Trader Joe’s is a food emporium after my own heart. A place where people like me can truly thrive, unhampered by the limitations of our lacking culinary skills. Where shoppers enjoy the freedom to eat Italian on Monday, Mexican on Tuesday, and Chinese on Wednesday — without having to pay delivery fees for takeout or having to search the aisles for seasonings that we’re not adept at using.
It’s a place for folks who very well might buy vegan chicken nuggets and chicken shawarma on the same go, but don’t want to spend a fortune on either.
Perhaps the best thing Trader Joe’s has going is that the store provides complete solutions for people on the go. Don’t have the time or the willpower to labor over a stove? Want to eat well without racking up a gazillion dishes? Trader Joe’s sells a variety of pre-packaged frozen meals that don’t typically require more than a single pan. Heck, you may not even need that if you’re tossing a dish in the oven or microwave.
As Uproxx’s resident Trader Joe’s aficionado, I jumped at the opportunity to scour the freezer section, taste test, and rate frozen items available at the store. I focused on the market’s frozen meal selections — items that are filling enough to satisfy dinner-levels of hunger but don’t require more than a few minutes in a pan, microwave, or oven. It’s worth noting that none of the dishes featured costs over $7.
All frozen meals have been rated on a letter scale from A+ to F, just like grade school. They’ve also been ranked in order — clearly, I take this stuff seriously. No items actually received an A+, because no meal that good could ever be previously frozen.
But a few got pretty dang close.
10. Joe’s Diner Mac & Cheese
Average Price: $3
It’s not blue-boxed Easy Mac noodles prepared with a package of powder cheese, but TJ’s diner-style frozen macaroni and cheese dish is nothing to write home about. The packaging boasts a blend of cheddar, Swiss, Havarti, and gouda cheeses, but none of them really stands out. It just tastes like, well, cheese—a nondescript, pasteurized cheese—and noodles from the back of the pantry.
The noodles are… fine, I guess. But leave the box in the microwave or oven for a minute too long and you’re 100% ending up with a tray of bland, cheesy limp noodles.
F, as in failure.
Sure, it’s a rich dish, as mac & cheese should be, but it’s lacking in the salty, gooey, zesty flavor of say, a Stouffer’s frozen macaroni dish. And this certainly can’t hold a candle to the decadent macaroni and cheese mom pulls out of her bag of tricks during the holidays.
9. Chicken Burrito Bowl
Average Price: $4
This Trader Joe’s take on Tex-Mex gets high marks in flavor but falls short in texture. The dish has all the fixings of a basic burrito bowl: brown rice, chicken, black beans, cheddar cheese, red and green peppers, corn, “chipotle Southwest style sauce” and red quinoa for good measure.
What’s interesting about this frozen meal is that you can distinctly taste each ingredient. The chipotle flavor cloaks the mouth but the sweet corn kernels are a standout, and so are the creamy black beans, melty cheese, and seasoned chicken. They all blend together with the little pellets of quinoa for a filling and satisfying meal.
The rice, on the other hand, misses the mark. Maybe it’s the weight of all the other ingredients. Maybe it’s the cheese and the beans, but a forkful of the rice mixed with a bit of everything yields a mushy result.
This gets an “E” for effort.
The flavor is there, and it’s a good enough portion to actually feel full after consuming the entire bowl. But the mushy rice just can’t be overlooked.
8. Sriracha Shrimp Bowl
Average Price: $4
First of all: THERE ARE ONLY FIVE MEASLY LITTLE BABY SHRIMPS included in this frozen dinner. And, yes, I’m mad about it. Besides the lacking seafood protein, this “Asian-style” bowl, as TJ’s calls it, is pretty good.
The bowl consists of brown rice that manages to maintain its nutty flavor and chewy texture despite being topped with a blend of vegetables like red bell peppers, baby corn, and edamame. When it’s all mixed together (after about 45 minutes in the oven or three minutes in the microwave), you get a flavorful and filling bowl with ingredients that manage to taste fresh despite being previously frozen.
Trader Joe’s was clearly reaching when they dubbed this dish spicy. It doesn’t have a speck of heat, although the box says it’s “all topped with a spicy sriracha sauce.” A look at the ingredients list reveals that sriracha “paste” and jalapeño “pepper puree” is used to create the sauce but seriously — there isn’t the slightest semblance of spice to this frozen dish.
This seems like a healthy alternative when sad salad just won’t cut it for lunch. You’d have to have the weakest palate ever to actually find this dish spicy, but the flavors and the density of the dish make it a worthwhile one to eat.
7. Chickenless Mandarin Orange Morsels
Average Price: $4
I haven’t got a clue what a chickenless morsel is. According to the packaging, it’s some concoction of soy and textured wheat protein and a bunch of other stuff that sounds like science. Nonetheless, I totally devoured the vegan chicken nuggets. They have that addictive quality that makes it difficult to just eat one.
It could be the sauce that makes these chickenless morsels taste so good. It’s a sticky, honeyed, sweet orange sauce that isn’t a far cry from what you’d expect to see drenching actual chicken at Asian-American fast-casual restaurants. But maybe it’s the nugs? For them to not be real chicken, they sure do taste like chicken with an outside that maintains its crispiness and a fleshy, meaty center. I could best compare them to the old McDonald’s chicken nuggets—you remember the flavorful mystery meat nuggets they used to sell before they swapped them out for the even more mysterious “all white meat” they claim to use for the nuggets today?
They’re like that. And probably healthier.
This is a tasty alternative when you’re on a meatless diet and want something as delicious and filling as meat. It loses a few points because it’s unclear what exactly the chickenless morsels actually are.
6. Organic Roasted Vegetable Pizza
Average Price: $4
This is an all-around good pizza, for a frozen pizza. Obviously, it can’t compete with the hot, brick oven veggie slices from your favorite neighborhood pizzeria, but overall this little pie—which is imported from Italy, according to the packaging—delivers on all fronts. While it’s almost as thin as a flatbread, the sourdough crust has a textured, crisp bottom with a soft, pillowy center. There’s no shortage of cheese, a problem that some other frozen pizza brands have. And the medley of veggies—eggplant, red onion, zucchini, yellow and red peppers—taste garden fresh and keep their crunch.
The only problem with this pizza is that there’s not nearly enough sauce for my liking. For several bites, I could only taste the bread, cheese, and vegetables, which was disappointing. But overall, still a good pizza… for a frozen pizza.
This is a solid veggie pizza. It’s an easy fix for your appetite when you’re hungry and don’t have the time or the mental capacity to figure out what to cook for dinner. The lack of sauce is a strike against it, though.
5. Gnocchi al Gorgonzola
Average Price: $4
Little doughy bites of goodness—that’s the best way to describe this incredibly satisfying frozen dinner.
The cheese sauce is rich and creamy and, when cooked down with the frozen gnocchi, it adds another layer of decadence to the semolina bites. As for the gnocchi itself, each little dough puff is like a cute little cloud. They’re soft and pillowy, and they have their own unique fresh dough flavor aside from the cheese sauce.
That said, this could use a sprinkle of salt and a grind of peppercorns. If not to give it some color then to add just a little more salinity to the dough.
This is good gnocchi. There is nothing wrong with it, but a little bit more seasoning could have really kicked it up a notch.
4. Meatballs Italian Style
Average Price: $5
Never in the history of meatballs would anyone ever think that a ball of meat could be flame broiled, frozen, then thawed and reheated and still come out so damn good. The all-beef meatballs are perfectly round with a nice crisp outside texture, but the inside is a soft meat pillow. Seasonings of garlic and onion seem to come to life between chews before the meat dissolves, leaving your mouth tasting like a savory grill pan.
But… in a good way.
These meatballs are dense and filling, and they won’t deteriorate under the weight of a quality sauce. If anything, a sauce would only bring out more flavor. Bonus points if you heat them up with a jar of TJ’s famous Organic Tomato Basil Marinara.
Trader Joe’s meatballs put those Swedish joints at Ikea to shame. And to think, you don’t even need to buy a lousy piece of furniture to enjoy a bowl full of them.
3. Stacked Eggplant Parmesan
Average Price: $4
Wow. Now this is eggplant parmesan. No gimmicks.
The rounds of eggplant slices are the perfect depth. They’re not too thick but not too thin either. And they’re layered and bathed in globs of cheese—mozzarella, feta, and parmesan to be exact—and zesty, chunky tomato sauce that packs a flavor punch courtesy of red bell peppers.
If the ingredients aren’t convincing enough, the aroma certainly is. Pop this sucker in the oven and watch as your kitchen quite literally transforms into an Italian Trattoria full of delightful fragrances of garlic and basil.
There’s not much to complain about with this frozen dish. It’s hearty, and it tastes exactly how eggplant parm should taste.
2. Kung Pao Chicken
Average Price: $6
The stir-fries at Trader Joe’s are deserving of their own separate ranking, but it’s worth shouting out the Kung Pao Chicken stir-fry as a stand-alone. This frozen dinner is a full-on meal, and there’s no skimping out on the chicken either.
Savory dark-meat gets a lift from a soy-ginger sauce that only seems to amplify the flavors from the array of vegetables included in the stir fry kit — onions, green and red bell peppers, water chestnuts, and whole fried chilis. There’s even a little packet of peanuts to garnish the dish and give it a nutty, crunchy boost.
It’s unclear whether it’s the chilis or the sauce that gives this dish a spicy quality. I won’t go as far as to say that a few bites of this will set your mouth on fire, but it certainly packs some heat compared to other TJ’s frozen meals that get billed as spicy.
This frozen dinner feels like the most complete meal of them all. You’ll have to provide your own rice or another starch if you want one, but it’s got enough protein and veggies to fill you up.
1. Mushroom Ravioli with Truffle
Average Price: $4
I could go on and on and on about TJ’s Mushroom Ravioli with Truffle, but I don’t want to keep you from getting to the store and buying some.
Here’s the skinny:
Fresh-made ravioli noodles are packed with a blend of mushrooms and ricotta cheese. Once sautéed, the pasta takes a swim in a pool of thick mushroom broth that’s loaded with little bits of porcini and champignon mushrooms. And if all of that wasn’t flavorful enough, the sauce also has a dousing of truffle oil that smells absolutely incredible — dense and earthy and rich — while the dish is cooking.
The packaging says there’s enough ravioli for three servings, but don’t be surprised if you try this and end up eating it all in one go.
The only reason why this dish doesn’t score an A+ is that I reserve that ranking for nonna’s ravioli alone.