Last-minute dinner parties don't have to cause panic. Keeping your pantry stocked with these 10 essential items—picked by chefs—ensures you can whip up a mean last-minute menu for any unexpected guests in a matter of minutes—we promise!
The simplest appetizer you can throw together for last-minute dinner guests? Olives jazzed up with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of red pepper, says Claudia Sidoti, HelloFresh's head chef. "I also love olives because they add a salty and briny kick to other dishes like Moroccan-inspired tagines, quick rustic pasta dishes and, of course, pizza and flatbreads," she adds. (This flatbread recipe is made with a store-bought crust, sweet potatoes—another smart pantry staple—and a handful of green olives.)
Tomatoes shouldn't be refrigerated. So keep them on your pantry shelf instead—where they'll last for about a week, says Jose Alfredo Coronado, executive chef of Felice Urban Café in Cleveland, Ohio. Tomatoes "can be used for a quick red sauce made on the stovetop," he says, or mashed into a dip with salt, pepper, and cilantro.
3. High-quality crackers
According to Sidoti, crackers are an essential pantry staple. They can be used for a cheeseboard or, as Sidoti suggests, with cured meat: "I love wrapping paper-thin slices of prosciutto around tall, thin Grissini [breadstick] for a perfect appetizer."
4. Dried pasta
Is there an easier last-minute meal than pasta? "If all else fails, you can always whip up a quick and easy pasta dish with limited ingredients," says Sidoti, "so it's good to have a few boxes on hand." Sidoti recommends stocking spaghetti or linguine, both of which can be whipped into a creamy, classic—and very quick—Cacio e Pepe.
"Like pasta, quinoa has a great shelf life and is very versatile to use," says Coronado. Quinoa can provide the base for a last-minute healthy salad when topped with olive oil, salt, pepper, and any seasonal vegetables you have on hand, Coronado suggests.
6. A variety of nuts
Peanuts are almost always a crowd-pleaser, but Sidoti says she is "partial to salted and roasted cashews and pistachios of any kind." Stock your pantry with chocolate or cocoa-covered almonds, and you will have the "perfect dessert nibble," she says.
7. Canned beans—or chickpeas
"Chickpeas are great to have because you can whip up a quick bean salsa, side dish, and hummus," says Sidoti. (This easy hummus recipe only has seven ingredients—and takes just 10 minutes to prepare.) "Beans can also save the day when you are looking for an extra boost of protein for any visiting vegetarian guests," she says.
8. Corn tortillas
Gluten-free guests will appreciate the addition of corn tortillas to a last-minute meal. "They are great for quick tacos," says Coronado, "or they can be made into chips and used with dips." You can also use them to make taquitos: These crispy corn tortillas with chicken and cheddar come together in just four steps and 40 total minutes.
9. Dried fruit
By keeping dried fruit in your pantry, you can make sure your last-minute cheese boards always have salty and sweet elements. "Dried fruit is great for last-minute parties when you don't have a fresh apple or grapes on hand," says Sidoti. "I try to keep dried cranberries, figs, and dates on hand—they are some of my favorites."
Hard avocados take anywhere from four to seven days to fully ripen, so add a few to your pantry to use when they do. They're "versatile enough to use in guacamole, in a salad, or battered with egg and flour and fried for an easy appetizer," says Coronado.