10 Ingredient Shortcuts That Every Smart Cook Should Know

From canned beans to frozen vegetables, here are a few of our favorite ingredients that take the work out of cooking.

Pasta with peso, shrimp, and beef chili

Simply Recipes/ Nick Evans/ Sally Vargas

Hats off to the home cooks who get dinner on the table day-in and day-out. Between planning, shopping, cooking, and clean up, it’s no easy task. And as satisfying as it is to tackle the whole shebang from scratch, there’s no shame in leaning on shortcuts when it comes to making meals. Here, I’ve curated 10 of my favorite ingredients to take some of the work out of cooking. These are what I consider healthy convenience foods (all pretty budget-friendly, too) that can lighten your load in the kitchen.

  • Store-Bought Pesto

    Large stockpot of weeknight rotini and kale pesto being stirred together with a wooden spoon.
    Nick Evans | Art Banner Credit: Andy Christensen

    Tubs of pesto sold in the refrigerated section of the market are a terrific back pocket trick for the home cook. Toss a few generous spoonfuls into a bowl of hot pasta or farro with a big squeeze of lemon and you’ve got dinner. Other ideas? Spread it on a sandwich or use it in lieu of tomato sauce on a pizza, mix it into a dish of freshly steamed vegetables, add it to a pot of brothy soup (did someone say Minestrone?), or check out this line up of pesto-powered recipes.

    Tip: Portion leftover pesto into an ice cube tray, freeze, then pop out the cubes and store in a freezer bag for next time.

  • Rotisserie Chicken

    Hatch green chicken chili recipe
    Nick Evans

    Rotisserie chicken is a front-runner for best all-time shortcut ingredient. It can be the building block for a myriad of meals, sidestepping the need to cook chicken from scratch. Use it to make simple tacos or enchiladas, for chicken sandwiches, in salads, soups, and casseroles of every kind. Find 12 terrific rotisserie chicken recipes by heading here. 

    Tip: Pull the meat off the bones as soon as you’re home from the market and store in a covered container in the fridge. It’s much easier to do when the chicken is still warm.

  • Salad Kits

    Kale Caesar Salad
    Elise Bauer

    Supermarkets stock a variety of these kits, which make quick work of fresh salads. They come in a variety of flavor profiles, such as Chopped Kale, Asian Cabbage, Southwestern, and Caesar. You can bump up the protein in these salads  by adding leftover chicken, tofu, or canned chickpeas or beans.

    Tip: The dressings in salad kits tend to be on the sweet side. Use less than is provided and add a splash of vinegar from your pantry.

  • Thai Curry Paste

    Quick Green Curry Chicken with Zucchini Noodles
    Lisa Lin

    You can turn out a terrific pot of Thai-style curry in very little time using Thai curry paste, which is typically sold in the Asian food section of the grocery store. Some brands, such as Thai Kitchen, have the recipe right on the jar. You can also  check out our Eggplant Green Curry or Quick Curry Chicken and Zucchini Noodles for more inspiration.

    Tip: Thai curry paste isn’t just for curry—use it to elevate the flavor in noodle dishes, salad dressings, and cooked vegetables.

    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • Frozen Vegetables

    Frozen brussels sprouts on parchment paper

    Lori Rice

    There’s no excuse to skip the veggies when they’re all prepped and ready in the freezer. From a nutrition standpoint, frozen vegetables stack up similarly to fresh and require virtually no work for the cook. Keep a few bags on hand, such as chopped onions, spinach, peas, broccoli, and cauliflower. Add them to soups and pastas, enjoy them roasted, or toss them into a blender to boost the nutrition in fruit smoothies (spinach and cauliflower are good bets).

    Tip: When roasting frozen vegetables, put them straight from the freezer onto the sheet pan and into a hot oven. 

  • Canned Beans

    Beef and beans chili
    Sally Vargas

    Beans are one of the most budget-friendly, healthy, and convenient ways to turn out a meal. Blend them with broth and a few seasonings for a quick soup, use them for vegetarian burritos and tacos, turn them into pots of chili, toss them with rice and serve with avocado and salsa, and add them to salads of every stripe. This is an excellent resource for bean recipe inspo.

    Tip: Dump canned beans into a colander and rinse well under the faucet. You’ll reduce the sodium by more than 40 percent according to researchers at the University of Tennessee. 

  • Frozen Raw Shrimp

    Shrimp in a bowl
    Sally Vargas | Art Banner Credit: Elena Resko

    Did you know that nearly all the shrimp you buy at the grocery store was once frozen? Why not just have a stash in your own freezer. Frozen shrimp defrosts quickly and if you buy it peeled and deveined, you cut down prep time significantly. Sauté the shrimp with olive oil and garlic and serve over pasta, stir fry with whatever veggies you have on hand, serve them alongside a crunchy salad, make quick shrimp rolls (a spin on your favorite lobster roll), or any of the recipe ideas you’ll find here.

    Tip: To defrost frozen shrimp, put them in a large bowl and cover with cold tap water. Stir from time to time to break up any frozen clumps and they should be ready to go within 20 minutes. Easy!

  • Spice Blends

    scrambled eggs on a plate with tomatoes and bread
    Sally Vargas

    Having a few spice blends in your collection is an easy way to dress up your food. A few to consider include Old Bay for shrimp and other seafood dishes, Chinese Five Spice for grilled steak or roasted sweet potatoes, Chili Powder for pinto and black beans, Ras al Hanout for chicken dishes, and Everything Bagel seasoning for scrambled eggs and avocado toast.

    Tip: Store spices in airtight containers away from heat and light. They will last longer.

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • Frozen Rice

    Shrimp Fried Rice
    Elise Bauer

    Easy-to-heat packages of frozen rice are a cook’s best friend when you’re in a time crunch. Both brown and white rice are readily available in the frozen food section of the supermarket and can be the foundation for quick fried rice, to add to chicken soup, serve as a side dish to meat, fish, or chicken, or use in many of the recipes you’ll find here.

    Tip: If adding frozen grains to a pot of soup or stew, no need to defrost. Just add them directly from the package.

  • Braised/Baked Tofu

    Tofu and Veggie in Rice Bowl
    Sally Vargas

    Whether you’re a vegetarian or not, store-bought braised/baked tofu is a handy source of protein that comes fully cooked, seasoned, and ready to eat. Cut the tofu into cubes and add it to Asian-style salads, stir-fries, noodle and grain bowls, or enjoy it as a snack

    Tip: The experts at Hodo Foods, maker of high-quality tofu, recommend submerging leftovers in water and storing it in the fridge, where it can keep for up to five days.