Weeknight Cooking

Best of the Hotline: Your Favorite Convenience Foods

March 14, 2015

Some questions on the Hotline have staying power, and for good reason -- they cover the questions we ask ourselves time and time again. Join us as we revisit some of the most popular.

Today: Your favorite convenience foods, revealed.

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Let’s face facts. We don’t always have the time (the will, the energy) to make every last thing from scratch. We wish we did. As mere mortals, however, we often resort to shortcuts, hoping that no one will notice us in the line at the grocery store.

Over on the Hotline, creamtea asked what your favorite semi-prepared convenience foods are, outing us all. She kicked off the discussion with her own list: shredded carrots, baby carrots, frozen pie crust, frozen peas, frozen blueberries, pizza dough, garlic powder, tubes of biscuits/cinnamon roll dough, and pre-washed butter or baby romaine lettuce. You all took a deep breath and shared your favorites, too:

Bottles and cans, clap your hands

  • Fiveandspice (like so many of you!) admits, “[I keep] jarred or frozen artichoke hearts. I'm an artichoke-peeling disaster show.”
  • SoupAddict can’t live without Pomi brand boxed tomatoes and canned beans, two staples that seemed to find their way onto nearly everyone’s list.
  • Sam1148 likes to go camping with SPAM: "Horrible for you health-wise but easy to pack and fry up instead of bacon.”
  • Calendargirl and melissav keep all sorts of preserved fish: Spanish tuna packed in oil, canned salmon, tinned mackerel, and sardines.
  • Pierino always has a jar of Best Foods mayonnaise on hand, as well as Tabasco and Pepper Plant Original California Hot Sauce.

cranberry sauce

Boxes, baking shortcuts, and sweets

  • Bevi has jellied cranberry sauce and Nutella on hand.
  • Drbabs put in a vote for Swanson's chicken broth, starting a storm of confessions about canned or boxed stock, or, as mrsp specifies, Better than Bouillon.
  • Ophelia says that she likes to have gluten-free baking mixes on hand: "I don't have room to keep four different kinds of flour just for the infrequent baking I do for friends.”
  • Medaglia d’Oro instant espresso was a dark horse winner, with declarations of dedication from boulangereSKKcreamtea, and sdebrango.

Hiding in the freezer 

  • A number of you have freezers stuffed to bursting with frozen peas, peeled pearl onions, edamame, and lifetime supplies of frozen puff pastry.
  • Bonkers4Bacon is never without pie dough, just like mrsp and Niknud.
  • Hobbybaker and sdebrango buy frozen berries.
  • EmmaAlden saves frozen brown rice for a rainy day. 

soba noodles

Sundry confessions

  • Sam1148 likes to doctor up rotisserie chicken. 
  • Garlic&lemon stocks up on corn tortillas from the local tortilleria.
  • Breakbread loves the Ikea food section for stocking up on rösti, salmon paste in a tube, herring, anchovies, chocolate, and lingonberry jams.
  • Luvcookbooks says: “At Asian stores I buy rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves to steam at home, dumpling skins, and kimchi.”

At the end of the day, after a very lively discussion about what actually qualifies as “convenience food,” boulangere put it best: “It's all relative. I can easily buy high-quality pasta, or great ice cream, or bread -- so that's where I'm going to take a shortcut when time is short. Things I enjoy making become chores if I feel compelled to do them, regardless. I don't feel at all bad about not making everything from scratch -- I figure it's about choosing my battles.” 

What are your favorite semi-prepared convenience foods? Tell us in the comments below. 

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Mei Chin

Written by: Mei Chin

Let's have dinner sometime. There will be champagne and ice cream for sure; everything else is up in the air.


ShelbyBelby March 18, 2015
I have always loved the "canned yams in the purple can". I once snuck a can on a family camping trip and was devastated on finding out we could not make them over the trip. When I purchase them on sale after the fall/winter holidays, I reduce the juice and add nutmeg, cinnamon, and brown sugar.
Aliwaks March 17, 2015
On rare occasions I will buy cake mix and doctor it up I call this fake baking - I use brown butter instead of oil and add 2 tbs of vanilla and everyone goes crazy and loves it and it takes 5 minutes.
LeBec F. March 18, 2015
BRILLIANT, just brilliant!!
ChefJune March 16, 2015
Wondering how I missed that thread. I also don't consider canned tomatoes (San Marzano, please) or frozen peas shortcuts. But peeled pearl onions (frozen) surely are always in my freezer! Along with frozen favas, when I can find them. My local supermarket (I live in an Egyptian neighborhood) carries the best frozen artichoke bottoms. I use them now way more often than the hearts! I'm also a big fan of canned clams, sardines, snails, tuna, salmon. Grew up with all but the snails in the house. And frozen Asian dumplings. So super for a quickie meal. I wish I liked canned beans better, but that goo that's in the can grosses me out, and I still think I can taste the can. So I have to plan ahead and soak my beans.
Aliwaks March 17, 2015
June if there is a Whole foods near you they often have frozen beans (garbanzo, black & kidney) and they are great - no slime.
Lydia M. March 16, 2015
I buy pepper jams to use as glazes and in salad dressings.
VVV03 March 15, 2015
Am I the only one who thinks most of these suggestions are not really shortcuts? I cook most of my meals from scratch but maybe I'm kidding myself because I wouldn't consider a box of Pomi tomatoes or frozen peas a shortcut. They are whole food ingredients.
amysarah March 15, 2015
Bevi's canned jellied cranberry sauce really strikes a chord, made me smile - it's the secret ingredient in my mother's excellent sweet & sour meatball recipe. (Like supermarket gingersnaps in her sauerbraten.) Yes, I know it can be made with homemade, etc....just not the same.
drbabs March 15, 2015
Hmmm….that must be from an old discussion. I don't use Swanson's chicken broth anymore. I do occasionally use Kitchen Basics unsalted kitchen stock, but I much more often make my own. (And mrsp….I miss her so….)
MrsWheelbarrow March 15, 2015
mrsp! (I miss her, too.)
witloof March 15, 2015
I was just telling someone about mrsp's sweet potato recipe. I miss her too!
Liz C. March 15, 2015
So true.......... love to use tuna, sardines and mackerels for pasta and potatoe recipes and to combine them with salad and vegetables. This sunday I was happy to have some tuna to serve some pasta recipe....... https://collezionepasta.wordpress.com/2015/03/15/fusilli-al-tonno-fusilli-with-tuna-spiralnudeln-mit-thunfisch/
LeBec F. March 15, 2015
Most of my convenience foods come from Trader Joe's. Their products have improved greatly since they first started. But, as you can imagine, they are short on protein, so I have developed a good method to add protein to a number of them.
--Tarte Normande- I want more protein (and yes, some fat) so I add a good smear of sour cream, grated gruyere and julienned Canadian bacon, and bake it a much longer time than directed.
--Tr J Chicken Tikka Masala (w/ a real basmati rice) has a better sauce than most restaurants imo. A really quick complete meal combines that (3 min. from frozen) with (also frozen , from Indian market) DEEP brand Masala Dosa , Onion Kulcha , Uttapam, or Dhokla, plus some freshly steamed broccoli. And for dessert- DEEP brand addictive Kesar Pista, a rich cardamom, saffron, and pistachio egg-free ice cream/frozen pudding!

TrJoe's Steak Burritos- I defrost/nuke them, and bake them in the toaster oven , cut them in half and stuff pieces of leftover beef or steak in them to up the protein.

TrJ frozen artichoke hearts are much better than any canned or jarred artichokes, imo. Exc. frozen berries and edamame and corn too.

A few Boston area Chinese restnts make and sell assorted types of frozen "peking ravioli"(I bet you didn't know that Boston's own Joyce Chen coined that phrase!!)
These dumplings (pork and leek; pork and shrimp; pork and green bean; vegetarian) are a freezer staple for a quick boil and pan-fry w/ some fresh vegetables prepared while they cook. Great for parties and last-minute guests too. Everybody loves dumplings!

TrJ's vegetarian lasagna has worked pretty well when i bake it halfway and then add sauteed sweet Italian sausage and chevre to a few layers, and finish cooking.

for Japanese food, i always have on hand an instant non-msg dashi , tonkatsu sauce, and frozen or fresh cooked udon noodles.
patty@bryce March 14, 2015
Guilty pleasure - jazzing up ramen noodles. Pure comfort.
witloof March 14, 2015
A friend just gave me some California Garden brand fava beans, saying she liked them for a quick dinner and I should try them. They're so delicious I started just eating them right out of the can. I never thought I'd be able to tolerate any kind of canned beans, but now I can't imagine not having some in the cupboard.
JJ B. March 14, 2015
Going camping tomorrow, so the first section was extremely helpful! Also, reaffirms my existing grocery list choices.