There are plenty of foods you shouldn’t prep in advance: Garlic, I’m looking at you. (It oxidizes, and the flavor changes enormously.)
But there are lots of shortcuts available to home cooks that are totally serviceable—even tasty—that don’t always entail consuming tons of extra additives. Here are a few things I buy on the regular.
Roasted peeled bell peppers
When was the last time you roasted and peeled your own peppers? How’d that go for ya? It is, frankly, sort of a nightmare. Whether you’re broiling them or toasting them over an open flame, it seems to take forever. It’s lots of hands-on time. You have to steam them in a covered bowl. You have to wait for them to cool, then delicately pick off the skin, and take out the seeds and stems, and wonder what on earth you’ve done with this one precious life you’ve been awarded.
OK, maybe that’s overstating things a bit. But major grocery stores, including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, have really tasty jarred bell peppers. I’ve seen red and yellow at TJ’s, and Whole Foods has red peppers made with simply organic red bell peppers, sea salt, water, and citric acid. The cost for one full pound of them near me? $4.99. If you’ve ever looked at the prices of red, yellow, and orange peppers, you know that they tend to be pricey, sometimes $3.49 a pound and up—and that includes the cost of the stems and seeds. Love your life. Keep your nails pepper-free. Buy the jarred peppers.
Frozen puff pastry
I’m sure actual pastry chefs would quibble with this one and say there’s no comparing frozen and homemade puff. I personally do not have three hours and 20 minutes to find out by making my own.
I do, however, have time to take a sheet of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry—my go-to brand—out of the freezer and unfold it. I cover it with caramelized onions, thyme, and Taleggio (a favorite Nigel Slater recipe), pop it in the oven, and no one is the wiser when it comes out puffed and golden and gorgeous as can be.
Boneless skinless chicken thighs
I was a member of the Church of Whole Chicken for such a long time. I like that there’s no waste—or little waste—and in theory, I would save the chicken livers you find in the cavities and turn them into delightful mousses. Well. I did use most of the bones for Instant Pot stock, but sometimes, man, you do not want to deal with a whole, hulking chicken. Sometimes you don’t even have room for one in your fridge or freezer.
So I started using bone-in chicken thighs and legs, and those were fine. But recently I’ve switched to boneless skinless thighs, and I’m a believer. It’s a cop-out of sorts: Somewhere, there are probably tons of chicken skins sitting on a floor, along with the bones, before being swept into the trash. The environmentalist in me cringes. But now that I’ve seen big value packs of boneless, skinless, air-chilled thighs at Whole Foods for an absolutely reasonable price, I’ll be buying them regularly. (Try this recipe; become a believer.)
Yes, beans from scratch can be mightily delicious. There are heirloom varieties out there that are extraordinary, and if we don’t eat them, they might go extinct. But when your toddler is screaming that you didn’t let her close the fridge door like you said you would and your wife says if she doesn’t eat in 20 minutes she’s going to start screaming, too, look to canned beans. Rinse them, and do this: Open a can of tuna, break out a lemon and some garlic, maybe throw some frozen greens in there. Run away from the screamers. You’ve provided sustenance, and you’re done here.
My wheezing air conditioners are of the, er, vintage variety. So if I just want to make butter chicken in my Instant Pot and keep the darn stovetop off—that one little flame sure can heat up an apartment!—I’m asking the boyfriend to pick up a pint of rice on his way home.
We use most of it that night, then pack extra into the next day’s lunch. It costs $2.50 for convenience, a cool home, and 30 minutes of cooking time saved.
Cookie dough in logs
I tend to make my own cookie dough and then roll it into logs. I’d love to tell you I neatly slice off coins of dough, put them on sheets, and make pretty little cookies. That would be a lie. More often, I am standing by the freezer with said log in my hand like a weapon, gnawing at any chocolate chips I can get off its lumpy end.
You do you, but I have no problem with that Nestlé Toll House chocolate chip cookie dough log, which I tend to treat with more respect, and which I slice up to handle cookie cravings.
All hail the dumpling! But have you noticed how pricey it’s gotten lately? As is true of good ice cream, dumpling prices have been spiking. (Not everywhere, mind you; plenty of Chinatowns feature cheap-as-chips spots with delicious homemade dumplings.) If you’re determined to not leave your kitchen but crave the satisfaction of takeout dumplings, plan ahead so you can make your own. (Not, always, from scratch, although that’s a fun activity, too.)
Buy a frozen package of pre-made dumplings from your favorite dumpling shop or grocery store—Trader Joe’s has good ones—and steam or fry them up to your heart’s content. It’s so much easier than you’d think, takes just a few minutes, and you get to control the amount of salt and fat you add. Slice a bit of ginger to put into a dish of soy sauce or black vinegar, have the Sriracha at the ready, and you’re at an Asian restaurant in your own home. No need to tip.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.