Tips for Turning Pantry Staples Into a Fun, Cheap Dinner

Posted by Kristen on October 8, 2014

What do you have in your pantry right now? There are certain items that you always have on hand, right? Maybe it is canned soup, pasta, marinara sauce in a jar, or whatever other convenience products you like to turn to.

Stop wasting food and turn those pantry items into a fun and inexpensive meal.

by: Kristen

Photo Credit: Kristen

Identify Staples You Keep on Hand

For me, two products that I continuously have on hand are boxed pancake mix and boxed macaroni and cheese. It sounds a little bizarre since they are both completely different, but that is what I have. They are cheap, quick to make, and two things I like. Since they have a long shelf life, I stock up with they’re on sale, which is quite often. I don’t have any loyalty to a particular brand so I just buy whatever is cheapest.

Use Your Staples in Different Recipes

With that being said, as much as I like these two items, they could get a little boring after a while. So instead of tossing out my giant stash of pancake mix and mac n’ cheese, I started trying to create different recipes out of them. A lot of times, I simply use other things I have around the house in the fridge or in the pantry. Spicing up these items is a great way to save money on groceries because you are using up your leftovers.

Examples Using My Pantry Staples

Using my pantry staples as an example, here are some of my favorite things I’ve added to pancakes and mac n’ cheese to give you some inspiration.


Pancakes are a favorite for breakfast. They are a classic. You can often find premade boxed pancake mix on sale or for a low price at the store. You can buy a whole box and syrup for less than one pancake meal at a restaurant would cost you. You can also make your own if you think it would be more cost effective. While regular, traditional pancakes are great, sometimes you want to try something different. Here are some suggestions to make great pancakes that are completely different and still affordable:

  • Mix in an array of berries like blueberries, raspberries, sliced strawberries, or blackberries.
  • Stir in baked apples and a touch of cinnamon for pancakes that taste like apple pie.
  • Chop banana slices, and mix them in.
  • Add banana slices and chopped walnuts for a banana bread tasting pancake.
  • Mix in sliced bananas and sliced strawberries.
  • Add blueberries and banana.
  • Instead of topping with maple syrup, try topping with powdered sugar instead.
  • For more of a dessert pancake, top with store bought or homemade icing.
  • For a birthday party pancake, top with icing (either homemade or store bought). Then top with colorful sprinkles.
  • For a dessert pancake, top with vanilla ice cream and caramel.
  • Add chocolate chips.
  • Mix chopped pineapple into the pancake mix.
  • Add peanut butter and chocolate chips.
  • Mix in peanut butter. Top with your favorite kind of jelly for a different kind of peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
  • Add sliced peaches.
  • Stir in canned pear slices.
  • Make smaller sized pancakes as little silver dollar pancakes.
  • Have a pancake bar. Make plain pancakes and then let your family and friends top it with different sliced fruits, nuts, or whatever else you’d like to top it with.
  • For dessert, add chocolate chips. Top with a scoop of chocolate ice cream and then a bit of chocolate syrup for a chocolate lovers pancake.
  • Mix in marshmallows, some ground up graham crackers and chocolate chips for s’more pancakes. It’s the delicious camping and summer time favorite you can make right in the house.

Mac n’ Cheese

I adore mac n’ cheese. It’s always so quick and simple to make. But again, eating plain, original mac n’ cheese can get a little boring after a while. So I started trying to make it better by turning it into an entirely different meal with other ingredients I had around the house, including leftovers. I had so much luck and fun with the idea that I wrote an entire cookbook about it. My book, Mac n’ Cheese to the Rescue, features 101 recipes to turn boxed mac n’ cheese into something entirely different. The recipes are budget friendly and delicious. Since kids love mac n’ cheese, mixing other things in the dish can introduce them to new foods and get them to expand their taste buds. Since I ate a lot of plain, boring mac n’ cheese in college in a dorm room, I decided to also add some recipes you can make in the microwave to make it better. Here are some ways to spice up mac n’ cheese:

  • Add cooked, chopped broccoli and cooked shredded chicken.
  • Add cooked jarred pasta sauce (such as marinara, tomato basil, or whatever other types of pasta sauce you enjoy) and your favorite Italian cheese (like parmesan, mozzarella, asiago, or whatever else you have on hand or what is on sale).
  • Add cooked taco meat (ground beef, ground turkey, and shredded chicken all work great) and your favorite taco toppings like tomato, onion, sour cream, salsa and top with shredded lettuce.
  • Add cooked, crisp bacon for a bacon mac n’ cheese. You can also opt for turkey bacon for a little bit of a healthier option.
  • Add cooked, shredded chicken, and stir in your favorite type of barbecue sauce. You can top with some French fried onions for a barbecue chicken style mac n’ cheese.
  • Add cream of mushroom soup, canned tuna, and chopped onions for a cheesier version of tuna casserole.
  • If you have leftover meatloaf on hand, you can cut it up and add it to the mac n’ cheese. You can add some cooked, leftover beef gravy or even a little ketchup if you prefer.
  • Add jarred, prepared pesto sauce, shredded, cooked chicken, and some of your favorite Italian cheeses like parmesan or romano cheese.
  • Add cooked, leftover chili for a simple chili mac. You can top your chili mac with the same things you do for chili like sour cream, chopped onions, or cilantro.

What else can you add to pancakes and to macaroni and cheese to jazz them up and make them different? Which one of these additions would you like to try next time you’re making pancakes and macaroni and cheese?

More Ways to Save on Groceries

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