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Cook With What You Have

Cook With What You Have

By Natalie Bickford, MS

Cook more with less

As we all sit at home during this quarantine either alone or with friends or family, we are forced to get creative -- think of games, tasks and projects to keep us busy and ways to help and connect with others virtually. This creativity also extends in the kitchen where we are being forced to learn how to improvise based on what we can find at the grocery stores and in our own kitchens. 

Being able to create a meal with whatever ingredients are in front of you is a skill that will save you time and money. Being able to follow a recipe is a great skill, but to be able to look at a recipe and know how to make substitutions to cook with what you have just takes a little practice. When it comes to recipes, it’s more important to learn the technique behind the recipe than the actual recipe itself. That way, you can apply those techniques using different ingredients. Over time, it will make cooking a lot more fun, less stressful and you’ll become a way more confident cook.

Kitchen staples for easy meals

Here is a list of bare minimum kitchen staples that I always like to have on hand so that I always know I can throw a meal together in a pinch.





Whole grains


Nuts + seeds



Canned tomatoes

Sardines, tuna

Dark chocolate

Plain whole milk yogurt

Salty cheese (parmesan, feta)



Dijon mustard 

Mellow white miso paste






Potatoes, Yams



Hearty greens (kale, chard, collards)



Frozen fruit

Frozen sliced bread

Frozen bananas

Frozen spinach/vegetables

Chicken, ground beef, fish

Frozen muffins, soups, sauces, etc...

How to repurpose staples into different meals: beans 5 ways!

People are stocking up on lots of non-perishables like dried beans, rice, lentils, canned soups, etc… You have a big batch of beans and rice in the fridge because you know those will sustain you and they’re inexpensive. While eating beans and rice with salsa, avocado and chips is delicious, you’re probably getting pretty bored of it. What else could you make?

5 Ways to Eat Beans

  • Puree the beans into a soup to make it creamy.
  • Mix the beans with herbs or spices, oil, vinegar and salt and mash it onto toast for a filling snack or meal with a simple salad.
  • Add beans and/or rice to a frittata or omelette for fiber, protein and carbs
  • Puree beans with garlic, olive oil, some kind of acid (vinegars, lemon, lime),  salt, spices/herbs and nuts/seeds to make a yummy, creamy dip or sauce.
  • Mix the rice and beans together with an egg, spices/herbs, breadcrumbs (or oats or almond flour), and finely chopped veggies. Form into patties and fry them in a pan to make veggie patties.

Tips for making substitutions in recipes

Knowing how to make substitutions in a recipe based on what you have is a skill that will benefit you now and in the long term. You can bend the rules in most recipes and still have a delicious result. If a recipe calls for an ingredient that you don’t have, think about ‘what is the purpose of that ingredient?’ and ‘what else could I use to accomplish the same purpose?’. Is it adding crunch? Flavor? Heat? Acid? Fat? Nuttiness? Freshness? Etc… ‘What else could I add to create the same effect?’.

Favorite Adaptable Run Fast. Eat Slow. recipes 

RFCFES = Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow.

RFES = Run Fast. Eat Slow.

DIY Grain Salad (RFCFES, p. 95)

This recipe is more of a guide on how to make a grain salad with any vegetables and grains you have on hand. You could even use pasta, orzo or couscous instead of whole grains. You can dress it with any kind of vinaigrette and it will be delicious. If you’re out of nuts and seeds, just add something crunchy, like chopped raw vegetable (carrot, radish, cabbage) or just sprinkle the salad with crushed tortilla chips. 

Slow Cooker Beef and Lentil Minestrone (RFCFES, p. 115)

Minestrone is one of the most adaptable soups. It’s defined as a thick italian soup made with vegetables and pasta or rice. The rest is up to you! You can skip the beef entirely and just add extra lentils. Don’t have vegetable broth? Just use water and add more salt than what’s called for. You can add any vegetables you want to this, just make sure to consider the cook time for each vegetable. For example, you could add potatoes early on but wait until the end to add things like kale, spinach, zucchini, green beans, etc...

Superfoods Soup (RFCFES, p. 112)

No coconut milk? No problem! Puree the beans and/or sweet potatoes with some of the broth and stir back into the soup to make it creamy. No chickpeas? Use ANY bean you have on hand or skip them all together, just try to add protein in another form if you can (shredded or ground meat or top with a couple fried or boiled eggs). Don’t like curry powder? Skip it all together and add some garlic and ginger instead. 

Eat The Rainbow Stir-Fry (RFCFES, p. 142)

One of my favorite ways to use up veggie scraps and leftover grains is a stir-fry. This recipe gives you a guide and ideas for different vegetables you can use.

Power Bowls (RFCFES, p. 122)

Making Power Bowls is probably our favorite way to cook with what we have. This recipe is more of a guide with tips and ideas for you to create delicious grain bowls based on what you have or prefer. It’s also one of our favorite ways to repurpose leftovers -- turn it into a hearty bowl! 

Chipotle Black Bean Burgers (RFCFES, p. 138)

Use this recipe as a template for a veggie burger. Use white beans, kidney beans, or pinto beans instead of black beans. Skip the chipotle peppers and cumin and add dried or fresh herbs and lots of garlic for a fresh, Mediteranean flavor profile.

Frittatas (RFCFES, p. 79)

The beauty of frittatas is that you can put pretty much anything into it. So if a recipe calls for sausage, use any ground meat or leave it out all together and just add more vegetables or some beans. If it calls for feta or parmesan cheese, you can use any cheese you have on hand or leave it out all together. 


We always have some kind of sauce or dressing prepped in the fridge or freezer for an easy way to make any meal taste better. A great way to use up leftover herbs is in our Green Goddess Tahini Sauce (RFCFES, p. 178) or Presto Pesto (RFCFES, p. 175). 

Granola (RFES and RFCFES)

Granola recipes are more of a guide rather than a strict recipe. Follow the general formula, but make substitutions or leave things out entirely. For example, use maple syrup instead of honey or olive oil instead of coconut oil. Use all pumpkin seeds instead of a mix of seeds. 

Smoothies (RFES and RFCFES)

You can use any fruit and liquid that you have on hand and just substitute in equal amounts in the recipe. If a recipe calls for almond milk, just add the same amount of water and handful of nuts or seeds (I actually prefer this!). If it’s a berry smoothie, go tropical with it and use pineapple instead! Another way to make a smoothie creamy without banana? Add roasted or pureed sweet potato or extra creamy yogurt. 

BOTTOM LINE: get creative in the kitchen, don’t be afraid to stray away from recipes and stay calm and healthy! 


Natalie is a nutritionist and personal chef in Portland, OR who specializes in women's health and sports nutrition. She loves creating simple, nourishing meals and recipes to fuel your life. Find Natalie at nataliecooks.com.

The Run Fast. Eat Slow. Meal Planner can help you maximize your ingredients for more meals, creative leftovers, and less trips to the grocery stores. 

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