Ask Amelia Recipes Tips

9 Must-Have Spices for Easy Meals

Tell me the truth. How many of the spices in your cabinet do you really use with regularity?

Unless you’re an avid cook (and even then), probably not more than a few. Right?

spices for easy meals

I used to be the same way. Until a couple years ago, when I decided to pare down to the spices I truly cook with frequently. It was very freeing!

Now I can easily find what I need, I’m more familiar with how to use and combine my go-to spices, and I waste less food and money.

Everyone will have a slightly different set of “essentials,” depending on their family’s tastes, favorite recipes and culture. But below are the basics I can’t live without, and what kinds of dishes I make with each spice or herb.

For those few times I am making something out-of-the-ordinary, I either buy a tiny bit of the needed spice in bulk, or try to find it fresh. Or, I just substitute one of my regulars, which almost always works out just fine.

Simplifying my spices and pantry ingredients has made my cooking life so much easier, and I hope it will for you too.

My 9 Must-Have Spices for Easy Meals

The Savory

savory spices

Crushed Red Pepper. I’m not a big black pepper fan, so when I want to add heat to soups, sauces, pasta, pizza, or avocado toast, these spicy little flakes do the trick – and they can be added at the end of cooking after I’ve served the kids.

Oregano. Every Italian and Mexican dish I make includes this robust herb. For Mexican food, I often combine it with cumin and/or chili powder. For Italian food, it’s great combined with thyme and/or basil.

Thyme. Great for Italian and French dishes, and really anytime you want to add flavor to a soup or sauté but aren’t sure what to use. Thyme is key in the lentils I make every week, and I love combining it with lemon juice and/or a little fresh rosemary in poultry dishes.

Chili Powder. The way to achieve a deep, robust flavor with a little heat. Can’t make a good chili without it, in my opinion. Also great when combined with honey, sugar or chocolate for sweet & spicy nuts, or a rub on beef or chicken.

Cumin. I probably use cumin more than any other spice. It’s the main flavor in our favorite Red Lentil Soup, and what I add to tacos (fish, meat or bean) enchiladas, Indian food and more.

The Sweet

sweet spices

Cinnamon. Who can live without cinnamon? From everyday oatmeal to fruit dip to cookies to homemade pumpkin spice lattes, cinnamon is a crucial component to any spice cabinet.

Nutmeg. You don’t need much nutmeg to create great flavor. This spice is key in my homemade granola, in these pancakes (replace the cardamom for something different) and lightly sprinkled in smoothies.

Pumpkin Pie Spice. You can make this stuff yourself, but I use at least a jar every fall in everything from pumpkin ice cream sandwiches to pumpkin smoothies to pumpkin bread, and more – so I think it’s worth buying. Mix with mashed sweet potatoes and maple syrup for a fab fall side dish!

Vanilla extract. I go through a LOT of vanilla. Cookies, brownies, blended coffees, smoothies, and just about any sweet recipe that I feel lacks “depth” gets a splash of vanilla. It can easily take a flavor from flat to fabulous.

Any other spices that your family can’t live without? Please share!


  • Bethany @ Athletic Avocado
    October 24, 2015 at 7:28 am

    Ive been in a spice rut every since I moved into my own apartment at college. Im glad you shared this post so I won’t feel as lost when choosing what spices to buy!

  • Margaret Ann @ MAK and Her Cheese
    October 24, 2015 at 9:31 pm

    I agree with all of these! Two I would definitely add are Italian seasoning (blend of marjoram, basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, savory, and sage) and herbs de Provence (so amazing McCormick doesn’t even want to share the exact blend, but think all the best sweet and savory herbs with a French flair). Both of these are extremely versatile–great with fish, poultry, eggs, potatoes, dressings, soups–and much more efficient than mixing all of these spices individually (for me at least).

  • Kimberly
    October 30, 2015 at 8:50 am

    Oh, my…I wish that’s all I could live with as my spice cabinet (not drawer, CABINET) is so full it looks like the one at the grocery! My mom was all about cooking and baking with spices and herbs so that is how I learned to cook.

    Later in life I learned that many people don’t use spices, herbs or even salt! No wonder they didn’t enjoy cooking or eating! It was so bland and boring tasting.

    The most used extracts in my kitchen are vanilla, lemon and orange extracts with almond coming in third.

    The most used herbs and spices are dill (LOTS!), parsley, Italian, thyme, basil, beau monde, poultry, sage, whole nutmeg (always grate fresh), pumpkin pie spice, apple pie spice, allspice, cinnamon (sticks and ground), clove (whole and ground), cumin (LOTS!), yellow curry (LOTS!), chives, chili powder, cayenne, celery seed, garlic and onion powders (although fresh is always best), oregano, bay leaves…shall I go on? lol

  • Amelia Winslow
    November 2, 2015 at 1:40 pm

    Wow, you know how to cook, girl! I totally agree though that the key to enjoying healthy eating is cooking with flavor! Beyond these basic spiced I mentioned, I use lots of green onions, fresh basil, fresh Italian parsley, fresh dill and lots of citrus juice. And salt. I just prefer fresh ingredients most of the time. But you’re inspiring me 😉

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