“Store-bought is fine.” These famous passive-aggressive words, uttered on repeat by Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten, have been a meme since meme-ing was in its infancy. You know what’s even better? After the wits’-end, tear-out-your-hair-and-cry couple of years we’ve had, store-bought is more than fine. It’s a blessing in disguise.
ThanksgivingIt was traditionally a dinner prepared at home. But, in truth, everyone is capable of ordering. Very fewProducts from the outside. Many struggling families turn to cheaper options as food inflation rises to its highest level since 1970s. With more Americans cooking at home ― 91% of consumers, per a recent GlobalData survey released in September ― grocery stores are amping it up even more with their heat-and-eat dishes and seasonal and baked goods.
We’re not just talking about Whole Foods and neighborhood upscale markets. “Regular” chains have been stepping it up quite a bit, challenging corporate chefs to get creative or nostalgic. For instance, Amy Fisher, public relations manager for Home Chef, an offering by Kroger, reveals, “Our green bean casserole is actually a riff on one of our culinary chef’s grandmother’s classic recipes!”
Tidbits like these are what’s making offerings in the refrigerated cases much tastier than in the years of yore. So much so that even food writers, chefs and hosts extraordinaire are looking gratefully at stepped-up prepared foods from the grocery store to make this year’s celebration an easier one.
Below are the best and most highly-recommended hacks for simplifying your Thanksgiving. Way more than just “fine.”
Buy your bread; don’t bake it
Baking was all well and good as a lockdown activity, but the time-consuming nature that made it a boon is exactly why Thanksgiving isn’t the time to show off this new skill. There’s a lot of other prep work to be done, and coddling dough is as inefficient as giving it the much-needed oven space. In the last few years, many supermarket bakeries went the artisan route, so you can trust Michelle Guacci and her experience with baking.
“We tend to make everything from scratch, but I get my bread from ShopRite in Morris, New Jersey,” she reveals. “They’re really high quality and baked daily. This round semolina Italian loaf has a crisp crust and a moist crumb. They also have a really awesome artisan raisin walnut bread that you can pass off as homemade!”
Home cook Kerry Piraino goes to the big box for her bread side ― namely the Wellsley Farms cornbread mini-loaves from BJ’s. “I love that sweet slightly sticky top!” she says, and so do her guests.
Ariel Knutson, associate editorial director for Dotdash’s Food & Drink vertical, goes for an even more neutral good solution. “I opt for Martin’s potato rolls,” she says, speaking of the plush, smooth Pennsylvania favorite that catapulted to national attention as the Shake Shack bun. They come in dinner and slider sizes, too, and “you can find them at a number of grocery stores around the country or online.”
Don’t waste your energy on made-from-scratch appetizers
Guests will be hungry for hours after the last big bird is served. “Appetizers are an important part of a celebration, in my opinion,” shares popular food and lifestyle writer Lia Picard, “but I also don’t have time to make those from scratch.” Costco has an incredible selection, with an entire wall dedicated to them, but Picard prefers to head to Trader Joe’s frozen foods section for mac and cheese bites, spanakopita and camembert cheese and cranberry sauce phyllo bites.
Knutson confesses that when she’s feeling rushed or stressed, she also makes a beeline for Trader Joe’s to cobble together a killer hors d’oeuvres spread, picking up caramelized onion dip, Unexpected cheddar, and rosemary Marcona almonds.
Costco is a great place to find crowd-pleasing products. food and culture writer Meghan De Maria covered. “I love their shrimp cocktail, and they also carry King Cheese Spirella Minis and plenty of assorted meats and cheeses!” she adds.
Purchase side dishes
For some, the sides are more important than the main ― and therefore, maybe too important not to leave to the pros? Prepared sweet potatoes are a popular supermarket grab, particularly Kroger’s Home Chef’s Sweet Potato Souffle, which Fisher describes as “fresh whipped sweet potatoes blended with the perfect amount of butter, then topped with a sweet and nutty, crunchy topping.”
Heather Hendrix is a travel and home chef who loves Fresh Market’s chunky holiday sweet potato version. “There’s a surprise burst of dried cranberries” she loves. This healthy market’s competitor, Sprouts Farmers Market, on the other hand, has a vegan sweet potato casserole that flies off the refrigerated shelf.
Knutson prefers a different method for cooking the beans. It’s not her favorite ingredient to prepare, so her go-to is Whole Foods’ hot bar. “I look for something crisp and citrusy over mushy,” she says.
“I’m not above grabbing some frozen veggies and sprucing them up with fresh seasonings,” Picard admits. “I love to hit up the veggie section at Trader Joe’s to see what seasonal kits they have around the holidays.”
Lauren Ruth (ex-food blogger) also frequents this location for her salad course. “The salad bags are really good, and I regularly use the kale and broccoli slaw for parties, potlucks and holidays,” she divulges. “The ease-to-flavor ratio is great. To allow the kale and dressing to soften the night prior to making the salad, I first add the dressing to the bowl. Then, the rest of the ingredients are added just before the dish is served. It takes five minutes max and feels like an upgrade and is extremely versatile.”
Underground Dining Club chef-owner María Mercedes Grubb agrees: “It’s so good!” But her most recent side dish hack is from Costco. “Last year, I got their mashed potatoes. After heating the potatoes, I added good butter and cream to whip them up. pommes purée vibe,” she adds.
Another cult favorite is Publix’s orange cranberry relish. “I love to make it homemade, but in a pinch, for a group meal, I’ll grab a tub of it,” Grubb says. It’s a ringer for from-scratch, and Publix director of communications Maria Brous spoke to us about why.
“The cranberry-orange relish was developed by our own chefs and is made in our Deli Kitchen in Lakeland, Florida. We wanted a spin on traditional cranberry sauce, and what better way than by giving it a Florida flair with a touch of citrus?” Brous says. This sauce is the key to the success of Publix’s famous Holiday Turkey Cranberry Sub, which is a customer favorite requested as early as June. “We don’t dare make any changes to this!” she says with a laugh.
Lifestyle writer can help you with the important stuff. Meg St. Esprit says, “Giant Eagle—a large grocery chain around Ohio and Pennsylvania—has the best stuffing. It’s very flavorful and perfectly moist, and rivals my mom’s … who makes great stuffing.”
Best store-bought sweets
There’s nothing more Thanksgiving than pie for dessert, but ― surprise! ― the way most food and dining experts opt to simplify their prep is to leave the pies to someone else. Cookbook author Nandita GodboleAlways buys her pumpkin pie at Whole Foods. “The pumpkin is flavored just right. It’s creamy and lightly sweet, with a perfect hint of nutmeg and cinnamon, the crust is done well, and great at room temperature or even slightly warmed up,” Godbole says. She recommends adding a little cream to make it even more delicious.
De Maria goes for efficiency, citing Costco’s pumpkin pie as a “must-have” for her table: “It’s baked fresh in the warehouse and can feed the whole family!” On the other hand, smaller portions are as key for Picard as nostalgia, who gets hers from Publix. “It tastes like childhood; that’s the pie I grew up on in Florida,” she notes.
On the West Coast, home cook James Kareka cheats with Safeway’s crumbles and Dutch apple pies. “Their bakery is above average ― they taste freshly baked, don’t have any artificial taste as though the fruit came from a can, and their cakes are super moist. Their Colossal Carrot Cake has become my go-to recipe. I love drizzling bourbon over it and topping it with whipped cream,” Kareka says.
And he’s not the only one to offer an alternative to this season’s most popular gourd. Newsday restaurant critic Erica Marcus confesses, “I Loathe pumpkin pie.” Instead, she opts for Trader Joe’s key lime pie and lemon bars. “Both are tart and clean ― not earth-shaking, but better than a lot of what you find and pay top dollar for in bakeries. And personally, I think that citrus dessert ― since they no longer make the opera cake! ― is a nice finish for a Thanksgiving meal,” Marcus says.
And we have to agree ― because, like all of the other pro-approved dishes, if it doesn’t have to be made at home and tastes like it was, it’s a great finish to a fabulously simplified feast.