For me, January is a month of digging into my pantry and refrigerator to come up with meals. I have a freezer full of leftovers from the holidays, some of them in small portions. I also typically have some cans of beans, boxes of pasta, and packages of grains that were bought for some recipe I had intended to make that never got made.

So, I dedicate January to being innovative and resourceful in the kitchen, throwing together dinners from what I already have. This type of innovation comes in handy anytime during the year when I realize I’ve forgotten to plan dinner.

I’ve learned that if I have some basics like beans, eggs, potatoes, cheese and a little leftover meat (or not) on hand, I can use them in various ways with whatever vegetables and fruits I have to throw together a quick, healthy dinner.

These ideas are all flexible, but don’t be afraid to make substitutions. If you don’t have red beans when red beans are called for, use a white bean. No chicken broth? Use vegetable broth if you have it. The more comfortable you get with improvising, the more you’ll find there’s always something you can throw together for dinner.

  1. Pancakes: My kids think I’m the most brilliant cook when I serve pancakes for dinner. Chop up whatever fresh fruit you have on hand as a side dish. Some bacon or sausage would make a great addition, too, if you have any.
  2. Quesadillas: As long as you have tortillas and some cheese, you can make some sort of quesadilla. If you have leftover beef, chicken, pork or fish from another meal, throw them in there. No meat? Open up a can of black beans or any other beans. Throw in some sliced onions, peppers, mushrooms, corn, or any other vegetable that seems appropriate that you have on hand. Add your cheese and you have dinner, plus you’ve used up some leftovers.
  3. Hash: If you have some leftover meat, plus some potatoes and onions in your pantry, you have all you need to make hash. Potatoes and onion are diced and fried in a pan. Leftover meat gets added in, and other vegetables can be thrown in, too. Hash is very customizable. You can even fry up an egg for each serving, making sure the yolk is nice and runny, and serve it on top, if you’d like.
  4. Grilled cheese and soup: Like the quesadilla, as long as you have cheese and bread, you can improvise. Add vegetables (tomato, salsa, roasted eggplant) or fruits (avocado, apples, pears) to your grilled cheese. A homemade soup on the side would be best, but since you didn’t plan ahead, open a can. (One of my current favorite soups in a can is Amy’s Organic Vegetable Barley in a BPA-free can.)
  5. Baked Eggs and Beans on Toast: Navy beans are mixed with onion, tomato paste, vinegar, and a few condiments and then baked in the oven with egg on top. It’s all placed on top of toast and topped with a quick grape tomato salad. If you don’t have fresh grape tomatoes, you could open a can of diced tomatoes and improvise.
  6. Pasta, Red Bean and Parsley Toss: The pasta of your choice, a can of red beans, some frozen broccoli, and some chicken broth come together in this quick dinner. If you don’t have frozen broccoli, you could substitute green beans or peas.
  7. Flatbread: Keep flatbread in your freezer, and you’ll always have a meal waiting to be made. It can be quickly topped with whatever leftover cheese, meat, vegetables and fruits you have lying around. Really, they’re the perfect dumping ground to turn your leftovers into yummy new meals.

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

7 dinner ideas for when you forgot to plan dinner
The more you learn to improvise with the foods you have on hand, the more you’ll find there's always something you can throw together for dinner.