A Squared: My 10 Favorite Shortcut Ingredients

Thursday, November 10, 2016

My 10 Favorite Shortcut Ingredients

It's no secret to regular readers of this blog that I am a big proponent of homemade food and real ingredients. That's the kind of food I grew up eating (save for the many blue boxes of mac and cheese that we went through... and that I still love), the food I grew up learning how to cook, and it's the kind of food I prefer to make for my family and hope that my child(ren) will grow up loving too. Cooking with real ingredients is healthier, more flavorful, and oftentimes more economical as well.

That said, it's also more time consuming to cook this way. And as someone who has been pregnant or mom to a little baby for a year now, I haven't had nearly the time or energy to cook in the way that I'd like. So I have spent many of the past 14+ months coming to terms with the fact that it's okay to make a few shortcuts every now and then... I'm not buying TV dinners (yet), but I have found a few shortcut ingredients that make getting dinner on the table every night just a little bit easier. Here are my favorites:

1. Giovanni Rana pastas - These are some of the best quality prepared filled pastas I have ever tried. They typically cook in a quick 2-3 minutes, which helps dinner come together in a flash. They're available with tons of different fillings, but I'm most partial to the classic spinach & ricotta, the earthy mushroom, sweet butternut squash, and the smoky uncured bacon & mozzarella ravioli varieties. Just add sauce (or even just some sautéed veggies and olive oil) and a satisfying one bowl dinner is ready.
2. Taylor Farms Chopped Salad Kits - Bagged salads are a given when it comes to easy and healthy meal shortcuts, but these chopped salad kits take it to the next level (I hate that phrase, but it's true). Each chopped salad includes unique pre-washed ingredients like kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and brocolli paired with delicious mix-ins like nuts, seeds, cheese, and a dressing. My favorite is the Southwest Chopped Salad. I just add some diced avocado or shredded rotisserie chicken (another great shortcut ingredient) and it's a fast and filling lunch or dinner.

3. Whole Foods shrimp skewers - This is one of the most convenient ways to prepare seafood. The Whole Foods fish counter sells shrimp that has already been peeled, deveined, skewered, and occasionally, pre-seasoned. All the hard work is done, so these skewers can just be grilled or sauteed for a few minutes and then they're ready to eat. They're also frequently running good deals on it too, so it can be an economical option for serving seafood at home as well.
4. Frontera Seasoning Sauces - I have always been a fan of Chicago chef Rick Bayless and his amazing restaurants (I'm not sure how many times I have proclaimed my love for his Tortas Frontera at O'Hare Airport here), but these sauces are game changers for cooking at home. These flavorful sauce pouches make a Mexican-inspired dinner at home so easy. I especially love the slow cooker pork carnitas and beef barbacoa sauces because the slow cooker always wins when it comes to making a shortcut meal-- and the flavors just get better the longer they cook. I also love the enchilada sauces, which are perfect for a make-ahead meal. Just add cheese and/or shredded rotisserie chicken!
5. Rotisserie chicken - A rotisserie chicken is one of the staples of shortcut cooking. They can be used in hundreds of different ways-- and often in conjunction with the other foods on this list! I like to shred the chicken and use it to fill enchiladas or sandwiches, toss with pasta, top a salad, or to serve on its own with a cooked veggie and a starch for a simple dinner. Be on the lookout for other varieties too-- my grocery store sells rotisserie chickens with different seasoning blends, unsalted, and also just the chicken breast too. And for a real time saver, they frequently sell the pre-shredded meat right next to the whole chickens.
6. Uncle Ben's Ready Rice - I first discovered these handy little pouches in college-- another time in my life when I didn't have enough time to cook a real meal very often. I have recently added them back into heavy rotation for our weeknight dinners and forgot just how convenient they were. Just 90 seconds in the microwave and you've got rice for two ready to serve. I love the brown and the whole grain wild rice, while my husband prefers the rice pilaf. All of them are a great accompaniment to any grilled protein or to a quick stir fry.
7. Salad bar vegetables - This is one of my new favorite cooking hacks. Instead of spending tons of time washing and chopping vegetables, picking a few pre-cut veggies from the salad bar at your grocery store is a great way to incorporate fresh produce into a meal while seriously cutting down your prep time. My favorite salad bar veggies include bell pepper strips, matchstick carrots, chopped celery, and snow peas (because my store only sells them in huge 8 oz. packages when I usually only need a handful). It may not be as economical as buying vegetables whole, but it's a great option when you're pressed for time.

8. Soy Vay sauces - I love these sauces and marinades for an easy Asian-inspired dinner. One of my new go to dinners is to add a browned pork tenderloin and diced onions to a slow cooker with a little chicken broth and Soy Vay Veri Veri Teriyaki. I add sliced bell peppers and snow peas (see #3!) for the last hour of cooking and serve over rice.
9. Pacific Organic Roasted Red Pepper Tomato Soup - I'm not usually a fan of prepared soups. They're usually chock full of salt and preservatives. This soup is a different story though. It's creamy and flavorful and made with real ingredients. They also sell it in one of those handy containers, making it easier to store than canned soup. I love this soup with a toasty grilled cheese sandwich or a side salad for an easy meatless dinner or lunch. I also recently spotted it at Costco too!

10. Annie's Mac & Cheese - Boxed mac and cheese is the ultimate shortcut meal-- and one of my guiltiest pleasures for as long as I have been eating solid foods, I'm pretty sure. Thankfully, Annie's makes me feel slightly better about eating boxed macaroni and cheese since it is made with organic pasta, all natural ingredients, and no preservatives. I like mine with a few dashes of hot sauce and then I mix in some cooked veggies (like roasted broccoli or asparagus) or for the quickest of shortcut meals, stir fresh spinach leaves into the hot mac and cheese. It wilts down in seconds and ups the health quotient of your bowl a bit more. By the way, they sell variety packs of Annie's mac and cheeses at Costco too. It's a great way to stock up and make sure that you always have a meal on hand and can avoid costly takeout when you're feeling lazy or pressed for time.


  1. Such great ideas! I love Trader Joe's for these type of things.

    1. You know, I have never lived in walking distance of a TJ's so I have never been a shopper there... now that we have a car I need to make a point to get there more often!


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