time to cook! I feel more empowed to find new combinations with what I already have and feel more comfortable doing so with your recommendations regarding balance.

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