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Nothing is in quotation marks, because you are simply underestimating the power of a paltry pantry.

Opening the fridge and window shopping it repeatedly while complaining that you have nothing to eat is a habit much like complaining about having nothing to wear. You probably have plenty to wear, but none of it suits your fancy at this particular moment (and you don’t have the motivation/resources to go shopping). The first step in addressing this situation is to stop being so picky– yes, you’ve got to eat, but if you’re snowed in/carless/the country is in a state of emergency and you cannot exit your place of residence, you’re going to have to be creative with what you’ve already got. And much like rummaging through your closet for something passable, there are a few steps you can take to make the most of the things you do have– especially the ones you forgot you had.

1. If your fridge is almost empty, take everything out.

You don’t have that much to begin with (why would you when there are new restaurants popping up at every corner?), so this should be easy. Throw out everything that’s gone bad, and take stock of what you can actually work with.

2. Reacquaint yourself with your spice rack and pantry.

You probably (hopefully) have some basics, like salt, pepper, butter and milk. If not, there are ways to get around this. No milk? Use yogurt. Or that little leftover bit of cream from that one time you baked last week. If you don’t have these things around, you should probably reevaluate your grocery shopping.

Let’s begin.

If you have…

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Then you can make a pretty killer grilled cheese sandwich. I was introduced to the idea of eating cheese with jam and toast by my dad, and at the time I thought it was the grossest thing in the world. He’d add the butter and jam, and then horrifyingly enough, any slice of cheddar cheese that was available, including but not limited to kraft singles. But think about it- when you order the fruit and cheese plate at brunch or enjoy it with some wine, don’t you basically do a more refined version of this?

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This is a good way to use that last bit of whatever shmancy cheese you bought for entertaining but didn’t manage to finish. If you’ve got fruit (apples, grapes, berries will work especially well), then add those too. If you’re out of butter, turn on your oven and lay down both slices and bread with the cheese and jam to make sure everything gets melty. You just made the grown ‘n’ sexy version of a grilled cheese.

If you have…

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Then you can make a smoothie. This is where you might need to get creative– if you’re out of milk, you may need to sub in yogurt, cream, or some combination of almost-empty containers of dairy products taking up space in your fridge. I was fortunate enough to have a leftover packet of hot cocoa mix, which i learned should probably be mixed with the milk/dairy product of choice before blended. The good thing about this one is that it’s super filling, and also doesn’t have to be a last resort meal. You probably run out of the house in the morning without breakfast all the time, so start stocking the things you need to make this more often.

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If you have…

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Then you can make the cookie parfait of your dreams. If anyone told you that those have to be healthy, they lied. You’re really just adding in that granola bar– and be honest, you know you bought these once at costco, maybe around the new year when you convinced yourself that you’d get healthy– to feel a little less guilty about this abomination/masterpiece.

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Get every cookie you’ve got and put them in ziploc bags. Use a mug to smash them into smaller pieces, and start layering in a bowl with your yogurt. Before long you’ll realize that this is kind of the best thing ever, and you’ll probably forget all about the breakfast smoothie we just discussed.

If you have…

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Then in many ways, you have hit the jackpot. In my case, it was phyllo dough– but you most definitely have some kind of premade baked good shell in your freezer. Get creative with your cookware and find new uses for traditional items. In my case, I used a muffin tray to make mini savory tarts by layering 5 squares of phyllo dough down and adding my tomatoes and parsley. If you have cheese, then you really hit the jackpot, because any kind of cheese works here. You’ve got a million more possibilities if you’ve also got fruit. Just make sure to add butter/oil/pam so things don’t stick to the pan.

If you have…

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Then you can make the most ingenious poor man’s shakshouka that ever existed. If you aren’t familiar with shakshouka, it’s a (probably) Tunisian breakfast dish in which eggs are poached in a homemade sauce of tomatoes, peppers, onions and other veggies. We’re guessing you’re missing a lot of those things, but if you’ve got the basics, you can scrape by.

Dice up the onions and sauté them for a few minutes before pouring in the pasta sauce and mixing them all together. If you’ve got any meat (maybe you didn’t have enough to use for a complete meal, like one slice of bacon or a few ounces of ground beef), make sure it’s all chopped up and mix it in while the onions are sautéing. After about two minutes, drop in the eggs. You absolutely do not need to add salt, unless your canned pasta sauce is low sodium. The whole thing should take about ten minutes over medium heat.

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This piece originally ran February 24, 2014

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