So it’s no secret that Trader Joe’s has a cult-like fandom, particularly for a grocery store. The chain’s Internet-breaking snacks sold reasonably prices by smiling, friendly staff has made it a fan-favorite, and if you’ve ever been to one, it’s easy to see why. While “hacking” Trader Joe’s food items, or working smarter not harder, is no longer a novel topic for food bloggers and Instagram accounts — at this stage of the pandemic, it’s downright necessary for the everyday home chef.
Since graduating college and moving away from my beloved Aldi’s (more on that loss another time), Trader Joe’s has been my haven, as it is for most people who can’t afford to spend $200+ on groceries each week. The store, while it’s far from perfect, has taken a step in the right direction to making healthy food more affordable for people. And while Trader Joe’s can be few and far between, for those who can easily access one and have the time to wait in line among other masked customers, it’s a godsend.
I am not a food purist in any way. I appreciate the intricacies and preciseness of a meal from scratch, each part perfectly made with love by the hands of someone that truly cares about the finished product. Meanwhile, on any given Saturday morning after a night of too much tequila, you will find me, begrudgingly, in the line at McDonald’s ashamed for what I’m about to do. Because there really is not other hangover cure, and sometimes, you just need a McDouble and fries.
My point is that I’ve embraced Ina Garten’s mantra of “store bought is fine.” There truly aren’t many dishes I won’t eat, and there is never a meal I will say I outright hate. So Trader Joe’s hacking is something that comes natural to me, as a lazy 20-something who wants to eat well on any given day.
The pandemic has changed the way we’ve all interacted with our kitchens. For eager home chefs, the humble beginnings of baking bread and embarking on in-depth recipe projects is a memory of the past. Many of us are sick of cooking food we have to make ourselves, as the New Yorker’s Helen Rosner so eloquently put it. And the only other option is supporting local restaurants with takeout or, for those brave enough, eating on location at a restaurant, which is an anxiety-inducing event in itself. It’s safe to say— we’re all sick of eating our own food, so what we do make should be delicious, somewhat nutritious and take as little time, and dishes, as possible.
This phenomenon is what I attribute to the tortilla pockets and feta pastas taking over TiKTok. Particularly the tortillas — my crutch menu item is always a quesadilla, because who could say no to eating that? It’s why so many people my age and older have never grown out of loving boxed mac n cheese. And it’s why we all need to be taking advantage of Trader Joe’s more than ever.
The crown jewel of TJs is the freezer section, which is especially relevant during the pandemic. At the beginning of March when I felt an uneasiness about the weeks ahead, the only thing I knew to do was to ransack the Trader Joe’s freezer section. Frozen pizzas, hash browns, soup dumplings, ice cream sandwiches — I didn’t hold back.
And again, everyone knows this. Type “Trader Joe’s” into TikTok and you see dozens of perfectly-edited videos recommending all of the “hidden gems.” But what I am advising you to do is half-cook, because you deserve it. Buy yourself their frozen lava cakes (no seriously, this is a direct order) and smother them with ice cream, hot fudge and peanuts, because you should enjoy it elegantly.
Screw homemade sauce and dough for pizza night — it’s pizza, so it’s going to be good. Give yourself a break by buying the premade dough, sauce, cheese and fixings, so instead of waiting for your dough to proof, you can shove the entire thing in your mouth while watching Bravo reruns. Buy their frozen cauliflower rice and smoked salmon to make yourself some jacked up, pathetic version of a sushi bowl, and don’t forget the chili garlic crisp. And don’t get me started on their premade raviolis.
And dare I say it, all of these activities truly still count as cooking. You don’t have to laboriously spend time in the kitchen all day if you don’t want to because the world is burning anyway, and your tastebuds will be satisfied.
Here are 4 of my go-to recipes for Trader Joe’s cheater meals, and let me know if you have any favorites I need to try.
Pre-made ravioli with garlicky anchovy sauce
TJ’s ravioli are already cooked, so sautéing them in sauce for a few minutes is all you need. If you’re skeeved out by anchovies, take a breath and try to embrace. They’re salty full of flavor and make for the best quick pasta sauce, and you don’t even notice them if you cut them up as tiny as possible.
1 package of refrigerated ravioli from Trader Joe’s (I like the goat cheese & sun-dried tomato and the arugula and parmesan the best)
3-4 anchovy filets, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves (or as many your heart desires), minced
2 tablespoons white wine
Salt and pepper
1 tsp red pepper flakes
Parsley, coarsely chopped
- Add olive oil to a large saucepan on medium-high heat. Add anchovy filets and white wine and sauté until starts to thicken.
- Add garlic cloves and turn heat down to medium-low. Cook for 1-2 minutes.
- Add about ¼ cup of water to sauce. Season with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes.
- Add in ravioli and cook for 4-5 minutes, or until they are well coated in sauce.
- Serve immediately, top with parm if you’re feeling crazy.
Better-than-frozen pizza with bacon, corn and scallions
Again, everyone loves pizza night, and this tastes like a a backyard barbecue on a slice. It’s also super quick and easy, because Trader Joe did all the work for us again. (this photo is a split topping pizza; the other half has prosciutto, jalapeños, tomatoes and onions. Use whatever toppings you want, and don’t be afraid to get creative.
1 ball of pizza dough, any kind
1 container of Trader Joe’s refrigerated pizza sauce
1 bag of shredded low moisture mozzarella cheese
4-5 stripes of bacon, cooked (do not make extra crispy — the bacon will continue to cook in the oven)
2 ears of corn, or 1 can of yellow corn, drained
3-4 scallions, thinly sliced
Pickled red onions (optional)
- Preheat oven to 450 F°
- Pour olive oil on a pizza pan or baking sheet. Carefully spread out the pizza dough, and be generous with the olive oil. Make sure to not overwork the dough, but just stretch it out as much as possible so it’s thin and even.
- I also like to sprinkle garlic powder on the crust before putting sauce.
- Put dough in the oven for 1-2 minutes so it pre bakes a bit.
- Prep the corn: if you’re using corn on the cob, wrap in tin foil and grill directly on your stove, if it’s gas. If it’s electric, you can cook it in a grill pan on high. If you’re using canned corn, cook in a pan on high heat with a little bit of butter until it starts to blacken a bit.
- Take out dough and top with a thin layer of sauce and cheese.
- Sprinkle bacon crumbs, corn and scallions on pizza.
- Cook in oven until crust is brown and the cheese is getting a little burnt, probably 8-10 minutes or so.
- Top with picked onions if you so desire.
Easy smoked-salmon, not-exactly-sushi bowls
I am not claiming this to be sushi, it would be a disgrace. It’s sushi-adjacent, meaning that it satisfies the cravings and makes you feel better about not spending money on Japanese takeout.
1 cup of white rice, cooked
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 package of smoked salmon
1 tablespoon of fresh pineapple salsa
½ avocado, sliced
1 tablespoon of chili crisp
Cilantro, shaved carrots, radishes, or whatever else you have on hand.
- Put rice in a bowl and mix with soy sauce and vinegar.
- Top with anything and everything.
Leftover BBQ chicken Hawaiian sliders, with a side of air-fried whatever
If you have leftover chicken, dunk it in BBQ sauce and stick it in the air fryer. And I ate these with Trader Joe’s new fried ravioli and while it wasn’t exactly healthy, it was delicious
1 cooked chicken breast, shredded or thinly sliced
½ tsp butter
½ cup of Sriracha and Roasted Garlic BBQ sauce
4 Sweet Pull Apart Aloha rolls
2-3 slices of muenster cheese
2-3 thin slices of pineapple (optional)
- Mix chicken with bbq sauce in a bowl, set aside.
- Cut rolls in half and slather them with a little butter. Top with chicken, cheese and pineapple and the other half of the roll.
- Cook in the air fryer at 350°F for 6-7 minutes, or until golden brown.