After 6 months of staying at home, limiting grocery store trips and cooking with what you have due to the COVID-19 pandemic, do you sigh at the thought of another rice, beans or pasta meal? Are you tired of preparing the same go-to meals time and time again? Do you now have a love-hate relationship with your old BFF the pantry? I know I do!

Stocking up on shelf-stable foods and pantry essentials under any circumstance (viral storms, meteorological storms, social storms, etc.) is vital to ensure you have healthy options easily available. However, that doesn’t mean you have to be stuck with lack luster meals!

Check out these 5 underrated secret weapons hiding in your pantry that can turn everyday boring meals into culinary masterpieces. Your pantry is calling…

Do you have any of these shelf-stable secret weapons hiding in your pantry? #COVID19 #saslife Click To Tweet

Canned Coconut Milk

Adding canned coconut milk to recipes adds a layer of creamy, fragrant, nutty sweetness. Be sure to use unsweetened canned coconut milk, not the type in the carton next to the other non-dairy milks.



Made by grinding sesame seeds to a smooth, peanut butter-like consistency, tahini instantly adds nutty, full-bodied flavor and creamy thickness to any dish. It’s best known as a key ingredient in hummus, but this super seed can do so much more!

  • Top off your breakfast bowl with a drizzle of tahini for long-lasting energy.
  • Use wherever you would normally use peanut butter or almond butter for a mind-blowing, nut-free new twist.
  • Drizzle on top of burgers, eggs or toast.
  • Punch up vinaigrettes and dressings.
  • Use in sandwich spreads.
  • For luscious, velvety (and non-dairy) soups, blend in tahini.
  • Incorporate into marinades for chicken or other proteins.
  • Stir into sauces and serve over protein or vegetables of choice.



Like tahini, chickpeas aren’t just for making hummus and can add new life to so many other culinary creations. Chickpeas are also known as garbanzo beans and can be purchased canned or dried.

  • Scramble with veggies and eggs for an updated breakfast hash.
  • Stuff them in a sandwich.
  • Roast them for a tasty protein- and fiber-packed snack or for a crunchy topping for salad, soup or pasta.
  • Stir into soups.
  • Mash or puree to thicken stews (another way to provide a creamy finished product without dairy products).
  • Use the liquid from canned chickpeas to make aquafaba for a vegan egg white replacement.
  • And the obvious- blend into a tasty hummus and enjoy with fresh veggies or whole wheat pita.


Jarred Salsa

Move aside chips, salsa is ready to party with other foods! Salsa packs a punch of flavor, heat and acidity that will perk up just about anything with good results.

  • Give your morning eggs a kick with a simmer or stir.
  • Add a Tex-Mex flare to salads by using salsa as the salad dressing.
  • Use in place of tomato sauce in chili or soup.
  • Swap out marinara sauce for salsa in your favorite pasta recipes.
  • Toss with cooked vegetables, rice or lentils.
  • Upgrade chicken breasts by cooking in salsa in your slow cooker or instant pot.
  • Add to any braising liquid (pairs perfectly with pulled pork!).
  • Use in place of cocktail sauce with shrimp.
  • Spoon over cooked chicken, steak, fish or even meatloaf.
  • Mix into burger patties.
  • Use as a base for casseroles instead of diced tomatoes.
  • Replace tomato sauce with salsa on homemade pizza.
  • If all else fails, make loaded nachos!



Sardines aren’t the first thing most people crave when mealtime rolls around, but they can add a level of deep umami flavor like you wouldn’t believe! They also pack a punch of protein and brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids. If you’re leery about trying sardines, start with recipes that incorporate mashed or pureed sardines. Then branch out to ones that use coarsely chopped or whole sardines.

  • Stir into eggs.
  • Instead of avocado, mash and spread sardines on toast.
  • Mix up into patties.
  • Add to pasta sauces.
  • Fold into warm potato salad.
  • Blend into a paste and whisk into tomato sauce.
  • Pump up your salad with mashed sardines.
  • Turn them into tacos.
  • Chop into small pieces and add to a bowl of greens and beans.
  • Add as a topping to homemade pizza (add sardines before cooking so the flavors will meld).


What other shelf-stable secret weapons do you have in your pantry?


Instant Pot Coconut Lime Brown Rice

Makes 8 servings



2 cups brown rice
1 cup unsweetened canned coconut milk
1 ½ cups water
1 tsp salt
zest and juice of 1 lime
salt and pepper, to taste


  1. Place rice, coconut milk, water and salt in the Instant Pot.
  2. Lock lid and ensure valve is in the Sealing Position. Press the Manual Button and cook on High Pressure for 22 minutes.
  3. When timer beeps, let the pressure naturally release for 10 minutes. Then release any remaining pressure manually until float valve drops.
  4. Unlock and remove lid.
  5. Stir in lime zest and juice. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Serve with protein and vegetables of choice.


  • 1 cup of coconut milk is about ½ can so this is a great way to use leftover coconut milk from another recipe.
  • If you want more coconut flavor, use a full can of coconut milk (about 2 cups) and ½ cup water.

About Author

Ashley Bailey, MS, RDN, LDN


Ashley is a Nutritionist at SAS Institute in Cary, NC. She is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Certified Biofeedback Instructor, and has a Certificate of Training in Adult Weight Management. Outside of work, Ashley enjoys spending as much time as possible at the beach, running, cooking and crafting. Follow @abaileyRD on Twitter.


  1. Hi Ashley. My husband is a SAS employee. Can you tell me how to adapt the coconut lime brown rice recipe for regular cooking in a pot? I cook my brown rice 2 parts water to 1 part rice, until the water is absorbed. This sounds amazing!

    • Ashley Bailey, MS, RDN, LDN
      Ashley Bailey, MS, RDN, LDN on

      Hi Anne. You can replace half the water with coconut milk and cook as you normally would on the stovetop- 1 part water, 1 part canned coconut milk and 1 part rice- then stir in lime zest and juice and season to taste with salt and pepper once it's done cooking. I haven't tried it stovetop yet so let us know how it turns out!

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