10 Trader Joe's Products That Save My Neck & Feed My Kid

Stuff your little ones will actually like—& will work for you, too.

September 12, 2021
Photo by Hyesu Lee

Welcome to Kids & the Kitchen, our new landing pad for parents who love to cook. Head this way for kid-friendly recipes, helpful tips, and heartwarming stories galore—all from real-life parents and their little ones.

Once upon a time, I scoffed at Sandra Lee and her “semi-homemade” juggernaut. I made my ratatouille from scratch, thank you very much. I rejoiced that a mole poblano would take me all day to cook. Then I had a kid, and—well—you’ve heard this song before.

Nowadays, I’m a believer (by necessity!) in cooking some things myself and using the prepared version of others. And as its many fans know, TJ’s is a prepared foods heavyweight. I often find myself layering roasted veggies and fresh produce on top of whatever prepared food I buy from there—I’m talking frozen naan and the like. These 10 items are the ones I turn to the most, and the mealtime lifesavers in my home.

10 Trader Joe's Must-Haves

1. Frozen Garlic Naan

Khushbu Shah once wrote about the surprisingly fantastic Indian frozen food section at TJ's. The paratha seems to be not quite as tasty as it once was, but that garlic naan remains solid. I pop it in the toaster to get it warm without also warming my house, then butter it or layer it with cheese, cream cheese, leftover veggies, chopped chicken, or sliced roasted eggplant—and it sells. The kid’s a fan.

2. Eggplant Garlic Spread With Sweet Red Peppers

I can’t sweat it out over homemade ratatouille as readily now, so I conjure its memory on the quick with this spread. I do doctor it up, though, with more olive oil, salt, fresh herbs, and even additional raw or roasted garlic. Then I take a pot of buttered noodles, dump half a jar of eggplant garlic spread on a portion of it, and serve it alongside the plain ones for “noodles two ways.” Maybe it’ll prove to be gateway eggplant for your kid. Sometimes you just need your RDA of veggies to come in a jar.

3. Caramelized Onion Dip

I buy two of these bad boys at a time. Caramelizing onions is meditative work on a good day, like on the days when you’re drinking cold Chardonnay by 3 o’clock. But you know what? Working parents don’t often get to caramelize onions. So buy this, because you will be slathering it on the above naan, plus burgers, hot dogs, and grilled chicken. You’ll also likely be dipping chips into it, and setting out the one tin you didn’t eat alone in a single session during your rare get-togethers with other adults.

4. Peanut Butter–Filled Pretzel Nuggets

The good trader just understands the peanut vector, from Bamba to these nuggets. The one day I forgot to bring a snack pack of these guys to daycare pickup, I listened to screams all the way home. I get it, kid; it’s just the hit of salty protein you need after a long day of driving a tiny red plastic car in circles.

5. Pork Gyoza Potstickers

Once, I wended my way to my Chinatown of choice to buy 100 dumplings for $5. Today, damn, these TJ’s potstickers are better than they need to be. I sauté them in a little vegetable oil, add a bit of water, then put a lid on the pan and steam them. They take about 10 minutes, and the kid loves them. (She has recently cottoned on to the fact that the vegetarian ones contain vegetables, so she’s on high alert, but for a while there, I could have put raw spinach in a dumpling wrapper and she would have wolfed it down.)

6. Pork Soup Dumplings

These are not quite the xiao long bao you had that one time on your whirlwind trip to Shanghai. But sometimes, you need a reminder to yourself of your pre-parent life. On certain Tuesdays, that’s gonna look like microwaved soup dumplings. Kids are amazed by them—are they soup or are they dumplings? They take up precious little freezer space. They are ready in 3 minutes. They are solid, and everyone wins.

7. Hold the Cone Chocolate Mini Cones

I didn’t know my two-year-old was capable of a deep, George Costanza-esque chuckle until I handed her one of these teeny-tiny chocolate-dipped cones, the ideal size for her little paw. I particularly love the little bit of chocolate TJ's stashes in the point of the cone, as a dam against drips.

8. Chili Onion Crunch

Maybe in the before-times you made your own chili crisp. That’s fantastic; go, you. But this one is at the grocery store! When your meal—like, say, dumplings—needs something bright, textured, and spicy, you can spoon a little of this onto your plate. Invariably, your kid will want to try it, and it’s not so spicy that it’ll cause alarm.

9. Marinated Grilled Artichoke Hearts

Jarred and frozen produce is totally welcome when you can’t get to the farmers market (or any market). I layer these, sliced, onto naan with a fried egg, caramelized onion dip, and chili crisp. I blitz them in the mini prep with chickpeas for an any-ingredient “bean dip” my kid will eat. Look at that; there’s produce on the plate.

10. Frozen Butter Chicken With Basmati Rice

Sometimes I make my own curries, but sometimes I can’t. And that’s where Trader Joe’s comes in. The chicken tikka masala is just fine, and the fish korma and butter chicken are actually good. My kid will eat it; sometimes she just eats the rice. That’s okay. I pump up my portion with labneh or yogurt, any sort of chutney or pickled onions that are in the fridge, leftover veggies, and, yes, chili onion crunch.

Sorry, Sandra Lee; you were right.

What are your go-to TJ's buys? Let us know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • swagatgrocery
  • tia
  • Anne Cunningham
    Anne Cunningham
  • minokala
  • Elizabeth
Food writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times.


swagatgrocery October 2, 2021
Very nice article! In today's time, people have very little time for cocking. We need to search for an excellent Indian store around us like Swagatgocery.
tia September 19, 2021
You can cheat on the caramelized onions if you have a crock pot. Slice a few pounds of onions (no small feat, I know), drop them into the crock pot with a stick of butter and set it to low for 6-8 hours. Scoop the results into a plastic bag and flatten it before freezing and then you can just break of what you need for whatever you're making. SUPER handy. It makes everything taste like it's been cooking all day. I never do it on the stove anymore.
Anne C. September 19, 2021
minokala September 14, 2021
was interesting . please visit my page
Elizabeth September 13, 2021
This was so much fun to read!!!! Sent to my daughter, hope she as time to read it all, SO enjoyable!!
Nevin C. September 13, 2021
Parents should read the nutrition labels carefully, as the sodium content of many of these items is quite high, and sodium can predispose children to hypertension later in life.
judy September 19, 2021
A fan and TJ shopper for decades--as my parents attended the opening of the Flagship store in Pasadena in the 60's. Anyway, modern TJ products do indeed have some elevated sodium figures. But really read the labels, and compare to other similar commercial products and you will find that theirs are significantly less, contain nothing GMO, no HFC sweeteners or artificial ingredient, very few chemical enhancers commonly found in products elsewhere, and most remade foods a have a short list I=of ingredients that can actually b read, pronounced and one knows what they are. Additionally, TJs is committed to environmentally sound sourcing, limited packaging, most of which decomposes or is compostable, cares about it's employees, pays them a reasonable wage with bennies, and otherwise is a good community-supporting based business. So, overall, shopping with some care, products are generally safe if served in reasonable moderation, and supported by lots of veggies and fruits, as the author states in her article.
Food52* September 12, 2021
My go-to lazy meal is Veggie Fried Rice, Frozen Argentine Shrimp and General Tsao’s sauce. Easiest meal ever.
Daisy September 12, 2021
TJ's Bruschetta! It has tomatoes, canola oil, garlic, onions, distilled vinegar, salt, basil, and spices with only 30 calories in 2 tablespoons. The flavors are nicely balanced. Sometimes I eat it straight out of the jar by simply dipping crackers into it for a quick snack. To me it tastes like it's got cheese in it even though it doesn't. I've used it on pasta for a light sauce and also over vegetables, cooking it awhile to let the liquid reduce a bit. You may want to pick up a mixed bouquet of pretty flowers to put on the table while you're eating. TJ's flowers are so much less expensive than other grocery stores! And, if the stems are re-cut and the lower leaves removed before going into a vase, they usually last for a long time.
emily September 14, 2021
Is it really canola oil? Not olive oil?
amazinc September 12, 2021
With Fall in the "air" (yes, it even comes to south-central Texas) braising becomes my go-to cooking method. At TJ's sells a heavenly mire poire already chopped and ready to add to that pot of osso bucco we've been craving. It's a G-dsend! Also, I ALWAYS
buy their fresh fennel...2 bulbs in a container for under $4. Beats the whey out of my local grocery store.
Mary September 12, 2021
The frozen Argentinian Shrimp is as good as or better than any unfrozen shrimp I've bought.
The Artichoke Antipasto in a jar is delicious on it's own but add it to some simmered tomatoes and onions and garlic for a really good easy pasta sauce. I add it to soups a lot too. The artichoke antipasto feels to me like a good butter substitute weird I know but somehow it does.
kidpeace September 12, 2021
I love this article! It's a great reminder to reminder that shortcuts are allowed. I bought boxed pasta yesterday, seriously chiding myself. Now I can say "it'sOK!"
Jennifer B. September 12, 2021
The Peri Peri sauce. It is like ketchup but spicy. Not for little kids.
AlwaysLookin September 12, 2021
TJ's Caramelized Onion Dip is the real deal! I'm not sure how long it will take me but eventually I'll figure out their Recipe; yes you guessed it, my Kiddies are long gone!!
Kestrel September 12, 2021
The problem with meat from TJ's is that it is from terrible factory farms. I cannot support that.
kidpeace September 12, 2021
I'm curious how you know this? The reason why I ask is that I go out of my way to support ethical farming and meats. Thanks in advance.
Kestrel September 12, 2021
Hi- When you are selling meat on the scale of TJ's, it is impossible to procure that much meat from your local organic farm. Even if the meat is labeled organic, or even called "humanely raised,"it is probably from a CAFO. I respectfully bring your attention to The Real Organic Project so you can read the details for yourself. Thanks for asking so nicely.
emily September 14, 2021
The other problem with meat from TJ's is that it's often gross, just like the fruit/veg produce....I'll buy a lot of stuff there but definitely going to a local store to get all types of produce.
judy September 19, 2021
Produce I purchase from TJs is as good or better than chain grocery stores, I find. I do not buy meat there, as I prefer Thomas Organic, but I don't eat much anyway.