Eat well, spend less: Running on empty

Reviewed by our expert panel
Eat well, spend less: Running on empty

What to do when there's next to nothing in the pantry.

The 'Mother Hubbard moment' is an experience common to many of us. It involves staring hopefully into the pantry for long periods of time without finding anything to actually eat.

My kids frequently insist that there is absolutely nothing in our house to eat. What they really mean is that we only have ingredients; things they must cook or combine to create food. This is a suggestion so utterly ridiculous to them that it doesn't even warrant a derisive roll of the eyes.

A big stock-up at the local supermarket is the obvious solution to empty pantry syndrome, but it's not always possible to just whip out and buy a load of stuff.

So, short of plundering the emergency kit, we'll simply have to make do. (Our emergency kit is already down to two batteries, a roll of loo paper and half a packet of paracetamol. God help us if bird flu breaks out.)

There are, however, some simple combinations of staple ingredients that are easy to overlook when foraging at home for food, so as an aid to 'holding out' till shopping day I have created a mix and match menu prompt to help you make something tasty and nourishing from what you have to hand.

  • Many of us have a stock of ingredients that we have purchased at some time for a particular recipe. Now is a good time to learn how to use those ingredients in other dishes.
  • If funds are very tight, limit your shopping to fresh fruit and veg and staples – flour, eggs, milk, rice – and with the spices and seasonings already in stock, you can get by.
  • Cereals and porridge are seriously under-rated as snack foods; they are filling, nourishing, quick and inexpensive. And provided they aren't loaded with sugar, healthy as well.
  • Use those odds and ends of dried pasta to make pasta bakes, add to soups or stir into a casserole.

Flour and eggs

Make your own pasta. One egg and one cup of flour will make enough fresh pasta for two adults. The sauce can be as simple as a dollop of pesto or a splash of olive oil and grated parmesan cheese, or make a tomato-based sauce.

Fritters made from a batter of self-raising flour, eggs and milk can be flavoured with corn kernels, mushrooms and thyme, bacon, tomatoes or parmesan cheese.

Eggs and milk

Eggs and milk form the basis of quiche type recipes. One egg will loosely set one cup of milk when baked; the more eggs you add, the richer and firmer the set. Use cheese, herbs or leftover vegetables for flavouring. If pastry is not available, remove the crusts from sliced bread, roll the slices firmly with a rolling pin till thin and press into greased muffin cups before filling.

Fresh vegetables

Soup is tasty and easy. Stir-fries with rice or noodles will make a little bit of meat or fish from the freezer go a long way. Roasted vegetables like pumpkin and kumara are delicious on a pizza, in a pasta sauce or as a quiche filling.


Arborio rice is the basis of risotto; add stock, seasonal vegetables, any well-flavoured meat such as bacon or sausage or a chicken breast from the freezer. Cold risotto can be formed into patties and dipped in flour, egg, bread crumbs and lightly pan-fried to make risotto cakes; I usually serve them with chutney.

Cold, day-old cooked rice makes the best fried rice. Add Chinese five spice, vegetables (frozen are fine), soy sauce and any little bits of leftover meat.

Flour, cheese, tomatoes or tomato paste

Pizza – either make a yeast dough or a simple scone dough base, spread with tomato paste and top with cheese, roast vegetables and anything else that might be nice on a pizza.


Lentils, kidney beans and chickpeas (canned or dried) are the basis for some great dishes. Think curry, dhal, hummus, bean burgers, refried beans, lentil bolognese.


A small amount of casserole, pasta sauce or cold meat can be wrapped into a tortilla or crepe or made into a small pie or calzone.

Tinned tomatoes

Spiced tomato soup (tomato, coconut and coriander is my favourite). Make pasta sauce, vegetable bakes or Mediterranean-style sauces.

First published: Jul 2007

, , , , ,

Go to homepage*Subsequent months will be $2.75