15 Essential Pantry Ingredients for Effortless Summer Dinners

Stock your pantry, fridge, and freezer with these versatile ingredients, and you'll be making quick, effortless dinners all summer long.

three skewers of grilled shrimp on a white rectangular dish garnished with lemon wedges and a parsley sprig
Photo: France C

With summer season officially upon us, it's only natural to want to spend more time outdoors soaking up the sun than inside in the kitchen. And while you can most certainly take your culinary skills outdoors by making use of the grill, having a pantry that's specifically stocked for the summertime is equally as important.

No-cook nights. Under 30-minute dinners. Quick high-heat grilled entrees. Colorful in-season salads. You've guaranteed a summer's worth of effortless dinners when you stock your pantry, fridge, and freezer with these 15 versatile ingredients.

Grains, Pastas and More

1. Quinoa

Quinoa's main claim to fame is its nutritional qualities. According to the USDA, a cup of cooked quinoa offers eight grams of protein and is rich in fiber, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and B vitamins — and that's not all. Although technically a seed, this naturally gluten-free pseudocereal is also one of the few grains — amaranth and buckwheat are the other two — that is a complete protein containing all nine essential amino acids.

This easily adaptable ancient grain can be used to make Quinoa Fried Rice, Quinoa Black Bean Burgers (AKA your next Meatless Monday summer dinner), or even this Tex-Mex Quinoa Salad, which forms the perfect plant-based burrito filling.

2. Couscous

A popular Middle Eastern and North African staple, couscous is made from semolina that's been steamed and dried. Though not a grain, couscous is commonly used as a substitute for rice and pasta as it's low in calories — a single cup of cooked couscous offers 176 calories and approximately six grams of protein. It's also incredibly handy when you're in a rush to make dinner, as the couscous available in grocery stores in the United States has already been pre-cooked and dried, so it doesn't need to be cooked. All you have to do is just rehydrate and plump the couscous and it's ready to eat.

3. Pasta

Having pasta in your pantry allows you to make budget-friendly meals and quick ones, too. From 30-minute pasta dinners, like this Spaghetti Alla Carbonara and classic comforting bowls of Macaroni and Cheese to easy one-pot pasta dinners and refreshing, but filling summer pasta salads, you cannot go wrong keeping packets of spaghetti, linguine, fusilli, and macaroni in your pantry this summer. Wondering what's the best type of pasta to buy? Check out our guides to the different pasta shapes and the best sauces to pair with them.

4. Corn and Flour Tortillas

Tortillas are not just for tacos this summer. This essential pantry staple can be used to make everything from Chicken Quesadillas — remember to make extra and freeze leftovers for later in the week — to homemade tortilla chips in the air fryer. They are perfect on their own with some fresh tomato salsa or in a flavorful one-pan Quick Black Bean Chilaquiles recipe.

Barbie's Tuna Salad
Melissa Goff

Bottled and Canned Goods

5. Canned Tuna

Tuna melts, one-pot tuna casseroles, green salads with canned tuna — thanks to canned tuna's versatility, this cheap, shelf-stable pantry staple is certainly worth more than its price tag. A can of tuna packed in oil is not only high in protein, but also it is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals like potassium, phosphorus, and choline, as well as omega-3 fats, which are great for brain and heart health. Here are 24 of the best recipes that start with canned tuna to help you plan your next summer seafood dinner.

6. Beans

A staple for any pantry, no matter the time of year, canned beans most certainly put the E in effortless when it comes to summer meals. These protein-rich legumes serve not just as ideal substitutes for meat but also enhance dinners with their high fiber, B-vitamin, iron, phosphorus, calcium, potassium, and zinc content, making them an ideal choice for anyone looking to regulate their levels of blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Keeping a rotating selection of chickpeas, navy beans, cannellini beans and kidney beans this summer means you can make yourself a hearty bowl of Pasta Fagioli, a quick no-cook Mediterranean Zucchini and Chickpea Salad, and any of these speedy protein-packed dinners made with canned beans.

7. Marinara Sauce

Having a bottle of marinara sauce in the pantry this summer doesn't mean you just have to use it to whip up a quick batch of pasta. This incredibly versatile ingredient can also be used to make flatbread pizzas, meatball subs, and even a quick plate of chicken parm. Check out our list of 12 Delicious Dinners That Start with a Jar of Spaghetti Sauce to give you an of what to cook up for dinner this summer with your bottle of sauce.

8. Canned Soup

While a bowl of hot soup may be the last thing on your mind this summer, stocking your pantry with cans of soup definitely shouldn't be. Beef stroganoff, sloppy joes and even chicken noodle casserole can all be made effortless by using a can of cream of chicken, mushroom, or tomato soup. Here are 16 dinner ideas that start with a can of soup.

9. Chicken/Vegetable Broth

Replacing cups of water in recipes with vegetable broth is a cooking game-changer, especially if you're planning a summer of effortless dinners. Having cans of vegetable or chicken broth in your pantry will add an incredible depth to your summer stews, curries, pastas — like this Microwave Risotto — and other dishes.

10. Marinades & Condiments

From meat marinades and soy sauce to mayonnaise and jars of salsa, bottled condiments are must-have items in your pantry for simple summer dinners. Squeeze bottle condiments like Momofuku's Ssäm Sauce and Bibigo Gochujang Barbecue Sauce help to not only elevate your meals but reduce the amount of time spent in your (hot) kitchen. Consider using them the next time you're making some Korean Fried Chicken or Gochujang Slow Cooker Pulled Pork. Consider your pantry summer ready with the following:

pieces of parmesan cheese on a wooden cutting board
Mauro69/Getty Images

In the Fridge

11. Hard Cheese

Thanks to its low moisture and higher fat content, hard cheeses like blocks of parmesan and cheddar stay fresh in your fridge much longer than their shredded counterparts. Use them for grilled cheese nights, in a creamy Alfredo sauce recipe, or even sliced as part of a charcuterie platter for your next wine and cheese summer night.

12. Cured Meat

Nothing's more convenient than having a selection of cold cuts in your fridge ready to be added to a quick summer dinner. Slices of pastrami, prosciutto, and salami are just some of the choices of deli meats and cured cuts that can be turned into sandwiches, part of charcuterie boards and as toppings on grilled pizzas. It can even be used in summer salads like this shaved asparagus and pastrami recipe.

Grilled Chicken Alfredo Flatbread Pizzas

The Freezer

13. Pizza Crust

If time is of the essence this summer, then it pays to have a frozen pizza crust or two stored in the freezer. While you can also buy fresh or frozen pizza dough these days and roll it out yourself if you're in a pinch, it's best just to buy a pre-made crust — Trader Joe's even offers a gluten-free AND vegan frozen cauliflower crust for only $4! With summer pantry essentials like cheese, jars of marinara, and cured meats already on hand, topping your homemade pizza has never been easier. Here are 10 wow-worthy pizza recipes to make at home.

14. Mixed Vegetables

Frozen vegetables are always frozen at their peak ripeness, so they're just as nutritious as their fresh counterparts. Best of all, they're more affordable, and you don't have to worry about them going bad. Add the following frozen vegetables to your next grocery list for summer meals, including any of these 15 dinners that start with frozen mixed vegetables:

  • Corn
  • Green peas
  • Chopped spinach
  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli

15. Meat and Seafood

Frozen shrimp is a key pantry staple if you're looking for convenience and flexibility in your meal prep this summer. Since there's a high likelihood of raw shrimp being previously frozen and thawed out in the fresh seafood section of your grocery store, buying frozen shrimp is the way to go as it saves you money and ensures a longer shelf life. Use it to make flavorful dinners like this New Orleanian classic, Shrimp and Cheese Grits, or pop them on the grill using this quick Garlic Shrimp Kabobs recipe.

Ground beef, ground turkey, or Italian sausage are great high-protein, lean meats to have in your freezer this summer. Add them to your one-pot pasta sauces, burrito fillings, and fried rice recipes to enhance the flavor profile of your summer dinners without breaking the bank. Here's our list of the best healthy ground turkey recipes for inspiration.

Frozen boneless, skinless chicken breasts can be cooked from frozen if you're short on time — though they can be safely thawed in less than 30 minutes — making them an extremely convenient and essential pantry staple for busy summer weeknights. Add them frozen to the Instant Pot with some chicken broth and you'll have succulent shredded chicken in 15 minutes that can be used in salads, sandwiches, and tacos. Or for a comprehensive summer dinner, here are 17 of the best boneless chicken breast recipes that are ready in 30 minutes or less.


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