Halfway Homemade: Cooking with Convenience Foods

Get the look and taste of homemade meals in a fraction of the time

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

You've got just 20-30 minutes to whip up a delicious dinner before the hungry troops hit the door. Sound familiar?

Here's the dinnertime dilemma: you don't want to just open a can of chili, pop a frozen entree in the microwave, or use one of those instant dinners in a box. Why? Because it will taste like you just opened a can or a box. And we want homemade flavor in the foods we serve our families and ourselves. But we don't want all the fuss that comes with homemade.

The answer? "Halfway homemade" is the best of both worlds. It's a happy medium between slaving away to make everything from scratch, and using a cornucopia of convenience foods. The way I see it, we have three halfway-homemade options:

  • We can embellish certain helpful supermarket products by adding ingredients to them.
  • We can use shortcut products in our homemade recipes to cut down -- big-time -- on preparation time.
  • We can choose assembly-like recipes, where we're basically putting various products and ingredients together to make tasty and interesting dishes.

The listings below will help you with the first two options, and then you'll find some recipes that will help you with all three options -- Chocolate Cinnamon Croissants, Parmesan Artichoke Dip, Spinach Quiche, and Beef and Bean Mexican Lasagna.

Helpful Shortcut Products

Here are some supermarket products that lend themselves to the halfway-homemade style of cooking:

  • Frozen pesto. Try Armanino Pesto, in the frozen foods section.
  • Pie crust. You can find whole-wheat and no-trans-fats brands at Whole Foods supermarkets.
  • Frozen bread dough. It comes in white and wheat options.
  • Whole rotisserie chickens. Use these whenever recipes call for shredded chicken -- just remove the skin!
  • Shredded cheese. You can find reduced-fat types, too.
  • Bottled marinara sauce. Use this wherever tomato or red sauce is called for.
  • Bottled or canned enchilada sauce.
  • Bottled salsa.
  • Reduced-Fat Bisquick. This is a quick way to make biscuits, pancakes and waffles and other dishes.
  • Cake mix. You can replace the oil with lower-calorie ingredients such as strong coffee, fat-free sour cream, lemon yogurt, etc.
  • Light Cool Whip. Use it instead of whipped cream for dessert or breakfast recipes.
  • Instant sugar-free (or regular) pudding. All you need is 2 minutes and a mixer or whisk!
  • Reduced-fat cream of mushroom soup (or other flavors). Use this instead of making a gravy or cream sauce for casseroles and similar recipes.
  • Canned broth. This is much easier than making broth from scratch.
  • Concentrated coffee. Instead of brewing strong coffee for your baking recipes, you can buy a bottle of this. Just keep in the refrigerator once it's opened.
  • Canned beans. No need to boil beans anymore; just open a can and rinse.
  • Canned refried beans (fat-free or vegetarian) are only a can opener away. Use them in all of your Mexican recipes.
  • Reduced-fat salad dressings. Instead of mixing up dressing or dip for your recipes, try light bottled dressings -- from raspberry vinaigrette to light ranch.
  • Frozen chopped spinach. There's no need to cook and chop fresh spinach.
  • Fresh pasta sheets. Available at stores like Whole Foods, these pasta sheets can be used in your lasagna recipes -- no need to boil first.
  • Mrs. Dash seasoning blends. They come in assorted flavors, and you can use them in recipes instead of measuring and mixing other herbs and seasonings.
  • Frozen shredded hash browns or O'Brien potatoes. Use these instead of fresh shredded or cubed potatoes in recipes.
  • Reduced-fat crescent roll dough. You can use this in place of homemade pastry dough in some recipes.

Embellishment Ideas

Here are some ideas for making supermarket products your own by dressing them up with extra ingredients:

  • Reduced-fat crescent rolls. Make them into fancy rolls for breakfast or dinner by adding herbs, dried fruit, cinnamon sugar, etc.
  • Salad in a bag. Buy the baby spinach leaves, or the salads with double carrots. Then add all sorts of other ingredients to create deluxe salads -- nuts, other veggies, fresh or dried fruit, lean meat, shellfish, etc.
  • Frozen bread dough. You can transform this into cinnamon rolls, rosemary olive oil dinner rolls, etc., by adding ingredients.
  • StoveTop Stuffing. Use half the amount of fat called for, and add other flavorful ingredients such as celery, grated carrots, and onions.
  • Boxed macaroni and cheese. Use half the amount of fat called for, and add other flavorful ingredients such as green onions, tomatoes, canned water-packed tuna, shredded cheese, etc.
  • Boboli Pizza crust. Use this as a base for gourmet pizzas, or appetizers such as chicken pesto pizza.
  • Reduced-Fat Bisquick. Use this as a base for blueberry pancakes, chocolate chip waffles or herb biscuits by adding fun ingredients to the standard Bisquick recipes.
  • Instant pudding. This can become mousse or parfait when you add ingredients like Light Cool Whip, strawberries, etc.
  • Frozen tortellini and ravioli. Make these into a fancy pasta salad or interesting entree by adding cherry tomatoes, less-fat salami, light vinaigrette, grilled chicken breast strips, etc.
  • Seasoned tuna. It's available in bags in the tuna section of your supermarket. You can make it into fancy sandwiches and wraps by adding the ingredients of your choice.