I Lived Off Trader Joe's Frozen Food For Two Weeks & Lived To Tell The Tale

I have a confession to make, dear reader.

I have long harbored a slight disdain for the frozen section at Trader Joe’s. I taught myself to cook by ignoring the semi-homemade route. I learned how to proof my own pizza dough and never bought pre-shredded cheese or biscuits in a tube. My mother once called on a Sunday night in college, only to find out I was busy making my own pie crust. Having raised me on boxed mac 'n' cheese and grocery-store rotisserie chicken, she could only say, “Where did you come from?”

When I moved to New York, my roommate and I laughed at our realtor when he told us our oversized stove meant more clothes storage. No, we told him, now we finally had space for a pizza stone of our own. We have a standing mixer, a VitaMix, and two immersion blenders. We never bought pre-mixed or pre-made and hardly ever bought anything frozen. If you're more likely to go hunting for bone-in pork shoulder or superfine sugar over frozen meals, you won't find much at Trader Joe's.

But then, slowly, inch-by-inch, my realtor’s predictions came true. Real life (and even more real expenses) got in the way of my home-cooked-meal plans. We aren't resorting to using the oven for purse storage, but it does go weeks without being fired up. But instead of trying to find time-saving solutions in my grocery shopping, I became dependent on takeout. My halal-cart guy would ask where I’d been if I didn’t get my signature lamb gyro at least twice a week. There is a pizzeria in my building. You can imagine how good I got at resisting that siren song.

I was hemorrhaging money and, frankly, losing my taste for gyros. It was time for drastic measures. Knowing that my days of elaborate cooking were at least temporarily behind me, I decided to overcorrect and lean in to the food I’d been avoiding: the convenient, flash-frozen, cheap meals of Trader Joe’s.

Could I do it? Was it even possible? Would I even monitor the amount of sodium I was ingesting? (Not really.) Click through to join me on my journey of frozen oatmeal pucks, plastic trays, and a whole lot of hanging out in the office kitchen. Oh, and did I mention that I don't own a microwave?

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Illustrated by Isabella DiMarzio.
Day 1
Brunch: Breakfast Burrito, Oatmeal with Blueberries
Dinner: Tarte D’Alace, Samosa
Photo: Courtesy of Marshall Bright.
Before I began my grand experiment, I, of course, had to gather enough frozen food. As it turns out, Saturday afternoon is not a safe time to go to a Manhattan Trader Joe's. Why aren't all these people at brunch, like I'd like to be?! Thankfully, two friends volunteered to assist and guide me through the process and provide recommendations. One of my favorite things about Trader Joe's is the chipper cashiers asking, "Oh, what are you cooking?!" when they look at my weird assortment of groceries. No one asks you this question when you're buying nothing but frozen food, because it is clear you aren't cooking at all.

Starting on a Sunday also meant I was kicking off the experiment with no microwave. While I could nuke weekday lunches at the office, that meant anything eaten at home had to be brought up to at least room temperature with just a good-old-fashioned stove.

Which is how I started out day one: trying to figure out what to do with the hockey puck of frozen oatmeal that came with very specific instructions to only use a microwave. (The lesson here is clearly "read the instructions before buying," but have you ever felt like pausing in Trader Joe's for some light reading?)

I problem-solved to avoid an oatmeal popsicle by improvising a double-boiler. Slowly, it turned from a hard rock to a mushy, warm bowl of breakfast. All in all, an awkward success, but a success, nonetheless.
Illustrated by Isabella DiMarzio.
Day 2
Breakfast: Oatmeal
Lunch: Indian Feast of Butter Chicken, Garlic Naan, and Chicken Samosas
Snack: Pork Dumplings
Dinner: Turkey Meatballs with Quinoa Duo with Vegetable Melange
Photo: Courtesy of Marshall Bright.
Partially because of the lack of appeal of frozen entrees, and partially because the idea of eating out of plastic black trays for two straight weeks was just plain depressing, I made a deal with myself. Whenever possible, I would transfer the food to a real plate. Turns out, this is a great way to impress your coworkers and feel really fancy with minimal effort.

Cheaper than takeout — and faster, too!
Illustrated by Isabella DiMarzio.
Day 3
Breakfast: Black Death Smoothie
Lunch: Leftover Turkey Meatballs With Quinoa Duo with Vegetable Melange
Dinner: Pasta Arrabiata with Turkey Meatballs
Photo: Courtesy of Marshall Bright.
When I announced this experiment to people, they often worried about my health: How would I survive without fresh fruit and vegetables? To which I responded, how many fresh fruit and vegetables do you think I am eating now?

Nevertheless, in an attempt to at least make a nod towards healthy eating, I decided to get my daily greens out of the way with a green smoothie. Instead of fresh spinach, however, I had to use frozen. But if it was thawed, wouldn’t it kind of be like the same thing?

No, no it was not. Frozen spinach, it turns out, is a lot more compact and has a lot less water. Googling “how is spinach frozen?” didn't yield immediate results, but my best guess is it involves some cooking down. Since there was less water and more leafy green in the mix, I got a very, very sludgy-thick consistency that also happened to be black. While it tasted fine, that was my last attempt at an making anything really green.
Illustrated by Isabella DiMarzio.
Day 4
Breakfast: Breakfast Burrito
Lunch: Shake Shack (whoops)
Dinner: Madarin-Style Orange Chicken, Fried Rice, and a Scallion Pancake
Photo: Via @zeeeebs.
Okay, yes, I cheated on day four. When it's your coworker's birthday and your boss asks for you for your order for celebratory Shake Shack and you say, “I brought leftover turkey meatballs with a vegetable melange,” and your boss makes a sad face and everyone makes a sad face, it is very easy to cave.

Second, this was my second frozen breakfast burrito of the week and I'm sad to say the grittiness of reheated eggs was becoming more and more unsettling.
Illustrated by Isabella DiMarzio.
Day 5
Breakfast: Leftover Smoothie
Lunch: Leftover Turkey Meatballs and Quinoa with Vegetable Melange (for real this time)
Dinner: Leftover Chinese
Photo: Courtesy of Marshall Bright.
While I was done making anything green, that didn't mean I was going to toss out the smoothie leftovers. I froze half of the batch and attempted to thaw it overnight in the fridge. This did not work. So I did what anyone would do and carried a giant brick of frozen, blended, then re-frozen (yes, I see the irony here) smoothie to work with me in my purse. Leftover black smoothie, it turns out, does not improve with age.

This is also where I realized that the TJ's orange chicken is seriously, dangerously good. If the only real change to my spending is that I use much more affordable frozen foods to try to cure my Seamless habit, I might be onto something.
Illustrated by Isabella DiMarzio.
Day 6
Breakfast: “Mini” Croissants
Lunch: Pesto Pasta and Garlic Naan
Dinner: Burger again, whoops
Photo: Via @lorditsmarshall.
Yeah. Okay, I cheated and had another burger. I could tell you the whole story, but the short version is: If it is even remotely easy to access a burger, I will. I don’t know if we need to go into it more than that.

The most important thing I learned today is that “mini” croissants at Trader Joe’s are only mini if you are a giant. When they're just out of the freezer, they actually do look kind of small. Then, you thaw them overnight and they rise to double their size. I’d like to report to you that, after realizing I'd just made three full-sized croissants, I only ate one.

But I will not lie to you. I ate all three.
Illustrated by Isabella DiMarzio.
Day 7
Breakfast: Mini Churros
A Kind Of Lunch-Dinner Blur: Macaroni and Cheese, Party Size Mini Meatballs, a lot of Mozzarella Sticks
Photo: Courtesy of Trader Joe's.
We all know the expression “too much of a good thing.” but how many of us have truly lived it? I came away with a new appreciation of that sentiment after my first full weekend of the frozen-food experiment, in which I discovered that, if I am left alone with a bag of mozzarella sticks, I can do serious damage to it. So far, I’d actually been eating moderately healthy: decent portion sizes, three-ish meals a day.

Now, in the privacy of my own home, I had become a mozzarella-stick eating machine, undeterred by basic human decency or suggested serving sizes on the packaging. Would I learn my lesson? We'll find out the very next day.
Illustrated by Isabella DiMarzio.
Day 8
Brunch: Quiche with a hash brown
Dinner: Oh god, more mozzarella sticks and some meatballs
Photo: Courtesy of Marshall Bright.
Nope, no lessons learned.

The quiche looks nice though! Focus on that.
Illustrated by Isabella DiMarzio.
Day 9
Breakfast: Chocolate Croissant
Lunch: A bunch of dumplings and samosas
Dinner: Palak Paneer
Photo: Courtesy of Marshall Bright.
Behold, a chocolate croissant that was lovely and fluffy when I left home, and then deflated on my commute.

Disaster struck again when I realized my leftovers from Friday did not survive over the weekend in the office fridge. Thankfully, I’d stashed some extra snacks in the freezer that did make it to Monday, and I ate that for lunch. It was both delicious and demoralizing. At this point, I was ready for food that did not come in a box or bag.

I decided I might as well round out my day of defeat with trip number two back to Trader Joe's. The stores in Manhattan are always pretty hectic, but Mondays just add another layer of chaos. I went in without so much a "list" or a "plan" as a "determination to get out alive, with more food." By my very, very low standards, the shopping trip was a success.
Illustrated by Isabella DiMarzio.
Day 10
Breakfast: Churros
Lunch: Pasta Arrabiata and Beef Meatballs
Dinner: “Less guilt” Mac 'n' Cheese with Frozen Peas added
Photo: Courtesy of Marshall Bright.
I spent a lot of time standing in front of the office microwave during this experiment, which led to two surprising and unexpected side effects.

1. I talked with a lot more of my coworkers as I whiled away the long minutes for my food to heat to a point where it is not capable of breaking a tooth.

2. I began to develop a theory that the heating times on all Trader Joe’s foods are completely made up.

Seriously, spend enough time consuming this stuff and you’ll wonder if all reheating instructions were made up with a game of Mad Libs. Why does one dish require 10 minutes, with a stir in the middle, and others just two? Why does some film need to be punctured and some need to be peeled back? Why is it really, truly okay to put plastic trays in the oven? Is any of this based in reality?

Either my sanity was slipping or I was on to my next big story. My coworkers — who were suddenly sharing the microwave with me while I waited seven long minutes to defrost my lunch — didn’t share in my enthusiasm.
Illustrated by Isabella DiMarzio.
Day 11
Breakfast: Scallion Pancake
Lunch: Beef Bulgogi
Dinner: Margherita Pizza, Tarte d'Champignon, Chicken Spring Rolls, Ice Cream Bon Bons
Photo: Courtesy of Trader Joe's.
Did my social life suffer because of my need to eat most meals near a microwave or stove? A little bit, though I could occasionally convince someone to join me for an all-frozen feast under the premise of “We’ll just eat whatever frozen foods look good and it will be cheap,” which is how I wound up eating chicken spring rolls and pizza with my friend, Rachel. This also marked my third and final trip to Trader Joe's for the last few days of the experiment.

Was our dinner Michelin-Star worthy? No. But did we get to have a relaxed dinner together with minimal clean up? Yes. Should spring rolls and pizza always be combined? Probably.
Illustrated by Isabella DiMarzio.
Day 12
Breakfast: Chinese-Style Pork Buns
Lunch: Chicken and Green Chile Tamale, Chile Relleno
Dinner: Thai Fried Rice with Shrimp
Photo: Courtesy of Marshall Bright.
I began to worry about the effects this experiment is having on me on day 12, when I found myself filled with a deep sense of accomplishment after heating up the Thai fried rice in a pan for five minutes. Or, when for lunch, I microwaved something that looked like toddler's vomit and thought, Oh, yummy!"

It was time to return to real food — and soon.
Illustrated by Isabella DiMarzio.
Day 13
Breakfast: Chinese-Style Pork Buns
Lunch: Chicken Tika Masala and Allo Chaat Kati Pouch
Dinner: Homemade Paella
Photo: Courtesy of Trader Joe's.
I wound up cheating three times over the course of 42 meals. While that means I don't get perfect marks for the week, I do think that 92.68% of meals is a pretty good track record and that's why my conscious feels clear.

Having a general dislike of sweet breakfasts, I didn't really try much beyond the croissants and breakfast burritos (the churros turned into an accidental breakfast item after I skipped a shopping trip and subbed them in, last minute). Since the only savory option, the burrito, feels less like its filled with eggs and more like it’s filled with “eggs,” I began to look beyond the breakfast section for frozen sustenance.

In my last few days, I discovered that the steamed buns are both an excellent morning snack and also a good cure for hangovers.
Illustrated by Isabella DiMarzio.
Day 14
Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner: All the weird stuff still in the freezer, basically.
Photo: Courtesy of Trader Joe's.
What did I learn over the past two weeks, aside from the fact that both the party-size meatballs and full-size turkey meatballs can be added to everything and also can be eaten partially frozen if you're tired of waiting?

I learned that living off an all-frozen-foods diet is totally doable and that things heated on the stove, NOT in the microwave, will probably taste better. I also learned that the vast majority of TJ's frozen food is delicious. (File under: "Obvious Statements," just below "Sky: It's blue.")

But I also learned one surprising thing: I thought I was going to save mad-crazy money during the experiment. But I actually slightly increased spending, because I started taking Uber more without realizing it. As it turns out, if I know all I have to look forward to when I get home is a bag of frozen stuff, I am more likely to decide my treat for surviving a Tuesday (or Wednesday, or any day) would be an Uber ride for the gift of silence and solitude.

I honestly thought that the experiment, while restrictive and budget-y, would also feel decadent. But it turns out, no matter how delicious the Mandarin Chicken, when it keeps coming from your freezer, meal after meal, it is less exciting. I am glad to be back on non-frozen fruit and vegetables and meals that contain varying temperatures (like a nice, cool dollop of sour cream on a burrito bowl!) But while I don't think I'll ever replicate my experiment again in full, I will definitely be picking up more frozen meals in the future.

Just maybe not any mozzarella sticks.
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