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26 Meals You Can Make From Items You Already Have in Your Pantry

Photo by Parisa Soraya
Article By: Shalayne Pulia at University of Illinois

Let me guess – right about now you’re staring at your pantry haphazardly stocked full of ingredients that you have no idea how to put together. You resort to the first packaged soup mix on an eye-level shelf or give up entirely to start searching for a delivery menu. We know the feeling. But there is a better way. Just drop that takeout menu and keep reading.

These recipes will show you how to turn typical pantry items into clever meals that taste like you’ve enrolled in culinary school for the semester. We like to think you have. And we believe in your ability to do better than tossing that package of ramen or box of Easy Mac into boiling water. You’ve got cooking game, let us help you test it out.

When you have: Rice or Quinoa

Lemon Quinoa with Peas

Photo by Kelda Baljon

Wondering what to do with that healthy quinoa box staring at you on the pasta shelf? We gotchu. You can even use that can of peas instead of frozen veggies or mix it up with lima beans. The lemon is refreshing and oh so easy to customize. Are you sensing a theme yet?

Spinach and Quinoa Stuffed Tomatoes

Photo by Kelda Baljon

This recipe not only uses up your quinoa (or rice as a substitution), but also targets those slightly mushy tomatoes lost in your fridge. It happens. Buying fresh ingredients to use during the week gets tricky when your English Lit professor refuses to pause his Shakespearean soliloquy before 8 pm. Fear not, you’re about 30 minutes from a warm, delicious and healthy stuffed tomato meal.

When you have: Canned Black Beans

Black Bean and Corn Chili

Photo by Kelda Baljon

This chili aims for a tangy twist going with a salsa verde base instead of a heavy sauce. It’s still hearty, but plays on the bean’s natural density adding zesty lime as well for a well-balanced layering of flavor. The best part: it only takes 30 minutes to whip together for 4-5 servings.

Coconut Black Bean Stew

Photo by Keah Hansen

Creamy, hearty and quasi-tropical with the addition of coconut, this stew is made for the adventurous pallet craving a little something extra from veggie stew. It’s a healthy twist on a normally thick dish that utilizes that dry quinoa and those diced tomato cans hiding among your least used pantry items as well.

When you have: Peanut Butter

Thai Peanut Soba Noodles

Photo by Libby Perold

A taste of Thai without ordering from the takeout menu. You’ve struck gold in the shape of a crushed peanut jar. This creamy meets zesty sour vinegar concoction is a refreshing twist on the PB&J you were about to make. The mellow peanuts level off all that vinegar and spicy Sriracha, making it the perfect starter dish for any semi-adventurous pallet.

Peanut Butter Freezer Fudge

Photo by Caitlin Shoemaker

Well, I can’t say I’m surprised that peanut butter can permeate any and every meal of the day. But this recipe is a standout in terms of simplicity, flavor and health benefits. It consists of just five ingredients that are actually good for you, making this sweet treat even more desirable. The freezer does all the hard work for you, that is of course unless you want to make it into a dipping sauce for simple spiced chicken tenders. Just forgo the vanilla extract and freezing process. Then, let it melt some more in the microwave before dipping.

When you have: Mac ‘n Cheese

Mac ‘n Cheese Bacon Cups

Photo by Shalayne Pulia

Turn boxed easy mac into a sophisticated bacon cups that are a hell of a lot easier to cook than they look. It’s a recipe inspired by simple sushi rolls. You don’t need fresh fish or a bamboo sushi roller either. We just used a magazine to roll our bites nice and tight. They’re highly customizable, too. This recipe calls for Sriracha, goat cheese and bacon, but try adding your own favorites like grilled veggies or varied cheeses for the perfect bite.

Pizza Mac

Photo by Tiare Brown

Ditch the powdered cheese packet and blend the best of both real cheese worlds with thissimple twist on Easy Mac. Now you can have your macaroni and eat your pizza, too. This recipe calls for a wild mix of cheeses including Gruyere, cheddar and even cream cheese. But feel free to customize this one as well to find the perfect combination of your cheese-stuffed dreams.

When you have: Oatmeal

Goat Cheese Stuffed Chicken Meatballs in Sweet Basil Marinara

Photo by Shalayne Pulia

The name’s a mouthful, we know, but the recipe couldn’t be simpler. All you have to do is mash the ingredients with your hands and toss the balls into a pot of marinara. They cook fully right in the sauce for a sweet basil-infused flavor that requires just one pot. And substituting chicken for pork and oatmeal for breadcrumbs is an easy and tasty way to make the dish lighter and healthier than regular old Italian pork meatballs.

#SpoonTip: You can also try cooking the chicken balls in buffalo sauce for a zingy twist on buffalo chicken wings. 

Black Bean Burgers

Photo by Parisa Soraya

Here’s another recipe that you can substitute in oatmeal for breadcrumbs. Simply throw a comparable amount of oats into a blender and mix as usual. It’s that easy. And this recipeboasts bold flavor spicing that will make a burger even meat lovers can enjoy.

When you have: Ramen

Balsamic Goat Cheese-Stuffed Ramen Bun Sliders

Photo by Shalayne Pulia

Ramen. Burger. Buns. Need I say more? No, you won’t be slaving over the stove all day making mini sliders. They take virtually no effort, just a little egg, seasoning and time in the freezer before frying. The goat cheese-stuffed baby burgers are a sinch, too. It’s all in the seasoning and vinegar, making sure to cover the burgers in balsamic for a sweet punch of flavor against those mild ramen noodle buns.

Cacio e Pepe with Instant Ramen

Photo by Andrew Seah

Easy as one, two, cheese. This recipe turns an Italian classic into a quick fix dinner made with ramen, Parmesan and mushrooms (if desired). Dressing up ramen doesn’t have to be difficult to be damn delicious.

When you have: Popcorn

Popcorn and Cornflake-Crusted Chicken

Photo by Shalayne Pulia

When one way isn’t enough, have fun with this recipe that plays to a spicier or more mellow taste depending on your craving. It also uses up another common pantry item: cornflake cereal. That’s right, transforming your favorite snack with your favorite breakfast can turn into a one-pan meal with minimal cleanup required if you manage not to spill the cereal all over the floor like I did. (PSA: Opening that inside-the-cereal-box plastic bag is harder than it looks. Use caution.)

Tequila Caramel Corn 

Photo by Megan McCormack

Get boozy with it. Here’s a great way to upgrade your popcorn with a little leftover Jose Cuervo. Now there’s a new way to go for something sweet, salty and sophisticated at snack time. But, there’s more. You can also turn this snack into a meal by crushing the corn and crusting a less flavorful white fish (like tilapia) before baking.

When you have: Stale Bread

Tuscan Ribollita Soup

Photo by Shalayne Pulia

Want a homemade taste of Tuscany? Check this out. Ribollita soup was, originally, a simple play on leftover minestrone. But as broke college kids, we can use the same principle to dress up those canned veggies and stale bread already lurking in our pantries. It’s a win-win for everyone really, and did we mention it’s made with wine? One cup in, one cup to drink, that’s how I see it.

Crostini with Pea and Avocado Spread

Photo by Allison Mark

Mashing avocado on anything sounds like a good idea, but this recipe takes it to another level. Use up any crusty or toasted bread in place of crostini to make a bigger open-face sandwich. Then, you can top it with a fried egg and watch your roommates salivate (hopefully) a safe distance from your plate. Sub in canned peas for the frozen ones mentioned if you find some in that mystical pantry as well.

When you have: Canned Soup

Cheese and Green Bean Casserole Pasta

Photo courtesy of

This is not Auntie Sue’s lumpy slop green bean casserole from Thanksgiving. It’s a revamped dish using cream of mushroom soup, extra cheese, canned french cut green beans and fresh pasta as a base. The pasta soaks up the soupiness but has enough integrity to hold its own against the mountain of cheese and creamy soup layers.

Loaded Potato Soup

Photo by Christine Chen

You can do better than just heating up a can of soup. At the very least, follow this recipe to take canned potato soup to another level with added potatoes, cheese, BACON and onions. Sorry, my computer likes to yell when bacon is involved and honestly, I’m okay with it. Try adding in canned peas to this dish as well for another easy twist. Try topping with a dollop of sour cream or plain greek yogurt to really get that loaded potato feel as well.

When you have: Nuts

Healthy Pesto Garlic Pasta 

Photo by Parisa Soraya

Make it with walnuts and less cheese for this healthier version of classic pesto. Don’t worry, the flavor holds its garlic-y punch just the same as regular pine nut pesto. You can also serve this pesto pasta with sun-dried tomatoes when you have them on hand or add in protein like chicken to the mix for a heartier meal.

Spinach, Feta and Almond Orzo

Photo by Kathleen Lee

Orzo may look like rice, but it is actually a type of pasta. You can still substitute rice in this dish in place of orzo or mix the two. Put down the boxed rice and noodle sides to make this simple, customizable meal featuring a hidden crunch of mixed nuts. You can also toast your favorite nuts in the oven with a little olive oil on a tinfoil-lined baking sheet at 350°F for about 5-10 minutes.

When you have: Honey

Slow Cooker Honey Garlic Chicken

Photo by George Farah

This Asian-influenced dish is all in the preparation. Toss the ingredients in a slow cooker and enjoy up to 6 servings for a week’s worth of food from spices and ingredients already in your cabinets. The secret ingredient here is blackberry jam. It gives the dish a thicker consistency and cushions that chicken to melt in your mouth perfection.

Honey-Sriracha Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Photo by Maggie Gorman

My mother used to tell me that Brussels sprouts were Barbie’s favorite lettuce to get me to eat the tiny bulbs as a child. My pallet’s grown up since then, and this recipe is a spicy/sweet side or main dish that packs a hell of a lot of flavor into a little “lettuce.” Just add rice or pasta to make it a more substantial meal.

When you have: Tortilla Chips

Brunch Chilaquiles

Photo by Helena Lin

Happiness is tossing several ingredients into one pot and making a delicious meal with minimal effort. That’s this dish. Salsa provides the base for leftover tortilla chips and a slew of fresh ingredients like cilantro, avocado and lime. You can also make it using leftover tacos or burrito filling for a hearty breakfast-for-dinner dish.

Crunchy Beer-Battered Avocado Fries With Salsa

Photo by Shafer Ross

What’s better than raw avocado? Try cooked avocado, crusted with crushed tortilla chips and battered in beer. Yes, I said beer. This recipe is a unique combination of flavors that plays on all of your favorite snacks to make one cohesive meal or side dish. Just try to share the love with your roommates. Sharing is caring, people.

When you have: Crackers or Pretzels

Goldfish-Crusted Buffalo Mozzarella Sticks 

Photo by Alex Waxenbaum

Who knew goldfish, string cheese and hot sauce could make such a sophisticated mozzarella stick? We did. They’re gooey, spicy, melty, sticks of cheesy glory. And we’re willing to bet you have all of these ingredients in your pantry and fridge already. Say it with me: “Boo-yah.”

Beer Mac ‘n Cheese

Photo by Alex Vu

Got beer? Thought so. This genius recipe turns Guinness, cheddar, kielbasa sausage and pretzels into an adult mac ‘n cheese creation. Nobody ever said college was too soon to start transforming cheesy mac into boozy bougie mac. Give it a shot or pour a shot in. You get the idea.