Are you sick and tired of eating the same hum-drum meals over and over again? Let's doctor up those boring pantry staples and take them from dread-worthy to crave-worthy! We've got tricks that work for rice, canned goods, boxed mixes, and more.

doctored up macaroni and cheese, from Shelf Cooking

Hey, we get it. While pantry staples like tomato paste or brown rice are game-changers for meal prep on a budget, on their own, they're pretty bland. And in all honesty, dare we say, boring?

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Before you get in a rut, take a peek at these genius ideas! We'll help you find ways to doctor up all those pantry staples so they taste like something gourmet. And you know how we roll, so we're going to keep things simple. These ideas are just what the doctor ordered!


woman mixing chocolate cake batter, from Shelf Cooking

First of all, we would never judge anyone for using a boxed cake mix! We're all about it. But we're also all about finding easy ways to make a little magic in the kitchen, which means we've discovered a few tips and tricks that can take an ordinary box mix to the next level. So, if you want your dessert to taste like it came straight from a bakery, here are five ways to doctor up your cake mix:

  • Add an Extra Egg – Want to bite into the moistest cake you've ever tasted? Go above and beyond and drop one extra egg into your batter. It helps boost the flavor, too, so you'll end up with a more decadent cake.
  • Skip the Water – If your box mix calls for water, use milk instead. Or, reach for that leftover coffee.
  • Mix-In Candy – We're team mix-ins over here! The more, the merrier is our motto. So, toss some leftover candy, nuts, fruit, or sprinkles. It will look fancier and taste even better that way!
  • Grab the Vanilla Extract – We almost always add a splash of vanilla extract! Even if we're making a chocolate cake, it's just so dang good. Try it! Cinnamon is a nice addition, too.
  • Use Applesauce – If you like a denser cake, instead of using oil, sub in some applesauce in a one-to-one ratio. It helps cut calories, too!

Pro Tip: You can also use cake mix to make cookies! Check out this cake mix cookie recipe for a little inspiration.


We bet your kids never get sick of that boxed mac and cheese. You, on the other hand? Well, if you never want to see that blue box again, we get it! But hope is not lost. So, if you stocked up on one too many BOGO deals, here are some quick ways to doctor up that boxed mac ‘n cheese:

  • More Cheese, Please – Shred some fresh mozzarella or cheddar to sprinkle on top, then bake until bubbly and melted.
  • Add Protein – Pull out that leftover rotisserie chicken and serve it as a mac ‘n cheese mix-in!
  • Mix in Veggies – Broccoli macaroni and cheese, anyone? It's a nice change of pace and feels more grownup that way!
  • Top with Bread CrumbsBread crumbs = love. Try adding a nice layer to the top of your macaroni and cheese, then a few pats of butter, and baking in the oven for a few minutes until they brown. The texture is perfect!

While we're on the topic of boxed macaroni and cheese, check out these seven mac ‘n cheese add-ins!


doctored up homemade Mexican rice, from Shelf Cooking

Rice is one of the cheapest, most filling side dishes around. But plain rice isn't so nice. Here are a few crazy yummy ways to doctor up that rice:

  • Mexican Rice – Here's another way to put that boring tomato paste to good use! Make a batch of Mexican rice that tastes just like it came from a restaurant.
  • Cilantro Lime Rice – This cilantro lime rice is one of our absolute favorite side dishes!
  • Asian Rice – Soy sauce, for the win! Add some soy sauce, garlic, and a pinch of ginger to your white or brown rice for a heck of a lot more flavor.
  • Coconut Rice – Have some coconut shreds in the pantry? Saute them over medium heat until they're toasty, then add them to your rice with a splash of milk and sugar. YUM!
  • Stir Fry – When in doubt, make that rice a feature in a hearty stir fry. Let the proteins and veggies add the flavor.

We're all also big fans of rice bowls around here! All that starch helps stretch your meat (and budget) further so that you can make a filling meal for pennies.


Tomato paste is one of those pantry staples that makes a great base for other recipes, but on its own? Well, we won't sugarcoat it. It's kinda nasty! Here are few super simple ways to doctor up canned tomato paste:

  • Add Fresh Herbs – A handful of fresh herbs can work wonders, especially with jarred or canned sauce! Mix and match. We like basil or thyme, but so many blends will work.
  • Use Garlic and Onions – As far as we're concerned, the more garlic, the better. But diced onions pack a bunch of yummy flavors, too, so use them liberally.
  • Add Beef Broth – If you're using your sauce to make a bolognese, add in a cup of beef broth. It's such an easy way to bring more flavor to your sauce.
  • Sprinkle in Some Sugar – A tablespoon of sugar goes a long way! Not only does it help to reduce acidity, but it adds depth and richness to the flavor.

Of course, there are thousands of ways to use that doctored-up sauce once it's ready, but pasta night is probably our fave!


fruit salad ingredients in bowl, from Shelf Cooking

Okay, last but not least, let's talk about all the canned fruit and vegetables in your pantry! How can you make it more exciting? We have three ideas:

  • Make a Fruit Salad – Before you scoff at the word salad, tell us how you feel about whipped cream. This easy fruit salad has Cool Whip in it, so there's that!
  • Add Bacon and Butter to Veggies – This trick works for frozen veggies, too. When in doubt, add bacon bits and plenty of butter!
  • Make a Casserole – Canned veggies are the perfect addition to a casserole! Make them a garnish or the star. Hello, green bean casserole!
  • Doctor Up Baked Beans Want to make your baked beans taste homemade? We've got a few secret ingredients! Fry up a few slices of bacon to add to the pot, and stir in a tablespoon each of mustard, ketchup, and brown sugar. Voila! You just learned how to doctor up baked beans.

One last tip! Go for the low or no-salt canned veggies when you can. Then you can season, spice, and doctor them up to your heart's content without worry.


Taking pantry staples from dull to delicious is one of the easiest ways to feed a family on a budget! We hope these tips will help you think of other fun ways to doctor up your food, too.

Do you have tips or tricks to share? We'd love to hear how you doctor up pantry basics, so please leave a comment below and share the deets!

Various doctored up pantry staples, from Shelf Cooking

Want to learn a few more cooking hacks?

Enjoy! (Doctor's orders!)