Healthy, Budget-Friendly Recipes Using Food Pantry Staples

Below is the second part of a series devoted to my experience volunteering with the Greater Chicago Food Depository and its partner Feeding America. Part one can be found here: Volunteering with Feeding America: A Little Time Goes a Long Way

Every food bank provides a different product mix to its member agencies. The Greater Chicago Food Depository guarantees the following 18 core items (and also send along available fresh produce as well):

  1. Cereal
  2. Rice
  3. Pasta
  4. Pasta sauce
  5. Mac and Cheese
  6. Peanut butter
  7. Jelly
  8. Beans
  9. Tuna
  10. Stew
  11. Soup
  12. Canned vegetables
  13. Canned fruit
  14. Shelf stable milk
  15. Hamburger patties
  16. Bread
  17. Eggs
  18. Milk

I never understood why food banks wanted monetary donations until I saw this list. Of course they need to have core items available for member agencies – and they can’t rely on consistent donations of the above staples. I guess my family has been lucky in life because I really have a hard time imagining a completely bare cupboard. The list of food items above is a good start to build a pantry of usable food items.

Using the list of core items, I assembled the following basic meals:


  1. Cereal and milk
  2. Peanut butter or jelly on toast
  3. Fried egg with toast
  4. Canned fruit in a little cup (on the side)


  1. Pasta and sauce
  2. Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  3. Tuna sandwich
  4. Canned soup or canned stew with crackers on the side
  5. Hamburgers on bread
  6. Mac and cheese with canned veggies on the side
  7. Tuna mac
  8. Beans and rice
  9. Egg-fried rice with canned veggies*

*Recipe appears below

I wanted to see if I could create a fresh, healthy dinner from the ingredients given to people living with food insecurity. It is very possible, but it relies on the assumption that the family has a pan, a pot, a measuring cup, a spatula, and even cooking oil. You might be surprised to learn that some families don’t have basic cooking gear.


Egg-fried rice with veggies

I find egg and rice combined to be a comfort food. Sometimes I like an egg sunny-side up sitting on top of my rice, but for this recipe I shared how I mix scrambled egg into the rice. Do what appeals to you!

Feeds 3

  • 1 cup uncooked long-grain rice
  • 1 can mixed veggies
  • 2 eggs
  • 1-2 TBSP oil (canola or olive oil) plus additional to taste

Put rice and two cups of water in saucepan over medium heat. Open can of mixed veggies, drain and lightly rinse. Place veggies in with the rice. Turn heat to low, simmer with the cover on. Meanwhile heat one TBSP oil in large frying pan, add eggs, scramble. Add additional TBSP of oil and heat for a minute, and then add cooked rice and veggie mix to pan. Stir everything up to mix in cooked egg. Fry, stirring occasionally, for seven minutes. Serve hot.

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12 thoughts on “Healthy, Budget-Friendly Recipes Using Food Pantry Staples

  1. While I understand the core pantry list I don’t agree with #1 & #5.
    I’d prefer to see a cooked cereal such as oatmeal and not boxed mac&cheese.
    But I understand that an org has to stock what it’s clients will eat as well as affordable.

  2. Since I’ve become mindful and intentional about what I eat, I’ve had a hard time giving to food pantries. If I wouldn’t eat something, how can I expect someone else to? But on the other hand, processed food of questionable nutritional value and safety is better than no food at all… Did you read the labels? Just wonder how many items on the list included HFCS, artificial sweeteners or colors or flavors, trans-fats, or perservatives.

    If I were on the receiving end, I’d really want flour and butter to be in the basic package.

    1. Sharon – we are mindful of the food we eat as well. We try not to have processed foods in the house, we eat whole grains, hormone-free meats, etc.

      When we do donations to the food pantry (regularly), we donate things we’d eat. We can’t do the fresh meats and such, but we go for whole grain/whole wheat pasta, natural/sugar free pasta sauce, sugar free/natural applesauce, snacks without HFCS, etc.

      one of our “favorite” activities is to have the kids pick out items THEY like to eat and then we buy them for the families. My oldest loves this “game” because she really likes to think about things she enjoys eating, what other people might like to eat and things along that line. The other day we bought: several cans of organic/low sodium soup, whole wheat crackers with no HFCS, natural applesauce, canned veggies and then we bought a natural cake mix/frosting that had minimal processing. She put together a well balanced meal – and we donated that.

      True – many donated items are probably not this healthy. But, hopefully people will start coming around to this idea. But, it has to start somewhere. We choose to have it start with us. 🙂

    2. Sharon,
      I’m replying to your comment about the butter.

      It’s not impossible, BUT it is difficult to cook without oil or butter. Thank you for mentioning it.

      I am a caregiver. I make meals from food pantry goods. For some of my clients sometimes, it’s items like what are on this list that make up the whole of their kitchen ingredients!

      I find myself looking for versatile ingredients such as flour, oil, sugar, seasonings, dairy… often while I’m prepping client meals.
      Creativity & resourcefulness can only reach so far when the variables are limited!

      Thank you again for mentioning such a helpful staple. I look forward to the day/s when I will find such things in the cupboards to cook with!


      P.S. Here is a real life example from my shift today.
      To make meal prep easier, I re-organized one client’s pantry this afternoon:

      My client had this in his home pantry (& fridge) :

      multiple cans of-
      yams, green beans, corn, tomato sauce, mushroom sauce, beans, applesauce, canned pears, chili, beef stew.

      multiple jars of-
      peanut butter, mayonnaise, (box) jello.

      1 can (only) of-
      chicken noodle soup
      tomato soup
      cherry pie filling
      pumpkin pie filling
      fruit cocktail
      chicken stew
      Vienna sausages

      bag of brown sugar
      bottle pancake syrup
      honey bear
      carton of eggs (1 left)

      raw potatoes, dried seaweed sheets, rice crackers, sliced bread,

      Hope this was able to be helpful information for someone.

    3. Some people going to the food pantry don’t even have an oven to use. A lot of the things on this list could be made in a microwave, on a hot plate or doesn’t need to be cooked at all. Flour and butter would be useless.

  3. Sharon-

    Most (not all) people who are getting food from the food pantry don’t know how to cook, or don’t have the cooking utensils to cook. Of course, any food is better than no food. HFCS is perfectly healthy (unless you have a corn allergy). I really can’t believe you would worry about that.

  4. I feel bad for many food pantries, because I feel what many people give to them is food they wouldn’t even eat themselves. For instance, my brother works for a non-profit organization that has a food pantry for low-income families, and they were given cases and cases of jarred chicken on the bone floating in water. He said it made him sick just to look at it! Monetary donations are totally understandable.

  5. These items have such conventional methods of assembly, but each regular “staple” contains too many carbs and has too much fat. (I.E. PB&J Sandwich on the bread, Mac and Cheese) However, thinking about each one of these items in a different way can re-distribute the fat contents and carbs, as well as stretching these items to their full potential and providing more meals out of these meager means. An example of this would be using the peanut butter as an Asian-type sauce on the white pasta. This adds the protein from the peanuts and rounds out the meal more than just red sauce, or cheese from the mac. The Mac cheese powder than, in turn, can be used to bulk up the canned veggies, adding calcium to that low-fat meal. The hamburger patties would do better if crumbled and spread throughout the meals- such as adding protein to the pasta sauce. Or the pasta sauce can then be boiled together with some rice for a tomato-like soup. Similarly the beans can be pureed to add as thickener to soup- adding more protein. The cereal and shelf-stable milk can be made into porridge, and then served with jelly and the fruit, this could stretch all of the ingredients into a filling multi-meal that will leave everyone satisfied. I came from a home of meager means and this is how I managed to feed all of us as well as keep us nutritionally balanced. Unfortunately the items that are allotted to low-income families are often full of fat and preservatives. While they add bulk to hungry tummies- we end up hurting the very people were are trying to help, because of the lack of nutritional guidance. It is the same philosophy that can be applied to these school lunches- none of the ingredients from the start are bad, but the way they combine, and compound the negative attributes of each ingredient, is what leads to failure. It can be just as cheap, just as easy to rethink the way food is created and adjust the nutritional balance of each and every meal.

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