10 Food-Editor-Approved Store-Bought Meal Shortcuts
While we're not exactly prescribing a semi-homemade lifestyle, à la Sandra Lee, sometimes a little dinner head start, in the form of canned beans, a jar of really good tomato sauce, or some roasted beets is the difference between a home-cooked meal and Chinese takeout. These pantry, freezer, and fridge staples are items we actually keep on hand and use on busy nights, when a meal made completely from scratch is just not going to happen.
Few pantry staples pack as much of a nutritional punch or flavor as beans. When we have the time, we prefer dried beans — they're more cost-effective, and the texture is superlative — but many a meal has been saved by cracking open a can of pintos or chickpeas.
Unless you have a bumper crop of spinach in your garden that needs to be eaten up, we wholeheartedly recommend using frozen spinach in cooked applications (aside from lightly wilted dishes). Since spinach is such a watery vegetable, cooking down a large volume is a time-consuming and kind-of-messy affair and ultimately isn't usually worth it.
Good Tomato Sauce
Will a jar of store-bought tomato sauce ever trump Marcella's Hazan's three-ingredient recipe? No, but a good jar, like Rao's, can come pretty close. We always keep a jar in our pantry for dinner emergencies.
Homemade is definitely the way to go in delicately flavored brothy soups, but in dishes where the stock is not the star, we're fans of Kitchen Basics chicken stock.
Frozen Brown Rice
While frozen brown rice is not quite as good as freshly steamed, it takes about a 10th of the time to cook and is worlds better than parboiled/minute rice and those ready-to-eat shelf-stable bowls.
Frozen Puff Pastry
Power to you if you want to spend hours making puff pastry from scratch. For mere mortals, Dufour's frozen puff is about as good as it gets and will elevate your party-food game.
Roasted Red Peppers
For dishes that use only a portion of a roasted red pepper, like a scramble or an omelet, jarred peppers are the way to go.
Cooked lentils, especially these from Trader Joe's, are nearly as tasty as those made from scratch and can shave 20 minutes off dinner prep. We like them in stews, salads, and even as part of an easy-prep party dip.