May 24

How to Cook When There’s Nothing in the House



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Right now, learning to cook with nothing is a pretty valuable skill to have. Most stores are sort of hit or miss with their stock on hand. And if your family (like ours) has experienced either a loss of a job or a layoff, money can be tight, which will affect your food budget.

Now I'm not talking stone soup here - you really aren't going to cook with nothing - but I do have a few tricks to help you learn the art of making something from nothing, as I like to call it.

There have been other times in our life when the grocery budget has had to stretch really far. My husband works for the auto industry, so layoffs are a fact of life.

Aldi is my best friend when it comes to buying groceries. The prices are great, the food is good, and because it's so small, I can get in and out fast. But even shopping at Aldi has become more expensive lately. Our grocery bill used to be around $120 or less each week (that's three adults in the house). Now it's around $150 - 160. Not good.

I will say, though, that I am buying more "multiple meal" types of meats, so that adds to the cost.

Take Stock

Taking stock of what you have is the first step when you cook with nothing. It is also the first step when you start stocking your pantry so that in the future, you will have more choices.

I'm going to cover both situations in this post; how to deal now - right this minute - with what is in the house and how to shop later. Making a meal plan and a grocery list isn't always so helpful anymore, so we're going to do things differently.

Print off a copy of my grocery list and highlight the things that you already have on hand. You can get it by subscribing below. It will give your access to the library with all of my printables.

Don't forget to check what's in your refrigerator and freezer, too. You should add a star or some other identifying mark next to anything that needs to get used quickly.

You should also note how much of everything you have. This may not be necessary for absolutely everything, so use your judgement here. For instance, if you have a lot of potatoes or enough ground beef in the freezer for two meals, make a note of that.

And don't neglect those little bits and pieces of food: things like a single serving worth of mac and cheese or some wilted celery. Put it in a glass of cold water for 30 minutes and see if it perks up.

Get Creative (and Show Them Who's Boss)

When my youngest daughter Caitlin and her friend Kimmy were little, they used to do what they called "French cooking". Basically, it was mixing up a bunch of condiments with some water and maybe some sprinkles and calling it cooking. No real food was wasted and none was ever eaten.

Cook with nothing

We're going to do a variation of French cooking, if we have to. If six year olds can cook with nothing, so can we!

After you have your list of what's on hand, you can go to a site like All Recipes. It will let you list what you have on hand and then give you ideas for what to make.

I would suggest starting with anything that is almost past its prime. Any vegetables, other than things like lettuce and cucumbers, can be cut up and made into vegetable soup or stock. Add some pasta, some beef, chicken, or beans, and you have a hearty soup. Add some bread, and you have a meal.

I can hear some of you now - my husband won't eat soup for dinner. This is where you show your family who's boss. When money is tight and food supplies are low, you do the best you can with what you have.

Last week I read an article in Gourmet magazine, I think. A high-end cooking magazine anyway. One of the editors said she had been making "picnic dinners" at least once a week. 

Basically, it was cleaning out the fridge of any little bits of anything, whether there was enough for one or more. Add some olives, some pickles, maybe some cut up fruit or veggies, and call it a picnic dinner. Now that's how high-end food editors cook with nothing!

The New Shopping

I stopped making shopping lists weeks ago. Now and then I'll jot down things we're out of, but even that doesn't always work. These days (although it is getting better, depending on where you live), you have to go with what you can find in the stores.

Before you go shopping, take a look at what you have on hand. You might even want to bring your inventory with you. See if you can come up with ideas for meals that will use what you already have. And then, you can see if they have it in the store.

Be sure to keep an open mind. Most people may think ground beef for spaghetti, but beef has been hard to find. You know what's even better and easier for me to find? Italian sausage.

I concentrate on a few categories when I'm shopping:

  • Fresh produce: I stick to fruits and vegetables that are either packaged or need to be peeled in order to be eaten. I know that whoever packaged the food has touched it, but presumably no one else has. This makes me feel safer.
  • Canned goods: these are one of the best buys you can make. They have a long shelf life, are usually inexpensive, and can be versatile. If your budget allows, this is one place to buy a few extras.
  • Dairy: mostly eggs and milk. We are lactose intolerant, and that's been hard to find. Weird.
  • Meat: this is our biggest expense. I try to buy cuts of meat that will make more than one meal, like a roast or a whole chicken. You might also have luck with frozen meats and canned tuna or salmon if you can find it. And there are some wonderful sandwich recipes out there that can make a meal. Cuban sandwiches and Croque Monsieur are two. Cuban sandwiches are made with leftover pork, ham, swiss cheese, dill pickles, and mustard. A Croque Monsieur is a grilled ham and cheese with a white sauce. Add a fried egg on top and it's a Croque Madame. White sauce: milk, butter, flour, salt and pepper. Cook until it's thick. And in French, it's called bechamel, one of the five mother sauces. Now you're fancy and saving money.
  • Paper goods: thanks to my own shopping strategies and Grove, I have been well stocked for paper supplies and cleaning products. Vinegar, bleach, hydrogen peroxide, and rubbing alcohol - if you can find them - will work well as cleaning products and save you some money. My library has a printable on homemade cleaners. Sign up below. Also check out my page on keeping your safe for ideas.

Stocking Up

As I said, if you can afford to, add a little extra to your shopping cart each time you go. Here is a wonderful article about stocking your pantry for an extra $5.00 a week.

How to cook with nothing

Here are some of my ideas about stocking a pantry (that includes the freezer too):

  • Always have pasta on hand. It's useful for stretching so many meals and everyone loves it. Add some sauce and a pound of ground beef in your freezer and you have dinner. By the way, a can of tomato sauce and one of tomato paste can make an excellent spaghetti sauce with some herbs and garlic, and it's cheaper. Plus there's no added sugar. Cut both ends off of the can of tomato paste, push it out onto a plate and cut it in slices. Lay them on a piece of parchment or a silicone mat if you have one and freeze them Them put them all into a freezer bag and take out what you need.
  • Rice and quinoa are also good to keep on hand. They're cheap and they can stretch meals. Some rice, a small amount of meat, and some veggies, and you have stir fry. If you can get coconut aminos instead of soy sauce, the taste is basically the same, but the aminos are good for you. I use Braggs.
  • Beans are great if your family likes them. In the winter I make a soup my kids used to ask for - Tuscan bean soup. Get the big jar of Great Northern beans. Add some canned tomatoes, spinach, garlic, and parmesan cheese. You can add pasta too. This is one of my "something from nothing" dinners.
  • Canned goods are always handy and make cooking with nothing a lot easier..
  • Frozen vegetables will keep a long time and can come in useful. I buy frozen hamburger patties and turkey patties at Costco. I'm particular about frozen meat. I want good quality with nothing weird in it. That's why I stick to Costco. But I've read that Aldi has some of the best frozen salmon around. We tried it. The portions were a little small, and it wasn't as good as fresh. Right now, I'd go with canned salmon.

Use Your Herbs and Spices

You probably have quite a collection of herbs and spices in your cupboards. If you've figured out how to organize them, please let me know. Mine are a mess. I don't always buy the same brand or size, so those cute little spice racks are a waste of time.

Anyway, adding some extra flavor to a plain dish can make it more appealing and help when you cook with nothing.

Parsley sprinkled onto anything instantly makes it more appealing. My mom used to boil potatoes, add some salt, pepper, butter, and parsley, and they were wonderful. We've had them twice this past week.

Herbs, spices

Thyme is good on chicken and in vegetables. A little salt and dried basil will add extra interest to a salad or even steamed vegetables. Of course, if you have salmon, you have to have dill. Even if it's salmon patties, which I happen to love.

Mix a few herbs of your choice in some butter and you have compound butter. You can put some underneath the skin of that whole chicken you're going to roast (and end up with three meals from it). Add it to baked potatoes or any cooked vegetable, or put it on some bread and grill it.

Get the Family Involved

I always ask my family for ideas whether I'm meal planning or trying to cook with nothing. Sometimes they have some good ideas, but then my son is the real cook in our family, so I have an advantage.

And don't forget to put a fun spin on things, like a picnic dinner. You could even take it outside and make it a real picnic if you wanted to!

Got any ideas for how to cook with nothing? Be sure to share in the comments!

About the author 


My name is Brenda and I was born without the "clean gene". I believe that you can keep your clean and tidy in minutes a day and still have time for yourself.

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