What’s for dinner? Even we as food writers sometimes find ourselves struggling with the answer to that perpetual question. Sure, we might whip up a meal from scratch. But then there are nights when we just can’t muster the energy, enthusiasm, time and ingredients.
We’ve often emphasized that having a well-stocked freezer is part of being a well-prepared cook. That can definitely include prepared foods that get pulled out at the last minute and only need to be reheated. While we certainly don’t encourage these types of meals every night – they can be loaded with more sodium, preservatives and fat than you’d ordinarily want to eat – everyone is allowed to give themselves a pass once in a while. Here’s a roundup of the SOS meals we keep on hand when we’re looking for something hot, if not haute.
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Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza
“We don’t eat enough pizza.” It’s a running joke with my partner that has gained traction over the past two years as pizza shops slinging pies of all styles keep popping up around D.C. She and I had even more places to try during the pandemic, when ghost kitchens in shuttered restaurants joined the takeout pizza party. But one day last summer I came home from an anxiety-filled grocery run with a familiar red box – an impulse purchase – peeking out of my overstuffed bags. Twenty-two minutes later, lunch was served: A crisp, crackly, bready raft, topped with (a tad too) sweet tomato sauce, (a tad too little) cheese and pinwheels of tiny crisped up pepperoni slices.
Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza smacks of nostalgia for me. It was an easy meal I could make all by myself as a kid when my parents were stuck at work late. In my early 20s, it was a reliable late-night alternative to the gargantuan jumbo slice in a greasy cardboard box and extended sidewalk shenanigans. And even though it had been years since I’d tasted one, the pizza still hit the spot on that mid-pandemic weekday afternoon, accompanied by a lightly dressed leafy green salad. It was the no-fuss, barely-anything-to-clean-up lunch we needed in between the slog of Zoom meetings.
Two weeks later, my partner did the big grocery run, and when she returned with a Stouffer’s box in tow, she saw the surprised look on my face. “We don’t eat enough pizza,” she said.
– Matt Brooks
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Lean Cuisine Vermont White Cheddar Mac & Cheese
This one is as much for my son as it is for me. I’ve never been one for boxed mac and cheese, but at some point in trying to feed a very picky toddler, I grabbed a Lean Cuisine off the grocery store freezer shelf and never looked back. We don’t rely on them to feed my son as much now as we used to. Still, there always has to be one in the freezer just in case.
Truthfully, this compact entree is better than a desperation meal needs to be. The pasta cooks up soft but not mushy, and the sauce is thick and creamy with a recognizable cheddar flavor. Now that he’s bigger, my son routinely finishes the whole thing, though I secretly hope there are a few bites left for me. Would I pull one out for myself should the need arise? Absolutely.
– Becky Krystal
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Trader Joe’s Mandarin Orange Chicken
I can’t remember where, but years ago I read somewhere that Trader Joe’s Mandarin Orange Chicken was developed by a big-name Asian chef, and I decided to give it a go in my kitchen. I had low expectations, but the dish really blew me away with its taste, flavor and, most of all, ease of prep. Basically a dupe for takeout orange chicken, Trader Joe’s version tastes better and is much more cost effective.
Since then, this chicken has become a staple in our freezer, a reliable and welcome solution on nights when cooking seems far out of reach but dinner still needs to be made. I read somewhere also that the trick is to bake this chicken at 425 degrees instead of 400, as the package instructions tell you, and you get incredibly crispy bites coated in a delicious sauce, which you can use less of, or skip entirely, depending on your preference. My choosy 6-year-old calls it his favorite chicken (thanks for nothing, kid) and will devour a healthy grown-up portion of it. And because we’re creatures of habit, we always serve it alongside Trader Joe’s frozen vegetable rice (we like either the vegetable or the Japanese versions), which we heat up in a hot wok to get lots of crispy bits.
– Olga Massov
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White Castle Classic Cheese Sliders
I’m pretty sure I was sober when I ate my first White Castle slider. I was a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star, and a colleague dragged me to one of the chain’s metro locations, back before White Castle beat a retreat from the K.C. market. I was a rank newbie, and I’m almost certain I lobbied instead for a steakburger from Winstead’s or even a Single with cheese from Wendy’s. What did I know? The internet was a faint glimmer in Al Gore’s eye in the 1980s.
I was immediately smitten with the ritual, especially the idea of ordering burgers by the bagful, as if you were buying a sack of night crawlers. Each square burger came tucked inside its own cardboard carport, which you left abandoned on the tray, evidence of your conquest. The sliver of steam-grilled ground beef was besides the point. This fast-food popper was about its dinner-roll like bun, the sprinkling of soft browned onions, the pickles and whatever grease was absorbed into the bread. The beef was more or less a support beam to hold the sweet little bite together.
Whenever I’m tempted by something in the frozen food aisle – admittedly a rare occurrence given my dining schedule – I am inevitably drawn to the blue-and-white boxes that house those adorable bundles of ground beef, which have satisfied America’s cravings (stoned or not) for 100 years now. The White Castle box provides only one option to warm the frozen sliders, and that’s in the microwave, which is perfect. As Harold and Kumar can attest, when jonesing for White Castle, you want those sliders stat, not after a white-knuckle adventure through New Jersey and certainly not after an interminable 15-minute reheat in the oven.
– Tim Carman
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Alexia Seasoned Waffle Cut Fries
I’m a from-scratch type of cook, but homemade french fries? That happens once a year – at the most. In the meantime, every week or two, I preheat the oven for a bag of Alexia brand frozen fries, which have a blessedly short ingredient list and, at least when they’re hot, come surprisingly close to the taste and texture of homemade. That’s particularly the case with the waffle-cut variety, which have all those extra edges to crisp up in the oven. I don’t exactly follow the instructions on the bag, though; I use a higher heat, and I put the baking sheet in the oven while it preheats so the fries hit a hot surface from the get-go. If you have an air fryer, you know what to do. I don’t, so I sometimes take the extra step of cooking them on a rack that fits inside the sheet, and use my oven’s convection setting on the oven, speeding up the process and adding to that satisfying crunch.
– Joe Yonan
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Quorn Meatless Chicken Nuggets
I’d never really been a chicken nugget kid, and I don’t think I’ve eaten one since the age of maybe 8. A former college roommate used to buy these Quorn nuggets, so my first nuggets in over a decade were meatless; they were especially good doused in Valentina or Frank’s hot sauces. But after that year, I did not have a nugget – meatless or chicken – again until the pandemic struck.
I got exceedingly lucky with my work-from-home transition and have always kept a bunch of things (namely, veggie dumplings) in the freezer, ready to go. My boyfriend and I have mostly complementary work schedules, and whoever doesn’t have a meeting around lunchtime handles the food. But on the few days where we’re crazy busy, with overlapping meetings, every chore needing to be done immediately, and somehow not a single dumpling to be found, these nuggs come to the rescue. As for how they actually taste? They taste like relief. Like, “Hey maybe this day isn’t such a train wreck after all.” They taste exactly like the meme of the dog sitting in a room of fire sipping his coffee.
– Kari Sonde
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Rao’s Meat Lasagna
If I’m going to reach for something frozen, it’s usually a dish that would take me a while to make – one that has multiple steps or components. This lasagna is a great example.
I got turned onto Rao’s after reading in Ina Garten’s cookbook, “Modern Comfort,” that she favors the brand for tomato sauces, including jarred arrabbiata. So when this lasagna caught my eye as I was grocery shopping on a recent weary evening, I threw it in the cart. It didn’t disappoint. I think that’s because the ingredient list starts with Italian tomatoes, ricotta cheese, pasta, water and mozzarella cheese. That simplicity appeals to me.
The top turns nice and golden as it bakes, giving it a crispy surface over the cheesy pasta layers with minced beef and pork. (My only complaint: A bit more sauce would be nice.)
Does it taste as good as mine? No, but it gets close enough that when I have that comfort-food craving, I like knowing it’s waiting in the freezer.
– Ann Maloney
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Hebrew National Beef Franks
Even though I spend some of my days in the kitchen working on recipes, when mealtime comes around, sometimes I still need something else to go with whatever recipe I’ve been testing. Take for instance the potato salad recipe I’m working on. Some people might be able to eat an entire bowl of it for a meal, but not I. That’s when a hot dog from the freezer couldn’t be better.
“But hot dogs aren’t sold in the freezer section,” you might be thinking. Yes, you are correct, but I like to keep a pack of them in the freezer whenever I’m in need of a quick protein. I just give them a quick rinse under the faucet to remove any ice, zap them in the microwave for a minute or two, throw them on a slice of bread along with a squiggle of mustard (or better yet, a spoonful or two of leftover chow-chow) and they’re ready to eat in almost no time at all.
While Hebrew National wasn’t the team’s favorite in a taste test a couple of years ago (before my time), it has a flavor that I personally enjoy and is one of the brands that I’m consistently able to find. So now it has a spot in my freezer, ready to be enjoyed whenever I’m in need.
– Aaron Hutcherson
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Ajinomoto Gyoza Dumplings
In an ideal world, we’d all have time to make dumplings – mandu or jiaozi or momos or pierogies or pelmeni – stuffing our freezer full so when we need a quick meal, they’re there. The next best thing? Buy them already made and frozen.
City dwellers: Go to your local Chinatown, find a restaurant that makes and sells frozen dumplings and stock up. Another option, for those who live outside major metropolitan areas? Goldbelly, which helps restaurants with packaging and shipping.
Failing that, I’ve never had a problem finding Ajinomoto Gyoza. I’ve seen them at corner stores, Asian markets and general grocers throughout the country. Check the freezer aisle next to the puff pastry cups and phyllo dough. Or, head to H Mart, where a larger variety will be available, including vegetable, pork, chicken, beef and more.
Though the brand is based in Japan, it has a North American facility in Southern California where it produces many items, including its Japanese-style dumplings. Cabbage makes up part of the filling in these dumplings, as is traditional for gyoza, and it adds a nice, lightly sour note. Instructions on the back explain how to cook the little pinched purses in a frying pan on the stovetop, from frozen, in about five minutes. While they steam and crisp, I mix soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, chile oil and chopped scallions into a quick sauce, and then dinner is done.
– G. Daniela Galarza
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Roberta’s Wood Fired Pizza
I’ve never been to Roberta’s, the Brooklyn pie shop to the stars (Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton are among the celebrities spotted there). But I adore a wood-fired pizza with a flavorful, chewy crust – something I had previously only enjoyed at restaurants, seeing as I still haven’t won the lottery that would allow me to splurge on one of those gorgeous outdoor ovens.
I encountered Roberta’s frozen options after embarking on the staff’s 2020 New Year’s food resolutions, where we each set a goal for ourselves and our kitchens, and mine was eating less takeout. I discovered that a well-stocked freezer was the best way to avoid turning to delivery apps on nights when dinner plans went awry. I was initially skeptical; previous frozen-pizza forays had yielded only box-fuls of disappointment.
But Roberta’s pies were clutch: a nubby, blistered crust and high-quality toppings were like something I’d encounter at a charming neighborhood trattoria. The margherita is classic, dotted with bits of salty mozzarella, and the kale version offers hints of chile and garlic. And call me shallow, but I like their looks as much as their taste. I grab them whenever I see them, knowing that I’ve got the makings of not just a backup/emergency dinner but a meal I’ll actually look forward to.
– Emily Heil
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Amy’s Indian Palak Paneer
Ever catch a look inside the fridge of someone who reviews restaurants full-time? When he first met me, my now-partner was surprised at how barren it was. “It’s like an expensive wine cooler,” he used to tell people. He conveniently didn’t share the contents of my freezer. It was fuller, but not by much, and almost always counted a couple of frozen MREs for those occasions when (1) a disappointing restaurant meal left me hungry or (2) foul weather or other circumstances unexpectedly kept me home.
By “meals ready to eat,” I’m referring to something I could nuke in a few minutes and feel somewhat virtuous about eating. The restaurant beat is, after all, a rich one, packed as it is with sauces, salt, sugar, fat and meat: life’s pleasures, sure, but also it’s shorteners. On my off hours, I want something that both satisfies me and leans healthful.
I want palak paneer and I want it from Amy’s Kitchen, the organic-minded meal maker that eschews meat, eggs and more in its wholesome products. I appreciate that the out-of-the-oven Indian spread, served with basmati rice and rajma (red kidney bean) dal, looks close to its vivid picture on the package. The 10-ounce portion size is just right. So are the details, like the dance of toasted spices in the pureed spinach, dotted with creamy cubes of cottage cheese, and the scattering of fragrant fennel seeds atop the rice. Eating the meal puts me in touch with my choice cuisine so much, it’s as if I’m at work, in a favorite Indian restaurant: home sweet home, in other words.
– Tom Sietsema