When planning dinner, most of us select a recipe then run to the store to pick up the ingredients. This works well when you’re cooking a new type of cuisine, using ingredients you’ve never used before or when you need a little guidance. The downside? Often, cooking from a recipe can lead to purchasing a plethora of items you may or may not use again and not utilizing what’s already in the fridge and pantry, ultimately creating waste.
But what if you reversed the process? When you improvise a dish, you can check what you have in your kitchen and then create a recipe around that. By using what you already have, you save the money spent on new ingredients as well as use every last drop of the ingredients you already have in your fridge.Soups are a wonderful way to get nutritious produce into your diet. Ask yourself, do you want a purée or a chunky soup? Creamy or broth-based? From there, choose vegetables, legumes and flavorings (we’ve included suggestions, but anything goes!). Season vegetables as you add them, but don’t salt the liquid until the end.
When cooking with what you have on hand, you can also better customize meals to your taste, flex your creative muscles and hone your cooking skills all at the same time. For example, you don’t need a recipe to tell you that basil, mozzarella and tomatoes are a perfect combination or that lime, cilantro and cumin are a mouthwatering trio. Rather than relying on a recipe, you can use your instincts to put together meals and get creative in the kitchen.
Related: No-Recipe Cooking
No need to be intimidated, though. You don’t have to be a trained chef to put your own spin on dinner – you just need a few basic formulas and some practice. We’ve dedicated this entire section to cooking without a recipe. We’ve got basic formulas for common dishes like soups, lasagnas, roasts and more. Simply read through the formula, use our suggestions for ingredients and build your own meal. We’ve also given you sample recipes to show you how to put the formula together. You can create your own recipe from the formula or use the sample recipe as a starting point – the choice is yours. So go ahead and try your hand at improvising dinner tonight!
Build Your Own Vegetable Soup
Soups are a wonderful way to get nutritious produce into your diet. Ask yourself, do you want a purée or a chunky soup? Creamy or broth-based? From there, choose vegetables, legumes and flavorings (we’ve included suggestions, but anything goes!). Season vegetables as you add them, but don’t salt the liquid until the end.
Serves 4 | Estimated Time: 45 minutes
Put It All Together: Pea & Leek Soup
Freezable | Quick | Vegetarian | Gluten-Free
Olive oil, chopped leeks, chopped celery, chopped garlic + white wine, low-sodium chicken broth, frozen peas + lemon juice and zest, creme fraiche, mint leaves
Improvise Better: Remember to read through the formulas entirely before getting in the kitchen to ensure you don’t miss a cue.
Build Your Own Roast
A roast may feel dressed up, but it’s actually really simple to make. Two musts: Use an instant-read thermometer to make sure you cook it to the right temperature, and, for the best texture, give it time to rest so the juices inside redistribute. Tent it with foil to keep it warm and let it sit for at least 10 minutes. Using butcher’s twine helps the roast hold its shape, but you can ask your butcher to do it for you to save a step.
Serves 6 | Estimated Time: 55 minutes
Put It All Together: Roast Beef Tenderloin with Black Pepper Cream Sauce
Quick | Gluten-Free
3 lb beef tenderloin, tied with twine every 2 inches, avocado oil + carrots and turnips, peeled and cut into chunks + black pepper cream sauce (below), fresh parsley sprigs for garnish.
Black Pepper Cream Sauce
- Sauté 1 minced shallot, until tender.
- Add 2 minced cloves garlic and 1 tsp coarse ground black pepper; sauté until fragrant.
- Whisk in ½ cup beef broth and cook until reduced.
- Add ¾ cup heavy cream and cook until thickened.
- Whisk in 1 tbsp cold unsalted butter, one or two pieces at a time, until melted and sauce coats the back of a spoon. Season with salt.
Improvise Better: Get an instant-read thermometer so you can test the doneness of your roast. It’s much more reliable than simply following a time in a recipe.
Build Your Own Lasagna
Use traditional noodles or try a whole-grain or gluten-free version. Or, for a lower-carb option, broil thinly sliced eggplant or zucchini and use in place of noodles. Add ground meat or sausage for extra protein, or make it meatless and fill it with your favorite vegetables. Customize with whatever protein you have on hand such as crumbled sausage, or skip the protein and make it meatless.
Serves 10 to 12 | Estimated Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Put It All Together: Cheesy Meatless Lasagna
Gluten-Free | Vegetarian | Freezable
Brown-rice lasagna noodles, marinara sauce + filling recipe (ricotta, eggs, parmesan cheese, mozzarella cheese) + Italian seasoning and thawed frozen spinach added to filling, mozzarella on top
Improvise Better: Change the flavor of your lasagna significantly by switching sauces. A spicy sauce goes well with a mild, creamy cheese filling, or go for a creamy sauce if you want it to be extra decadent.
Build Your Own Shepherd’s Pie
If you keep a few key pointers in mind, you can toss together a tasty shepherd’s pie on the fly with whatever’s in the fridge and pantry. The topping will be about one-third of the dish, and the filling about two-thirds. Feel free to use more than one root vegetable to make up the mash for the topping.
Serves 10 to 12 | Estimated Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Put It All Together: Classic Shepherd’s Pie with Cheesy Potato Topping
Freezable | Gluten-Free Adaptable
Yukon Gold potatoes, garlic cloves, bay leaf + whole milk, shredded cheddar, chopped chives + ground beef, chopped yellow onion, chopped carrots, corn kernels, tomato paste, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce + arrowroot starch, broth, shredded cheddar
Improvise Better: Use any baking dish you have on hand. If you use an oval-shaped dish, just make sure it’s approximately 2.5 quarts. If you want to go with individual servings, use ramekins and reduce the baking time.
Build Your Own Pasta Bake
Cheesy, saucy pasta baked with a crunchy topping – a pasta bake is a crowd-pleaser and such an easy recipe to customize to your taste. Simply choose your pasta, your protein and your sauce and it comes together in a matter of minutes. This is also a great make-ahead meal as you can assemble the recipe and bake when ready to eat.
Serves 8 to 10 | Estimated Time: 50 minutes
Put It All Together: Kale & Sausage Fusilli Bake
Whole-grain fusilli, raw Italian sausage + chopped kale leaves, chopped yellow onion + pesto
Basic Pesto: 1½ cups fresh herbs, 1/3 cup each nuts and hard cheese of choice (Asiago, Parmesan or Romano), 2 cloves garlic, 1/2 lemon, zested and juiced, ½ tsp sea salt, ½ cup olive oil
Basil Walnut Pesto (Basic Pesto using the following): basil and parsley, walnuts, Parmesan, garlic, lemon
Improvise Better: Use your instincts when making a pesto: Taste it and then adjust the seasonings to your liking.