Monday, October 25, 2010

wherein i lower the bar a little more for us all

I get asked a lot who does the cooking for my kids (the first most common question is who takes care of my kids during the day when Joe and I are at work, to which I am tempted to answer: the TV) (actually we have a nanny) (a human one, not just a euphemism for the TV) and while I will occasionally give some bullshit answer about doing some cooking on the weekends and trying to have a lot of fresh fruit around, the real answer is that without Trader Joe's, we would all be dead.

I don't mean to turn this into an ALL REVIEWS, ALL THE TIME blog, but I know many of us are busy, and though most of us probably cook better than I do (all my "cooking"--I used that term loosely--must be able to be completed in a single pot or saucepan or else I am simply not interested), I just wanted to review some of the new things I've tried at Trader Joe's that the kids like. Maybe this can be a recurring blog topic--I know they had a similar segment on some of the earlier episodes of "Jordan Jesse Go!", but while those segments were used to comedic effect, these reviews are deadly serious.


The other thing is that I know Trader Joe's has the sometimes annoying, usually revitalizing habit or rotating certain items in and out, so there's usually one or two things that I happen across in the frozen or ready-made aisle that I would like to try, though I'm not sure if I'm willing to take the risk. I am risk averse. So anyway, I'll review some of the new products that I tried and liked, you can reciprocate in kind in the comments section, and so we will all prosper.

Mainly, my main considerations when shopping for food at Trader Joe's are this:

  1. Will the kids eat it?
  2. Can it be prepared in under ten minutes? Preferably via microwave? I will skillet things and suchlike, but my nanny is even less cook-y than I, so if I'm not the one preparing (read: heating up) dinner, it's got to be microwave, toaster oven, or, you know, vichyssoise.
  3. Can I at least pretend that it has some nutritive value?
  4. Does it cost $10 or less? (Luckily almost everything at Trader Joe's is $10 or less, so the answer is usually yes.)

OK, first up, this turkey bolognese sauce:

Look, I have that Prego sauce in a can too. (Yes, I know it's easy to make your own spaghetti sauce, shut up already, Racheal Ray, GOD.) But sometimes you want a little protein in there so your kids don't get kwashiorkor. Also, meat sauce tastes good. Plus, pasta and kids = success. I got this turkey bolognese for the first time last week. Three days later, I went back and got three more boxes for the freezer. Guys, it's good. And it's frozen, so you can keep it for months, ready to unthaw and spoon over your fusilli or what have you at the drop of a hat. Put some fresh parsley over it if you're fancy like that--I'm not, but I do appreciate that this sauce has a somewhat finer flavor than your usual prepared pasta sauce, which is usually just like a can of Hunt's tomato sauce with lumps in it. It's also not too salty, a major fault of many other brands of prepared pasta sauces. You can probably get four to six kid-sized meals out of this serving of sauce (depending on how big your kids are), or feed two hungry adults.

Next up, this beef bourgignon:

(How do you say that anyway? I've been pronouncing it bore-zheen-YON, but then I kind of mumble it in case I'm saying it wrong so no one notices that eight years of French class in my formative years taught me nothing.)

I know what you're thinking. Red wine sauce? Kids won't eat that. I had the same concerns, so I just got one figuring that if the kids hated it, at least Joe and I could eat the remainder. But it actually isn't that red-winey--actually much less so than the beef shortribs that TJ's occasionally pedals in the refrigerated ready-made foods aisle, but which Cal LOVES--so I think that on the kid front, it's highly palatable. It also doesn't come with quite as many giant meat chunks as depicted on the box, and with somewhat more sauce (which, as mentioned, is not winey but still very meaty) so it becomes quite an ample meal spooned over noodles or rice or potatoes or what have you. I would consider cooking a side vegetable--the only identifiable vegetable I saw were pearl onions--but overall, I was impressed with this entree. Maybe four meals for kids, depending on how much starch you serve it on top of. I know it's probably supposed to be two adult servings, but I could easily finish this whole thing myself if I was really hungry.

Finally, not a new product, but an old standby in our household:

Look, I'm not going to pretend that this is healthy. It's not. It's elbow macaroni and a lot (A LOT) of cheese. But kids like it. Serve it as a side, save some for leftovers, and it won't be overkill. We always have a box or two lying around for emergencies. At least it's better than that powdered orange stuff. Pro tip: after you heat it up in the microwave for six minutes, give it a stir, and then (if you're kids aren't howling for blood because they're so hungry Mom OH MY GOD SO HUNGRY MOOOOOOOM) stick in in the toaster oven on toast for another few minutes. Gets a nice crust.

What do you like at Trader Joe's? And more importantly, do your kids like it? I got these new curry panang sticks there this past weekend, but I'm under no illusions--that one's for me.


  1. Anonymous4:47 PM

    We like the frozen risottos, the chicken enchiladas verde, the orange chicken and of course 2 buck chuck.

  2. Actually, I am a cook-y type and don't really like to buy prepared foods so much. But I must say, that if you bought it at Trader Joe's it probably has a whole lot more nutricious value than what you will pull out of the freezer section at Kroger. I do like most of the Amy's frozen food things that I've tried and I like that they are organic. All that being said, I enjoyed the stir-fried spam recipe that you shared years ago.

  3. Mix frozen or steamed broccoli into the mac and cheese and it seems a lot healthier.

    Veggie burgers, spinach nuggets, other Morningstar Farms or similar stuff. (Not the veggie masala burgers -- as much as I like them for adult consumption, they're too spicy for my kid.)

    They have these little balls of polenta in a cream sauce. My kid is anti-sauce (argh!) but he will eat the little balls if they're not too saucy.

    Instant oatmeal (I know, another one of those things it's so easy to make without using a packet) -- TJ's kind has a lot less sugar than most brands.

    Vegetable tempura.

    Fish sticks, soy nuggets, turkey meatballs (tip: with any of this stuff that you have to bake, just microwave it for a minute first and then finish it off in the toaster oven for a few minutes, tastes just as good).

  4. Oh, also, lentil vegetable soup. And chicken sausage.

  5. It was a revelation when I realized you can make regular oatmeal in the microwave and it has NO sugar. Two minutes on high, that's IT!

    Also, crock pot. You can cook anything in there!

  6. I know, but it seems like everything I've ever made in the crock pot has this terrible fossilized-in-amber flavor, even if I use recipes that work just fine out of the crock pot. Possibly I have it on too high? Or for too long?

  7. Cecily7:00 PM

    -Vegetable Birds Nests with tempura sauce - restaurant quality!!! not a lot of salt!
    -the frozen gnocchi with cheese and sauce - usually have to add a little more spaghetti or vodka sauce, but microwavable!
    -eggplant and zucchini frozen veggie dish, similar to ratatouille (I had to google how to spell that) a tad salty, but fine if you don't end up finishing the sauce
    -garlic chicken sausage - usually cut these up into quarter thick pieces, fry them and put on home made pizza (my friend's idea from med school)
    - frozen tilapia
    -dark chocolate covered butter biscuits - if I could marry these, I would

    our dogs also love the peanut butter treats and the TJ version of greenies -cheaper, but just as tasty (and breath enhancing)!

    Love Trader Jacques!
    I love amy's pizzas too (my favorite is the one with goat cheese and a cornmeal crust) but dang they have a lot of salt in them, something my edema-loving feet can't handle right now.

  8. christine7:39 PM

    As a [somewhat-kitchen-inept] grad student, Trader Joe's has saved my life on many occasions. You'll be happy to hear that they're no longer limited to the Union Square location in Manhattan -- they took over the old Barnes & Noble space on 21st and 6th (bright, beautiful and airy!) and just opened up at 72nd and Bway last month. Still waiting for them to expand into Washington Heights, but at least my TJ trips don't take 2 hours anymore ...

  9. Hallie7:47 PM

    The BBQ chicken pizza is really good, and so is the pasta with red pepper cream sauce. I use the prepared grilled chicken strips and cut them up, and stir them in with the pasta. My kids love it!!

  10. Molly8:34 PM

    I don't buy much from Trader Joe's, but here are my favorite items, though not they're exactly food as it is snack and dessert:

    White Cheddar Corn Puffs ( - $1.99 for a gigantic bag. If I don't pour it out beforehand, I end up eating half a bag, literally.

    Mochi Ice Cream ( - $3.XX for a box. Even cheaper than Chinatown ($7!) and you can be sure it's fresh. I once succumbed to buying it from Chinatown and holy freezer burn on the ice cream. Tasted just like the freezer. Nasty.

    Kefir ( - Finally getting a bit more healthy. Tastes good.

    Fage Greek Yogurt with Honey ( - pretend it's healthy. It's 300 something calories a cup.

    Trader Joe's Oatmeal Raisin Cookies in the round plastic tub (sorry couldn't find a picture) - they're mini sized cookies but they are so crunchy.

  11. Molly8:35 PM

    Oh yes, a warning: Never ever buy Trader Joe's sushi rolls. They taste disgusting. It was the only foul thing I have brought from TJs

  12. We're being punk'd right?

  13. We don't have a Trader Joe's around here (I know, I KNOW!), but I can relate to being a non-cooker. I mean, we have to eat, so somehow food is prepared/available, but sanity save me, I really hate cooking. It's not even a lazy thing-well, it's mostly a lazy thing, but the whole preparation-cooking-serving ordeal feel so...strenuous.

  14. Ooh, such a loaded question! There is a Trader Joe's across the street from my apartment complex (no, I am not kidding...there is also a Whole Foods in the plaza next much do you love Virginia!), so I'll try to keep this brief.

    In the frozen aisle, I love the Spanakopita and the Thai Vegetable Gyoza. I don't know if either can be parlayed into actual meals, but they're great snacks and small enough for toddlers to handle as finger foods (OK, maybe cut in half, but relatively child friendly).

    Non-frozen stuff I like includes the regular bolognase sauce (in the jar...delicious) and the pesto tortellini. The packages of pesto tortellini are something like $1.99 each and I get at least three or four meals out of one! One package should definitely feed your family for a single meal. There are also plain cheese tortellinis, which may be more palatable for the babes. Either way, it's prepared like regular pasta--boil, cover with red sauce, eat. Also, this doesn't qualify as real food probably, but have you tried Trader Joe's salad dressing? The Tuscan Italian is amazing!

  15. I just read your comments about the Crock Pot. I'm sort of a Crock Pot junkie too, so my guess is that your setting on the Crock Pot is too high. You're not cooking anything too long unless it seems like things get really dried out.

  16. kwashiorkor - now that's a word I haven't seen in a long time....

  17. kwashiorkor! haven't come across that one in years! (it's more like bore-gheen-YON, with a hard g sound.)
    i want to second the pesto tortellini! yum! but my absolute favorite thing from trader joe's is the non-edible tea tree tingle shampoo. it's fantastic. tea tree oil is great for sensitive scalps and, of course, it tingles slightly which is really fun.
    (we should all get a tj gift certificate...)

  18. Heidi1:23 AM

    Their frozen naan is delish, just pop it in the oven for about 10 minutes. Almost as good as a restaurant.

  19. Love the kwashiorkor reference.

  20. Anonymous5:05 AM

    Kwashiorkor's one of the first medical terms I learned... My pediatrician thought I had it when I was 5-6ish. Haha!

    Try the Trader Joe's veggie burgers, they're awesome! Also, the Chicken Chili Verde Burritos. A member of the family works at a TJ's so I get to try a lot of their products. For dessert, the Caribbean Fruit Floes is great :D

  21. Anonymous7:49 AM

    A microplane and a block of fresh Parmigiano- Reggiano can dress up any pasta dish.

    We always have salad with every meal - we refer to it as "friendship salad" because the leftover salad from the day before gets new salad added to it the next day for the meal. My fear is that there is a mushroom or leaf of lettuse several months lingering in the salad bowl.

  22. I'm probably the only person on the planet who doesn't like TJs all that much..... BUT! Have you tried their individually sized eggplant/chicken/whatever parmaseans? Those are really good. Also I like their goat cheese, and their sourdough bread (toast bread, spread cheese, put tomato on top). Also, their hummus is the best around. My husband and I also like their gnocchi with the pre-made sauce in a bag. It's microwavable and it tastes pretty good (just a little tinny).

  23. Anonymous9:43 AM

    TJs is good, but since my husband is a cook-y type of person i've noticed their stuff is basically too salty and processed-tasting UNLESS you adapt it.

    1. Frozen fish is great. It really takes 20 min total even if you don't remember to defrost: 13 minutes on defrost in the microwave, then 4 minutes flesh side down with a little butter in the oven, then another 3 minutes flesh side up...and done - salmon, other fillets, etc and a pretty big piece of fish (for 2-3) is less than $10. Better than any of the pre-made stuff esp with a side of sliced tomatoes + cucumber spears.

    2. TJ's Frozen tortellini - yum for baby, can pick it up and plop in his mouth. Not all that salty either. Good drizzled with olive oil.

    3. TJ's greek yogurt -- good yummy rich calories and makes the baby sleep when we give it after dinner

    4. Quick veggie solution: Boil a whole bag of spinach (less than 10 minutes if you boil the water first, then drop it in) - then put through the blender with goat cheese from TJ's. Super yum for baby/ except when his dad ate it before he could reach it. :)

    Rachel Ray sucks - velveeta and processed food.

    Down with processed food!


  24. I just took a work lady in NC on business from Texas, a state apparently devoid of Trader Joe's, and she bought a ton of stuff for her kids and lugged it back. Just wanted you to know that you are not alone and you are lucky enough to live by one.

  25. I do actually cook (lots of time on my hands) so I don't get the prepared stuff from TJ. But I love it for staples like:

    - Tuscan marinara sauce (in the green can). I had to get past my aversion to canned tomato sauce to try this, but it tastes SO much fresher than anything in a jar.

    - olive oil

    - nuts and dried fruit

    - whole wheat pasta

    - frozen organic vegetables (especially the corn and spinach)

    - ricotta - great fresh taste!

    - Just Mango dried mango slices (the kids love 'em)

    - Tortilla flatbread crackers.

    - Valhrona dark chocolate. And the TJ brand is good, too.

    - fruit leather bars (keep the kids happy on trips)

    - vanilla

    - jarred kalamata olives

  26. Anonymous8:31 PM

    my kids like the chicken or pork shumai, believe it or not. and I love the paneer tikka masala. so yummy!

  27. Katherine9:25 PM

    I am snacking on their Sesame Honey Cashews as I was reading this entry.

    The dark chocolate peanut butter cups are awesome. The peanut butter doesn't taste too processed and it's very satisfying.

    The cashew cherry energy bars so good, too. It has a nice tang from the cherry flavor.

    Oh, and I love their curry sauces and also the sauces for Indian food.

  28. alsoapedsdoc12:22 PM

    second the tortellinis, also the mini chicken tacos. Awesome with sour cream and some of TJ's frozen guacaomole. I cannot keep enough of those in the house.

  29. Anonymous4:53 PM

    I'm currently applying to graduate school in Psychology and one of my criteria is that there is a Trader Joe's within 20 minutes of the campus. Not sure I'll mention that in my application letter, though...

  30. Heather5:33 PM

    Fail proof crock pot meal:
    Dump boneless chicken breast in crock pot.
    Dump [cream of mushroom or cream of chicken] soup on top, 1-2 cans (can be low fat)
    Dump sour cream if you want (can be low fat)
    Turn crock pot on. If gone for whole day, turn on low.
    Come back home. Prepare rice/noodles
    If you like crust, sprinkle ritz crackers on top. For extra vitamins, can stir frozen spinach in.

  31. Justine5:37 PM

    I love the orange, and tempura chicken!!!! It's definitely not healthy at all, though.

  32. I love to cook and prefer homemade stuff to frozen, but I'll still keep TJs in my freezer for, you know, whenever. I get their pastas - eggplant marinara something, penne arrabiata, but again, I'd rather make my own. The bbq chicken is very good. Not the orange chicken though - too mushy. Frozen rice is actually very good. And the pizzas are good too. I really just go to trader joe's for the non-frozen stuff. Maybe I can just cook for your family.

  33. We had our first baby at the beginning of June, I went back to work in September, and I am pretty sure my husband and I would be starving if it were not for the freezer section of Trader Joe's. We, too, recently sampled the frozen turkey bolognese, and loved it! Among our other frozen faves there (which, I admit, do sort of offend my sensibilities as someone who really does LIKE to cook, but doesn't have time anymore, and who is also somewhat deathly afraid of the enormous sodium content in most of that stuff -- but I deal):
    The eggplant stack-y napoleon thingies, which are great served with some pasta and sauce. Ditto the frozen breaded eggplant cutlets, which can be turned into a passable rendition of eggplant parm in like 37 seconds, as well as eggplant parm sandwiches with the same sauce+mozzarella ingredients.

    The pesto pizza w/ tomatoes. We never used to eat frozen pizza. Now, it's like a once-a-week thing, w/ salad. I weep.

    Chimmichuri rice, and the veggie-curry rice.

    There's a frozen pasta involving mushrooms and a very light, sort of cream-like sauce that I love. My husband, not so much, so I eat it when he's not home, with a helping of frozen peas stirred in to make it more veggie-riffic.

    Frozen white and brown rice for the microwave -- way more convenient than boiling.

    This reminds me that my larder is bare and I need to go re-stock there this weekend!

  34. There are some great recipes at the Healthy Food Guide site

    (it's a New Zealand site, but recipes refer to ingredients, not brand names, so they should still be easy enough to follow - weights are in things like grams rather than " a stick of butter", which is just weird if you don't live somewhere butter doesn't come in sticks)

    Their 5pm panic section of the magazine is perfect for busy families - dinner on the table in under 30 minutes. And you can filter the recipes by low cost, and <20 minutes to prep too.

  35. Shannon3:41 PM

    I just made a meal with their red quinoa, BBQ teriyaki chicken, and frozen broccoli florets. Amazing! And less than $4 per serving. I can usually get 2-3 meals out of one package of each!