Trader Joe’s has a lot of qualities that make it one of the most popular grocery stores in the U.S.: It’s cheap, it’s great at producing high-quality, healthy snacks and treats, and don’t get me started on the free samples. But perhaps its most popular attribute is its vast array of frozen meals. From healthy gnocchi to cauliflower pizzas and even tamales and enchiladas, the brand is king when it comes to freezer stockpiling.
Yet, as with any frozen meal, sometimes the portions are pretty small, or they just don’t offer complete nutrition—like enough protein, fiber, calories, or fats—on their own, where another handy add-on or a few mix-ins might help you get those macronutrient ratios and desired flavors you are looking for to complete the meal.
So, how do dietitians make Trader Joe’s frozen meals healthy and filling without dirtying a ton of dishes or making a lot of extra work? Here are a couple of options they love keeping in their freezer to make into wholesome, quick, simple, and balanced meals, along with a few handy helpers to take the recipe up a notch.
Trader Joe’s Mandarin Orange Chicken is consistently a winner of the store’s annual Customer Choice Awards, and for good reason—it’s delicious, convenient, and a bit healthier than your standard takeout fare. However, even though it’s high in protein, it still needs some fiber and vegetables to make it a truly complete meal.
Thankfully, that’s not hard to do. “Pair this frozen meal from TJ’s with some homemade fried rice with veggies, or cauliflower fried rice and veggies,” suggests Maggie Michalcyzk, RD. “Or grab a bag of frozen mixed veggies like a mix with broccoli, bell peppers, and carrots to pair with the orange chicken.”
Looking for a healthy fried rice recipe? Try this delicious option from Chef Dale Talde:
This frozen food item has enjoyed a cult following since it hit the shelves a few years ago. “This frozen item from Trader Joe’s is super versatile, but eaten alone is not exactly a complete meal,” says Michalczyk. There’s very little protein, fiber, or other nutrients to make it filling on its own.
“My favorite way to do it is pair [the cauliflower gnocchi] with marinara sauce, greens like spinach, chicken, and Parmesan cheese,” says Michalczyk. (You can also swap the chicken for white beans or another plant-based protein of your choice.) This way you are getting in that protein, calcium, and some fats to fill you up faster and for longer.
Turn it into: Healthy Indian-style takeout
Michalczyk likes to replicate some of her favorite Indian dishes at home by starting with Trader Joe’s Chicken Tikka Masala and adding some more basmati rice (or cauliflower rice) plus the brand’s Palak Paneer (aka cooked, spiced spinach with Indian cheese). By combining two frozen options, you get a more filling meal that has fiber from the vegetables, protein from the chicken and the cheese, and some healthy grains.
Turn it into: Southwestern Mac and Cheese
This lighter mac and cheese is actually pretty healthy on its own, but can still stand for a bit of improvement to ensure it keeps you full and satisfied. “It’s got a whopping 15 grams of protein, but unfortunately lacks fiber,” says Charlotte Martin, RDN, CPT. “To boost the fiber content of this mac and cheese, try turning it into a southwestern mac and cheese,” she suggests.
After cooking the mac and cheese according to package directions, stir in a tablespoon or two of canned diced green chiles, and a quarter-cup each of canned black beans and fire-roasted diced tomatoes. Hello, flavor *and* nutrition.
Turn it into: Healthy burger-in-a-bowl
These babies are a fan-favorite and are packed with protein and flavor. “Instead of serving [the patties] on a bun, use them to create a deconstructed burger bowl packed fiber and phytonutrients,” says Martin.“Serve a cooked chicken burger on a bed of mixed greens, and top with cut and roasted baby potatoes, sliced cherry tomatoes and red onion, pickles, and dressing of your choice,” she says. (She prefers Trader Joe’s Green Goddess dressing.)
Turn it into: Sausage and pesto “noodles”
As a great, crunchier alternative to zucchini noodles and a particularly good source of beta carotene, fiber, and potassium, these spirals are perfect for meal prep, but they lack other nutrients. “I always recommend pairing them with some protein, like your favorite chicken sausage. Stir in a sauce of your choosing after cooking, like Trader Joe’s Kale & Cashew Pesto,” says Martin.
Looking for other smart cooking hacks? Here’s how to freeze seven common healthy foods. And these are the frozen dinners that dietitians eat during the week.
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