Speed Up Meal Prep With These Ingredient Shortcuts

In the immortal words of Ina Garten, store-bought is fine.

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Prepared foods at Mitsuwa Marketplace
Photo: Hiroyuki Ito (Getty Images)

You’ve no doubt seen the Nancy Meyers ideal of cooking. A breezy, expansive kitchen with unlimited counter space, plus an enormous double oven big enough to fit two Thanksgiving turkeys and an unfortunate child who’s just escaped the local orphanage. For most of us, that’s not the reality. We’re cooking in apartment kitchens, whipping up last-minute meals after hauling our weary bones off of public transit. In that scenario, shortcuts aren’t just a convenience—they’re a necessity. Whether you’re cooking to impress or throwing together a haphazard dinner in a giant salad bowl, our favorite kitchen shortcuts will save you time and sanity.


Frozen veggie mixes

I have no knife skills. Yes, I can chop things, but my form is absolute shit and it’s a miracle I haven’t lost a digit. This is why I have so much love for frozen bags of vegetables. I also just generally hate the prep work that goes into cooking. Throwing pre-measured veggies onto a pan and into the oven is the fun part.

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There’s also the mess to consider. Breaking down broccoli or cauliflower into uniform florets usually leads to little bits of vegetable all over the counter or on the ground. With a frozen bag, all the work is done for me and I can just toss in the whole perfect serving with some added seasoning. Fresh vegetables are fantastic, but the labor saved with pre-chopped makes me love my meal just a little bit more. —Angela L. Pagán, staff writer

Banchan from the Korean market

If you’ve never made Korean food, chances are you’ll be a little intimidated by cooking it at home. A typical Korean meal has a scattering of little side dishes, called banchan, to go with your rice. There’s a lot of effort that goes into cooking multiple dishes like that prior to any meal. If you’ve got a fairly large Korean market by you (H Mart is the biggest chain across the States), you might find a section of the store filled with premade banchan that you can use to cobble together a meal. Go buck-wild and get a bunch.

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The banchan ranges from stuff you eat cold, like various vegetable dishes and preserved salted seafood, to raw meat you cook at home. In fact, last night, our dinner was a spicy marinated chicken that I just cooked on the stovetop, paired with lots of different side dishes, none of which I made.

hand holding steamed rice package
What a lifesaver
Photo: Dennis Lee
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And my ultra-secret weapon for when I’m exhausted and don’t feel like cooking? Steamed single-serving microwavable sticky rice. It’s a shelf-stable lifesaver, and after nuking it for a minute and a half, you can just pair it with that arsenal of banchan you just picked up. Now you’ve got a really good Korean meal. —Dennis Lee, staff writer

Ready-to-cook meat and fish

My new favorite thing to peruse at the grocery store is the meat counter, where you can not only get your favorite pre-sliced deli meats but take your pick of pre-seasoned and marinated chicken, beef, pork, and salmon. It’s a great cheat for creating an impressive home-cooked meal—and you do still have to cook it, so you won’t be lying when you brag to your guests. Just unwrap the package and throw that baby in a cast iron pan, on a baking sheet in the oven, or on the grill. Any way you choose to finish it off will work great.

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Not everyone has a variety of spices and marinades at the ready, so this is a good way to mix up the flavor of your meat without committing to a bottle of stuff that will just expire in your pantry. And if you do end up liking one particular flavor combo over another, then you can commit to making it from scratch on your own. This hack is the “try before you buy” of meat and fish seasoning. —Brianna Wellen, associate editor

Pre-riced cauliflower

My freezer is incredibly finicky, so I usually don’t mess with frozen veggies like my colleague Angela. But I did recently begin a foray into the world of fresh, pre-diced veggies, which you can usually find in the organic or prepared area of your produce section.

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I can’t quite bring myself to purchase pre-chopped bell peppers; that seems extravagant, given the much lower price of intact peppers. But I’ve been cooking with a lot of cauliflower rice lately (turns out my body likes vegetables?), and ricing that mess in my blender is a huge pain in the ass. Yes, a container of cauliflower rice typically runs me about four dollars more than I’d spend on a few standard heads of cauliflower—but it lasts for a whole week and is a blessedly easy way to inject extra nutrients into my day-to-day. Stupid bodies and their stupid nutritional needs. Lillian Stone, staff writer