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.
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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.
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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 OK. 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.