What are your “secret ingredients” for a quick, home-cooked dinner? Talk amongst yourselves.

Sara’s meat soup recipe caused her to wonder what other people’s "secret ingredients" are. Hers are:

Muir Glen Fire Roasted Tomatoes, bagged fresh spinach, frozen half-baked bread (La Brea makes some, but I’ve started seeing generic brands in the grocery store), frozen shrimp with sauce, couscous, mushroom broth (as good as beef broth, which is saying a lot for my family, but healthier), premium frozen fish (salmon, mahi-mahi) which comes individually wrapped so it’s easy to throw one or two in the fridge in the morning to defrost, frozen chicken in "tender" sized pieces (faster to defrost and cook)…

Mine are: barbecue sauce, Barilla Pasta Plus, Quorn Naked Cutlets (fake vegie chicken, in the frozen section), Trader Joe’s canned corn (crunchier and sweeter than any other variety I’ve tried), frozen edamame, and couscous. (Plenty more TJ’s favorites can be found in the comments of my ode to Trader Joe’s.)

What are your must-have quick dinner ingredients?


  1. laura says

    Salsa verde, black beans, white beans (great northern or cannellini), frozen corn, EGGS. We eat a lot of omlettes, and beans & rice.

  2. Mike Sheehan says

    Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill sauces. You can pick up a jar of this stuff, which is excellent and made from top-quality ingredients, brown up a piece of meat, throw in the sauce with some black beans, and have a yummy yummy yummy dinner. Warm up some tortillas, or load up on some chips, and you’re rocking. You can get them at http://www.fronterakitchens.com but even the Ralps in Long Beach, CA is stocking them so you might be able to find them where you live. Lotsa good quick recipes using these sauces at the website. They NEVER fail to please and usually take 20 minutes to 30 minutes to prepare. Beats the heck of of Rachael Ray’s “open a can of Campbell’s soup: form of quick-cookery.

    If you’re in Chicago…. Frontera Grill is my favorite restaurant, totllay causal, awesome authentic and well-researched Mexican, and very family friendy.

  3. Amanda says

    Hands down, it’s frozen vegetables. They typically have more vitamins than fresh (since they’re flash frozen right after picking rather than being trucked 3000 miles to your supermarket) and always more than canned. A bag of mixed veggies can turn into a quick stirfry or add chicken and a quick white sauce (made in the microwave!), drop biscuits on top and it’s chicken pot pie. Throw 1/2 cup in the microwave for veggies with lunch or peas on top of a baked potato, corn in a potato soup becomes corn chowder…I could go on and on. The secret is really buying good quality ones. I like birds eye or safeway select. I also usually buy “petite” if they’ve got it. They cook quicker and tend to be more tender and delicious.

  4. Jill says

    I will occasionally separate family packs of chicken breasts into ziplocks and pour a marinade into each bag. When I’m in a hurry I can pull a bag out of the freezer and I have chicken marinated in soy, in BBQ sauce, in salsa, in garlic and wine, etc. This usually gives me ideas for meals that I can pull together quickly. If I have no time for meat we reach to our “wall of carbs” in the pantry and frozen veggies.

  5. says

    Pillsbury Pizza Dough, pizza sauce, pepperonis, shredded mozzarella cheese. In 30 minutes start to finish, homemade pizza. And the toddler can help spread the sauce and sprinkle cheese on. Nothing like interactive cooking after a long day at the office!

  6. says

    Tortillas, black beans, salsa, shredded cheese, eggs, frozen veggies, tomato sauce, tomato paste, Pilsbury pizza dough mix

    With these ingredients I can make our three main super fast meals, black bean tacos, omlettes, or pizza.

    Our family has trouble agreeing on any pre-made sauces so I make my own very quick pizza sauce:
    1 8 oz can tomato sauce
    1 6 oz an tomato paste
    enough water to fill each of the cans
    1 tsp sugar
    1 tsp salt
    1 tsp oregano
    garlic powder and black pepper to taste
    Put all ingredients in a saucepan and cook on medium heat until well combined.

  7. says

    Sweet potatoes. We use them in everything in place of white potatoes. I recently bought a crock pot and tried to make pulled pork. My first batch was too watery, so I added sweet potatoes to the second batch and it did the job.

  8. says

    Frozen precooked, peeled shrimp, frozen flour tortillas, frozen chopped onions, some bulk taco seasoning, tortilla chips, refried beans and a metric ton of shredded cheese. You thaw everything, spackle the torts with refried bean, spice it, shrimp it, cheese it, retort it, nuke it, cut it into fajita pieces and put it onto a plate stuck into a lump of cheesed up refry beans with a spoonful of sauce in the top. Kids go nuts. Takes me 10 minutes tops. They still think I do it all by hand.

  9. says

    Canned black beans (good in soups, salads, burritos, tacos), frozen veggies (I don’t feel as guilty about serving mac and cheese or ravioli’s if I add a big serving of mixed veggies), high fiber whole wheat tortillas, fresh pineapple (just because my kids think it is dessert just as much as ice-cream and they think it is fun to watch me cut it up).

  10. Suzanne says

    Bags of frozen stir-fry veggies!! Here’s one of my favorite go-to recipes for busy nights when I have no time….


    1 (1-pound) smoked sausage or kielbasa, cut into bite-sized pieces
    little olive oil
    little garlic
    bottled stir-fry or sweet-and-sour sauce (I use the Kraft kind, which is not really thick and red)
    1 (1-pound) bag frozen stir-fry veggies
    1 can pineapple chunks (optional)
    1 can sliced water chestnuts (optional)

    Directions: Saute the meat in garlic and olive oil until slightly browned. Add veggies and water chestnuts (if using). Pour about 1/4 to 1/2 cup sweet-and-sour sauce (to taste) over the top. Cook until veggies are cooked but still crisp. Add pineapple. Serve over cooked rice. Yum. :-)

  11. says

    Trader Joe’s has some really good jarred sauces that make for an easy , fast, and somewhat healthy meal. My favorites include their tomatillo sauce, red enchilada, and any of their Indian sauce. Just pour over chicken or tofu and bake. My son loves these.

    Another favorite; soba noodles mixed with boiled broccoli and steamed or poached chicken. It’s a one pot meal; first steam/poach the chicken. Once done, add more water, bring to boil and boil the broccoli. Once that’s done, remove and cook the soba noodles. Mix the final ingredients with some soy sauces and sesame oil and voila.

  12. Jennifer says

    Indian and Thai sauces. We love the ones from Trader Joes, but most grocery stores have them.

    Create a thin bed of spinach or other cooking green in a baking dish. Add chicken and coat the chicken with the sauce. Bake at 400 until chicken is done. Too much greens and they’ll just burn so be sure to cook extra on the stove. They’re yummy!

    The sauces also create a good base for leftovers. Last week I crumpled up some lentil burgers, emptied the fridge of cooked veggies and served it all over rice.

    You can stretch a jar by adding coconut milk.

  13. says

    Since we have food allergy issues, it rules out most of the basics listed above (no dairy, eggs, tomatoes, shellfish…you can see how limited it can be!). So what we keep on hand are canned tuna, roasted red peppers, artichokes, couscous, japanese udon and soba noodles, chicken broth (in freezer…they don’t have chicken broth in cans or cartons here, just glorified salt cubes called chicken cubes), anchovies, and Newman’s balsamic dressing (covers a multitude of sins!), as well as always having fresh garlic and fresh lemons on hand. With that, I can whip up quite a bit.

  14. says

    I’m normally all about fresh vegetables, preferably local, but there are a few items I find easier when prepackaged: frozen peas, frozen chopped spinach, and, especially in winter, canned whole tomatoes.

    You can add me to the list of TJ’s fans, too.

  15. Jason says

    A friend recommended frozen pineapple, which is great as an ingredient in the chicken above, as a side for ice-cream, or even a general snack. I try to make sure there is always a bag on-hand.

    Plain yogurt is a useful ingredient and with a little blueberry jam, a perfectly acceptable breakfast. We buy a week’s worth at a time.

  16. says

    I always have/use:
    organic chicken stock
    caned chopped tomatoes
    barilla plus thin spaghetti
    a hunk of parma cheese to grate fresh
    and I usually just cook all that with whatever veggies I have on hand.

  17. STL Mom says

    We keep bread, milk, eggs, and several cheeses stocked at all times. This provides many options: Grilled cheese sandwiches, french toast, omelettes, fritattas, etc. I also keep baking ingredients stocked, as my kids love pancakes or waffles for dinner. Add some fruit and you’ve got a meal in about ten minutes.

  18. Mandy615 says

    A can of petite diced tomatoes, crushed garlic, capers, feta, kalamata olives, Parmesan, diced fresh zucchini, balsamic vinager and olive oil. Heat the olive oil and add the garlic, tomatoes and the zucchini heat until the zucchini is tender soft. Add the rest and toss with whole wheat pasta. We call it Greek spaghetti.

  19. Latia says

    and any “cream of” sauce

    Cook rice in a separate pot.
    You oil a pan w/olive oil.
    Add sliced onions, mushrooms.
    Add a TBSpoon of butter.
    Add the cream of along w/the can of water.
    Pour half over salt and pepper seasoned chicken in baking dish.
    Bake in oven at 350 degrees for twenty minutes.
    Place chicken over rice and add “cream of” gravy.

    Instant delicious home cooked fresh meal.

  20. Karina says

    Orzo cooks in 5 minutes. I add shredded carrots and zuchini to water while I wait for it to boil and add orzo, then cook for 5 minutes. Mean while, in each bowl I’ll put some cooked chicken, some cream cheese and/or Cheez Whiz or other sauce if I have it, like tomato sauce, and then the cooked and drained orzo. Sprinkle some parmesan on top and you have a very quick kiddie dinner. I admit the Cheez whiz is not the best choice, but when you’re in a hurry to feed hungry kids this does it for us! They love it, and they get some veggies, protein and carbs all in the same plate.

    Also keep canned or frozen cooked black beans, tortillas, cooked chicken, cheese, which make for great and quick quesadillas. Pick up some fresh avocado, mash and mix with some lemon juice, minced onions and olive oil, salt and pepper and minced cilantro or flat-leaf parsley and you have a quick guacamole to add to the quesadillas. I also like to add salsa, basically chopped tomatoes and onions seasoned with minced cilantro, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.

  21. Anonymous says

    We always have flour tortillas, onions and sweet peppers on hand (any color, but red is best). Also salsa and cheddar cheese to grate. Add any leftover protein – beef, chicken, turkey, pork, beans to make fajitas.

    Cut up the veggies and sautee them in a couple of teaspoons of olive oil to soften (about 10 minutes); zap the protein in the microwave to warm it through, then zap the tortillas for a minute to soften. Serve. Hot, tasty weekday dinner in 15 min.

    How to get the leftover protein? Advance planning. We always cook something on weekends that will provide at least two extra nights of reheat-me meals.

  22. says

    My staples are Barilla multi-grain pasta – tates much better than whole wheat and has more fiber- Trader Joe’s marinara, and ground turkey. This makes a quick and easy, yet healthy, spaghetti dinner that the whole family loves. Oh, and we always have broccoli around. I steam it, toss it with s & p and some olive oil, and we all eat it up! See my blog for my quick and easy idea for garlic bread!

  23. Anonymous says

    Frozen veggies, definitely. We use frozen veggies at almost every meal. The 365 frozen organics are reasonably priced for organic veggies.
    Also, not really an ingredient, but my breadmaker rocks. Having fresh bread at a meal really makes a difference. Sometimes I make 2 loaves a day, one for lunch and one for dinner. It takes <5 minutes to mak a loaf of bread.

  24. says

    tabouli and crackers are always a good snack..

    summer squash (sliced and baked with a little olive oil)

    frozen spinach (defrosted and thrown into an omlette, served with pasta, on a pizza, or in a crockpot with cream cheese, sourcream, parmesean and sliced canned artichokes-great dip!)

    premade pizza doughs
    canned pizza sauce
    various leftovers for toppings

    pita bread topped with pesto and veggies and put in oven for mini-pizzas

    [chicken + chopped onion + chopped potatoe + chopped carrots]stir-fried, add yellow curry powder and coconut milk, serve with rice

  25. says

    I always have onions, carrots, canned tomatoes, frozen corn and spinach, trader joe’s “better-than-boullion,” pasta, rice, and sausage on hand. the onions and carrots get diced or sliced and tossed into everything, from hamburger to chili to homemade tomato soup (nothing but the onions and carrots sauted, the canned tomatoes thrown in, and some seasonings) to chicken noodle soup (again, super simple, just add the better-than-boullion, water and a handful of pasta to the sauted veggies). the spinach goes into nearly all my food and some of the kids’ (everett’s hit-or-miss for eating green things) and the corn is cooked with a pat of butter and some salt in a saucepan for 5 minutes to eat on the side of everything, from pizza to chicken sausage. spaghetti with ground sausage is an automatic fave and we love pecorino romano on top of everything pasta-y.

    i also always have those frozen crinkle fries, the kids love ‘em with trader joe’s organic ketchup and they’re actually pretty good for you.

  26. says

    Jars of pesto sauce, antipasto and frozen fresh tagliatelli – pasta cooks in minutes, add sauce to pasta with your choice of fresh chopped tomatoes, jarred antipasto artichoke hearts, capers…. add grated parmesan and a tossed green salad, and you have a filling, nutritious and tasty meal in 5 minutes.

  27. says

    I am not a great cook. I get by. I burn half of it, and the other stuff is usually edible. My husband has the good sense to never complain (he cooks every third blue moon). And I do have my standards…my mom’s Spaghetti recipe,Take Out Sushi, Tri-Tip in the crockpot, and pizza, delivered. I have come to grips with my mediocrity in the kitchen and so has my family. But I still have a few tricks up my sleeve. Over the years I’ve come to scrutinize Trader Joe’s easy meals and here are a few of my favorites:
    Green Curry Sauce in the glass jar, add some Chicken or Shrimp and veggies and Voila! Spicy!
    Cacciatore Sauce over baked Chicken, yum.
    17 Bean and Barley Soup, dried in a bag, I like to add diced ham or soft cooked bacon.
    Annie’s Mac N Cheese and meatless Corn dogs (frozen)
    Italian Meatloaf, from the refrigerated section.
    Stuffed Red Peppers, near the meatloaf. These were a great serving size before the kids consumed real food. Now it’s pricey to buy two packages at $5 for two stuffed halves.
    Black Bean & Cheese Burritos, near the meatloaf. I freeze these to use for quick lunches.
    Asian Salad with all the fixin’s in the bag (mandarins, crunchies, almonds & dressing), I add chicken for a light meal.