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.
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
1. Heat 1 tbsp fat in a pot on medium heat.
Ghee, butter, olive oil, avocado oil
2. Add ½ to 1 cup chopped aromatics. Season with salt and pepper. Sauté until tender.
Yellow onions, shallots, leeks, carrots, celery
3. Add about 1 to 2 tbsp chopped quicker-cooking aromatics and cook until fragrant.
Garlic, ginger, chiles, green onions (light and white parts), herbs such as bay leaf (use whole) or fresh thyme (whole sprigs or leaves)
4. Stir in a flavor booster (optional).
White wine (about ¼ cup), or 1 to 2 tbsp lemon juice, apple cider vinegar or curry paste
5. Add 3 to 4 cups liquid and bring to a simmer.
Low-sodium broth, canned diced tomatoes, coconut milk, heavy cream (or a combination of more than one)
6. Stir in about 3 cups chopped vegetables and cook until tender (8 to 10 minutes for lighter vegetables like peas and asparagus; 20 to 25 minutes for heartier vegetables). If desired, add 1 cup cooked or canned legumes along with the vegetables.
Cauliflower, broccoli, turnips, potatoes, asparagus, peas; navy beans, chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans, lentils
7. Remove herb sprigs and bay leaf (if using). If blending, use an immersion blender to purée. Add additional liquid if needed to reach desired consistency. Add a splash of a flavoring agent.
Lemon juice, lime juice, sesame oil, balsamic vinegar
8. Finish with garnishes. Season with additional salt and pepper, if needed.
Chopped herbs (mint, parsley, cilantro), celery leaves, dollop of yogurt or crème fraîche, croutons, chopped nuts or seeds, sliced chiles, Parmesan shavings, pesto
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
1. Tie a 3- to 6-lb roast (bone-in or boneless) with twine every 2 inches. Pat dry and season with salt and, if desired, spices.
Beef, pork or lamb; black pepper, Italian seasoning, chili powder blend, thyme, oregano
2. Rub with oil. Sear in a hot ovenproof skillet, turning until browned on all sides.
Avocado oil, olive oil, ghee
3. Add chopped aromatics and/or vegetables (optional).
Onions, celery, leeks, turnips, carrots, potatoes, winter squash, sweet potatoes
4. Transfer skillet to a 375ºF to 425ºF oven. Roast to desired doneness, or until an instant-read thermometer in the thickest part, avoiding bone, reaches 145ºF (for pork, beef and lamb). Transfer to a cutting board, tent with foil and rest 10 to 20 minutes.
5. Make sauce. Try our Black Pepper Cream Sauce , using any drippings from bottom of skillet to add flavor to the sauce.
6. Alternatively, serve with a compound butter. Add chopped fresh herbs, garlic, zest and salt to soft butter; roll into a log and keep covered in the refrigerator until use.
Parsley, chives, cilantro, lemon zest, lime zest, garlic, shallot
7. Garnish with fresh herbs, if desired
Parsley, cilantro, basil, chives
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
1. Cook 12 oz lasagna noodles. Drain; rub with oil. Spread on a baking sheet.
Whole-grain, gluten-free or grain-free noodles, or thinly sliced and broiled zucchini or eggplant
2. Prepare 3 to 4 cups ready-made or homemade sauce.
Marinara, arrabbiata, béchamel
3. If using, add cooked meat or chopped roasted vegetables to the sauce.
Ground beef, ground turkey, cooked and crumbled sausage, mushrooms, bell peppers, zucchini, eggplant
4. Make filling: Combine 2 to 3 cups ricotta, 2 large eggs, 8 oz grated Parmesan and 2 cups shredded mozzarella (reserve some mozzarella for the top). Add about 2 tsp herbs or seasonings (optional). Season with about 1 tsp salt and pepper.
Italian seasoning, or a mix of dried oregano, basil, thyme
5. Flavor the filling (optional): Process 3 cups frozen, thawed and squeezed spinach or roasted red bell pepper with a splash of extra-virgin olive oil in a food processor then stir into filling.
6. Assemble lasagna: Layer sauce, noodles and filling in a greased 7 x 11-inch baking dish; repeat. Top with shredded mozzarella. Cover with oiled foil; bake at 350ºF for 1 hour, removing foil for last 15 minutes. Let stand for 20 minutes before serving.
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
1. Make topping: Simmer 2 to 21/2 lb of a hearty root vegetable or tuber (or a combination of more than one variety), chopped, in salted water until tender.
Potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, cauliflower, celery root
2. Flavor the cooking water (if desired). Remove flavorings after cooking; drain.
Bay leaf, garlic cloves
3. Mash using a potato masher, adding ¼ to ½ cup fat or liquid. Season with salt and pepper.
Broth, cream, yogurt, butter, oil, whole milk, almond milk
4. If desired, add 3 oz shredded cheese and/or 1 tbsp chopped herbs to the topping.
Cheddar, Monterey Jack; chives, parsley
5. Make the filling: In a large skillet, heat 1 tbsp oil. Add 1 to 1½ lb ground meat, season with salt and sauté until cooked through, then transfer to a plate.
Avocado oil, olive oil; ground beef, lamb, turkey, chicken or pork
6. Add 1 cup aromatics plus ½ to 1 cup additional vegetables. Season with salt and cook until tender.
Onions, carrots, celery, leeks, corn kernels, peas
7. Add 1 tsp dried spices (optional); sauté until fragrant.
Oregano, thyme, Italian seasoning, taco seasoning
8. Add 3 to 4 tbsp flavoring agent (or more than one).
Tomato paste, harissa paste, Worcestershire sauce, all-natural ketchup
9. Whisk 1 tbsp arrowroot into 1 cup broth; whisk. Add to pan and simmer to thicken. Add 1 to 2 cups cooked or canned beans or lentils; cook briefly to meld flavors. Season with salt and pepper.
Vegetable broth, beef broth, chicken broth; kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, green lentils
10. Pour into a 9 x 11-inch baking dish (or an oval dish that holds about 2.5 qts); top with mashed vegetable topping and cheese (optional). Bake at 375ºF for 25 minutes, until cooked through and bubbling and topping is golden.
Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Parmesan cheese
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
1. Cook 3 cups dried pasta of choice until al dente. Drain, cool slightly and toss with a splash of oil.
Whole-grain, brown rice or lentil pasta in any short pasta shape including fusilli, elbow, penne; avocado oil, olive oil
2. Add to a large bowl along with 1 lb cooked meat (if using), ground or shredded.
Cooked and crumbled Italian sausage, shredded chicken, ground beef, ground turkey
3. Add 2 cups roasted or sautéed vegetables of choice.
Onion, kale, broccoli, zucchini, roasted red peppers
4. Stir in 1 cup sauce of choice and toss all together.
Pesto, marinara, arabbiatta, Alfredo sauce
5. Transfer to a 9 x 9-inch baking dish and top with ¼ to ½ cup shredded cheese of choice.
Parmesan, cheddar, mozzarella, Monterey Jack
6. If desired, top with ¼ cup bread crumbs or chopped nuts.
Almond slivers, pine nuts, whole-grain panko
7. Bake at 350ºF for 25 minutes, until bubbly and heated through.
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.