These Trader Joe's Thanksgiving Hacks Will Change Your Life

Photographed by Davide Luciano; Food Styled by Michelle Gatton; Props Styled by Alex Brannian.
This story was originally published on November 24, 2015.

I'm not at the point in my life yet where I make or host my own Thanksgiving dinner — I still go home for Turkey Day every year. And when I am asked to bring a dish (usually a dessert or a side), I want it to be super easy to make, cheap, and still taste good. That's where frozen food from Trader Joe's comes in. I know this sounds totally kooky, but I wanted to see if Thanksgiving-worthy food could come just from Trader Joe's frozen food section. (You know I'm always up for an impossible-sounding food challenge.)
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The Rules:
1. I had to use as much frozen food as possible in every dish.
2. If I was incorporating non-frozen TJ's items, they had to be fully-formed products and not individual ingredients that you wouldn't otherwise eat on their own.
3. I had to at least attempt to make things that tasted good.

The Results:
When I first arrived at Trader Joe's, things looked bleak. First of all, I made the mistake of going to the Union Square Trader Joe's in New York, which according to a staffer there is the busiest supermarket in America. After wandering aimlessly around the freezer section for 20 minutes, I was threatening to call the entire experiment off. But inspiration slowly started to trickle in, and I found myself throwing a bunch of random frozen veggies into my cart.

This challenge is about sides and dessert, so I didn't even think about making a turkey (there isn't any frozen turkey at Trader Joe's, although there might be some closer to the big day), so I moved on and focused on things like mashed potatoes, pies, and casseroles. There also wasn't anything to make a gravy or cranberry sauce out of in the freezer aisle. However, Trader Joe's also has excellent jarred gravy and cranberry sauce that isn't frozen — check!

After a day or two of experimenting (a.k.a. making an enormous mess), and returning to Trader Joe's two more times over two days, I discovered that you really can make some solid holiday sides using frozen foods. In fact, I would even go as far as to serve a few of them at my family's Thanksgiving dinner.

Check out my escapades ahead, and find out which of my dishes got a pass, and which was a total FAIL.
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Napkins, drinking glasses, and vase from Canvas Home; dinner plates from Rosenthal; flatware from West Elm.
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Photographed by Davide Luciano; Food Styled by Michelle Gatton; Props Styled by Alex Brannian.
Spinach & Kale Dip Mashed Potatoes
Serves 4

Ingredients
1 bag Trader Joe's frozen mashed potato pieces
1/2 cup (or more to taste) Trader Joe's spinach & kale Greek yogurt dip

Instructions
1. Make mashed potatoes according to package instructions.

2. Mix in spinach kale dip.

3. Serve immediately.
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Photographed by Davide Luciano; Food Styled by Michelle Gatton; Props Styled by Alex Brannian. Serving Bowl from Canvas Home.
Spinach & Kale Dip Mashed Potatoes: AWESOME
When I realized that Trader Joe's sells its own ready-to-serve frozen mashed potatoes, I knew I had gotten lucky. But, I also couldn't just serve them as they were because that would have felt a little too easy. And that's where dip comes in.

This is the world's easiest way to punch up store-bought mashed potatoes. Trader Joe's frozen mashed potatoes are pretty good to begin with, but they're super basic and a little boring in the texture department. Add some dip and — voila! — you've got loads of onion-y, garlicky flavor, not to mention texture and color by way of kale and spinach pieces.

If you're a smooth mashed potato purist, you might want to stay away (or use classic onion dip instead), but I have grown fond of this flavorful hack. Plus, your frozen mashed potato secret is safe with us!
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Photographed by Davide Luciano; Food Styled by Michelle Gatton; Props Styled by Alex Brannian.
Garlic & Fire Roasted Pepper Green Beans
Serves 4-6

Ingredients
1 package Trader Joe's frozen green beans
1 package Trader Joe's fire roasted pepper medley
4 cubes frozen garlic
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions
1. Defrost peppers and onions according to package instructions.

2. Cook green beans to package instructions, but for 1-2 minutes less.

3. Heat olive oil in pan over medium heat. Drain liquid from defrosted peppers and onions and add to pan with cubes of frozen garlic. Sauté for 1-2 minutes or until garlic defrosts.

4. Add cooked green beans and sauté over medium heat for 5-10 minutes or until everything is heated through, but green beans still retain a firm texture.
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Photographed by Davide Luciano; Food Styled by Michelle Gatton; Props Styled by Alex Brannian. Serving Platter from Canvas Home.
Garlic & Fire Roasted Pepper Green Beans: YAS!
I knew Trader Joe's had frozen green beans, but I hit the jackpot with the fire-roasted peppers and the garlic. The peppers add some extra smokey flavor, while frozen garlic cubes are a huge timesaver all around. I'm going to keep them in my freezer from now on for emergencies, because they really do taste and smell like fresh garlic once you throw them in a pan.

These garlicky green beans truly look like a Thanksgiving side and they taste like green beans we've eaten 1,000 time before. The only issue I had with them is that despite all the garlic, they're still a little bland. I think this is because all of the veggies were frozen, so they're not exactly at their prime once you reheat. A dash of soy sauce or maybe a balsamic reduction would make this dish totally Thanksgiving-worthy.
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Photographed by Davide Luciano; Food Styled by Michelle Gatton; Props Styled by Alex Brannian.
Sweet Potato "Casserole"
Serves 4-6

Ingredients
1 package Trader Joe's frozen mashed sweet potatoes
1 tsp cinnamon
3 heaping tsps packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 package Trader Joe's candied pecans, chopped
Trader Joe's Coconut chips, to taste (optional)

Instructions
1. Heat sweet potatoes according to package stove-top instructions.

2. When completely defrosted, add cinnamon, sugar, and salt, and mix thoroughly.

3. Spread into a large bowl or an 8-by-8-inch brownie pan. Sprinkle pecans and coconut chips on top. Serve immediately.
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Photographed by Davide Luciano; Food Styled by Michelle Gatton; Props Styled by Alex Brannian.
Sweet Potato "Casserole:" DELICIOUS
For this attempt, I grabbed a couple of Trader Joe's snacks that weren't frozen, plus two ingredients from my pantry. (I was originally going to flavor the sweet potatoes with melted vanilla ice cream, but that was just too gross for me to stomach.)

That said, I fully recommend Trader Joe's frozen mashed sweet potatoes. The only ingredient in them is sweet potatoes, so you're getting a blank Thanksgiving canvas, without doing any of the peeling, cooking, mashing, etc. Essentially you're spared from doing any of the actual work — hooray!

I clearly cheated on the casserole front because there's no bake time or eggs involved. However, if you boil down the sweet potatoes for a little extra time, they thicken right up. Plus, the candied pecans and sweet and salty coconut chips make for a delicious topping.

It only take about 10 minutes to make this side, and I would happily serve it to dinner guests anytime.
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Photographed by Davide Luciano; Food Styled by Michelle Gatton; Props Styled by Alex Brannian.
Savory Monkey Bread Stuffing
Serves 4-6

Ingredients
1 Trader Joe's Savory Monkey Bread
1/2 package Trader Joe's Frozen Mushroom Medley
1 package Trader Joe's frozen pearl onions
2 squares frozen garlic
1/2 cup Trader Joe's frozen veggie medley (cauliflower removed)
1/4 cup broth from Trader Joe's frozen wonton soup (heated)
Salt and pepper

Instructions
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cook monkey bread according to package instructions.

2. Sauté mushrooms in a pan until warmed through. Heat pearl onions according to package instructions. Drain liquid, and then sauté with 2 cubes frozen garlic, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon salt.

3. Once cooled, chop up monkey bread (I cut away a few of the tougher browned edges) and put into 8-by-8 brownie pan. Add mushrooms, 1/2 cup pearl onion mixture, and frozen veggie medley.

4. Pour the broth over the dish and bake covered with tin foil for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes or until browned on top.
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Photographed by Davide Luciano; Food Styled by Michelle Gatton; Props Styled by Alex Brannian.
Savory Monkey Bread Stuffing: FORGET IT.
After panicking that Trader Joe's doesn't have frozen bread of any kind (shocking right?!), I was ready to have a meltdown in the frozen foods aisle (or resort to something grossly nontraditional like taquito or dumpling "stuffing") when I discovered Trader Joe's Rosemary Garlic Monkey Bread. (Score!)

Finding frozen veggies was easy enough, and a lot of them were already seasoned with stuffing-friendly herbs, another plus. However, Trader Joe's also doesn't have frozen stock of any kind (another unfortunate surprise) so I was forced to use broth from a frozen wonton soup to keep my stuffing moist.

While the end result did in fact taste like stuffing, for the amount of ingredients, work, and money I spent on this frozen stuffing, I could have easily made a way better real stuffing. So, sadly, the elation from finding a bread-like product in the freezer section didn't last long.
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Photographed by Davide Luciano; Food Styled by Michelle Gatton; Props Styled by Alex Brannian.
Pumpkin Ice Cream Pie
Serves 6-8

Ingredient
1 Trader Joe's Frozen Pie Crust
1 container Trader Joe's Pumpkin Ice Cream
1 box frozen Trader Joe's chocolate and vanilla macarons

1. Bake 1 pie crust (the box comes with 2) according to package instructions for "Blind Baked Shell." If the frozen crust falls apart on you, don't panic! Simply press the cracked parts back together into intended shape before moving to the pie pan. We also suggest using pie weights as per the directions, otherwise your crust might slide back down into the pan.

2. After the crust cools completely, soften ice cream for 10 minutes or until easy to spread. Use a spatula to fill and spread ice cream evenly across pie shell.

3. Chop frozen chocolate macaron cookies and sprinkle over top. Freeze for 2-3 hours or until firm.
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Photographed by Davide Luciano; Food Styled by Michelle Gatton; Props Styled by Alex Brannian.
Pumpkin Ice Cream Pie: YES, YES, YES!
The pie was the one dish that I had already figured out before I walked into the freezer aisle. I knew an ice cream pie would be my best bet, but I had no clue what to top it with. Which is why I was ecstatic when I found the frozen macarons. At first, I didn't think they even were supposed to be in the freezer aisle, but the directions state otherwise. These are now a new Trader Joe's fave because they somehow actually taste like French macarons, despite being frozen, and are even tastier when they're still a little chilly.

Out of all my frozen Thanksgiving eats, the pumpkin ice cream pie is my personal favorite and the one I recommend making most. Not only is it just three ingredients, but it's extremely easy to make, and comes out looking like a fancy Thanksgiving pie. (Despite the fact that anyone can make it.)

The only part I didn't love about this pie was the crust, which is a little tricky to work with. But, if you're not constrained to only frozen items from Trader Joe's you could use a pre-made crust or another brand (I like Pillsbury).

You can also sub any ice cream flavor you like, and the toppings of your choice. Had it not been a frozen challenge, I probably would have bee-lined for these mini peanut butter cups to sprinkle on top.
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