Pictured Recipe: Black Bean Tacos
I've never met a taco I didn't like. I LOVE tacos. There are so many different ways to enjoy tacos: bean tacos with cheese, shrimp tacos with creamy cilantro sauce, steak tacos with guacamole, fish tacos with cabbage slaw. Tacos on a crispy shell, tacos on a flour tortilla, tacos on a corn tortilla, even wrapped in lettuce!
But it wasn't until I had kids that I put taco night on the weekly dinner rotation. It was then, out of desperation, I realized the amazing secret about tacos that revolutionized my weeknights: you can make tacos 100% from foods you probably already have in your kitchen. Tacos are the ultimate dinner-from-the-pantry.
Related: Our Best Recipes for Taco Night
I had this realization one night when there was no food in the house, no time to go shopping and all I had on hand to scare up a decent meal was a package of tortillas, a can of black beans and a block of Cheddar. I found some frozen corn in the freezer, half a bell pepper that needed to be used up and a few random condiments that I put on the table with a pile of spoons. It was everything we needed for a tasty taco dinner. And the family was fed and happy.
Speaking of the fam, there's one other reason taco night is my savior. The kids love it, because: bowls and choices. Kids love bowls full of good food. They love to be able to pick their own taco fillings from all of the delicious options. And they love to be able to serve themselves. On taco night, I like to put a bunch of mismatched bowls in the middle of the table and let them have at it while I go pour myself a margarita.
I just have two rules:
1. You must leave enough cheese in the bowl for the grownups.
2. You must choose at least one veggie, either to put in your taco or eat on the side.
Tacos are the ultimate kitchen-clean-out dinner, so I like to save taco night for the end of the week when food is running low and you need to use up fresh veggies. Just keep a few key pantry items in your fridge and cupboards and you have what you need for taco night ANYTIME YOU WANT IT.
Do you feel the same way too?
Taco-Night Essentials to Always Have in the Pantry:
1. Canned Beans
Pictured Recipe: Bean & Veggie Taco Bowl
Start with the protein. Black beans are my taco filling of choice and I always keep a few cans in the cupboard. Packed with fiber and protein, black beans are a delicious addition to your taco. Beans are a great plant source of antioxidants, protein, zinc, iron and folic acid. They are also super-cheap.
If you're short on time, canned beans are the way to go, but some brands tend to be high in sodium. Give the beans a good rinse to get rid of some of the added salt. You can cook your own pot of beans from dried beans, but you'll need to plan ahead. Did someone say meal-prep?!
Pictured Recipe: Fish Stick Tacos with Avocado-Lime Crema
When you're not in survival cook-from-the-pantry mode, don't limit yourself to beans. If Taco Night is on your weekly rotation, you're going to want to switch things up every now and then. Other good healthy taco proteins:
• Lean ground beef
• Fish—try grilled fish tacos or even with fish sticks (yes, fish sticks!)
To season your beans (or other protein), prepackaged taco seasoning is convenient, but some brands are really high in sodium and contain preservatives and other unhealthy ingredients. It's actually really easy to make your own clean taco seasoning with just a few spices you already have in your spice rack:
• Chili powder
• Dried oregano
• Onion powder
• Garlic powder
Recipe to Try: Lean & Spicy Taco Meat
Pictured Recipe: EatingWell Crispy Taco Shells
In our house, some of us like crunchy tacos, some of us like soft corn tortillas and some of us like to mound up all of our fillings in a flour tortilla and roll it up into a burrito. So I always have all three options at my house at all times. (Tortillas freeze really well.)
How to Make Tortilla Chips, Taco Shells & Bowls
Making your own homemade tortilla shells or taco bowls in the oven is surprisingly easy and eliminates the saturated and trans fat found in most store-bought brands. But if you're short on time, look for store-bought taco shells with low sat fat and no trans fat.
No tortillas or taco shells? Use lettuce or other sturdy greens to wrap up your fillings.
Pictured Recipe: Build-Your-Own Chicken Tacos
We're big Cheddar fans and always have a block or two in the fridge. If you're more of a once-in-while cheese family, I'm sorry we can't be friends.
Just kidding. Your best bet is to keep a stash in the freezer so it doesn't go bad and is ready to go when you need it. Shredded cheese freezes well, especially solid cheeses like Cheddar or Monterey Jack. It thaws almost instantly and the texture and flavor remain unchanged.
5. Canned or Frozen Corn
Pictured Recipe: Vegetarian Taco Salad
I always have canned corn in my pantry or frozen corn in my freezer for an easy veggie side. It also makes a great taco salad topping that kids love. Canned and frozen corn is sweet and tasty and the nutrition is comparable to fresh. Look for low-sodium or no-salt-added options.
Pictured Recipe: Chicken Taco Bowls
The sky is the limit here, but basics that you probably already have in your fridge include:
• Hot sauce (or in our case, sauces)
• Sour cream
• Black olives
7. Bonus Veggies
Pictured Recipe: Chipotle-Lime Cauliflower Tacos
This is the part I like to call the "fridge clean-out." Veggies add that nice fresh crunch to a taco. And really anything goes here. Do you have leftover roasted veggies? Have some bell peppers that need to be used? Cut them up and put them in a bowl. Tear up some lettuce or make a zesty slaw with cabbage. Shred some carrots. Chop up fresh herbs. Slice up that avocado or make guacamole. (If your avocado is ripe on Tuesday, but you're not having tacos till Thursday, stash it in the fridge and it will keep till you're ready to use it.)
Put all your fillings in bowls and place them in the middle of the table. Then give everyone a plate and let them have at it. The most important thing is to keep it simple and keep it fun for the kids. And don't forget the margaritas!