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.

And now for the recipes ?

Chocolate Cinnamon Croissants

You'll never go back to plain crescent rolls once you try this easy but elegant version!

8 ounce pop-can of Pillsbury Reduced Fat Crescent dough
4 tablespoons mini semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Unroll the crescent rolls to lie flat on a nonstick jellyroll pan or cookie sheet.
  • Mix sugar with cinnamon in a small cup, and sprinkle evenly over the top of the unrolled triangles of dough.
  • Sprinkle a heaping teaspoon (or 1/2 tablespoon) of mini chocolate chips over each triangle of dough. Roll up each of the crescents, curve into crescent shapes, and space them 2 inches apart on the cookie sheet.
  • Bake for about 11 minutes or until golden brown.

Yield: 8 servings

Per crescent: 129 calories, 2.2 g protein, 16.4 g carbohydrate, 6 g fat (1.9 g saturated fat), 0 mg cholesterol, 0.3 g fiber, 230 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 41 percent.

Spinach Quiche

This recipe uses the prepared pie crusts found in the freezer section of your supermarket. You can find some alternative brands with more fiber and less saturated fat at stores like Whole Foods. Since prepared pie crusts are usually high in fat, we're keeping the filling nice and light.

1/2 package (9-10 ounces) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
2 scallions or green onions (white and part of the green), chopped
3 ounces flavored (such as roasted bell pepper & garlic) feta cheese, crumbled
1 cup shredded, reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese
Pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder (add more if desired)
9-inch unbaked deep-dish pie crust, partially thawed
2 large eggs (use higher omega-3 type, if available)
1/2 cup egg substitute
1 cup fat-free half-and-half (or substitute low-fat milk)

  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a medium bowl, toss together spinach, green onions, feta, cheddar, pepper to taste, and garlic powder.
  • Spoon mixture evenly into the pie crust.
  • Add eggs, egg substitute, and fat-free half-and-half to large mixing bowl, and beat on medium speed until combined. Pour into the pie crust, letting the spinach mixture combine nicely with the egg mixture.
  • Bake until center of quiche is cooked throughout (about 50-55 minutes). Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Yield: 8 servings

Per serving: 228 calories, 13 g protein, 15 g carbohydrate, 12 g fat (5 g saturated fat), 70 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber, 388 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 50%.

Parmesan Artichoke Dip

Serve with lower fat, higher-fiber dippers, such as vegetables, baguettes, and low-fat wheat crackers.

4 ounces light cream cheese
1/2 cup light mayonnaise
1 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
3/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
14-ounce can artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1/4 cup finely chopped red bell pepper
1 to 2 tablespoons mild chopped canned green chilies

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Add cream cheese, mayonnaise and garlic to a small mixing bowl and beat on medium low until blended. Add remaining ingredients and mix well.
  • Spoon mixture into a 1 1/2 quart casserole or baking dish and bake until bubbly (about 30 minutes).

Yield: 6 servings

Per serving (not including the bread): 164 calories, 6 g protein, 11 g carbohydrate, 10 g fat (4 g saturated fat), 13 mg cholesterol, 4 g fiber, 352 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 55%.

Beef & Bean Mexican Lasagna

It's layered like lasagna, but has all the flavors of a beef and bean burrito!

1 pound ground sirloin or super-lean ground beef (around 6-8% fat)
1 cup chopped sweet or mild onion
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 packet/envelope taco seasoning
10 flour tortillas cut in half
14-ounce can enchilada sauce
15-ounce can fat-free or vegetarian refried beans
12-ounce jar mild salsa (whatever flavor you desire)
2 1/2 cups shredded, reduced-fat Jack cheese (or a combination of reduced-fat Jack and reduced-fat cheddar)

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brown ground beef and onion in a large, nonstick skillet or frying pan over medium-high heat, breaking the beef into small pieces as it cooks using a potato masher. Stir in the garlic powder, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and taco seasoning.
  • Spread 1 cup of the enchilada sauce in the bottom of a 9 x 13-inch baking pan. Top with about a third of the flour tortillas. Add refried beans and 1/8 cup of the enchilada sauce to a medium, microwave-safe bowl and warm in microwave over HIGH heat to soften beans (30-60 seconds). Spread beans over the layer of tortillas in pan. Add half of the beef mixture, then half of the salsa, and a cup of the grated cheese.
  • Repeat the layers again, starting with another third of the tortillas, the rest of the beef, the rest of the salsa, and a cup of the grated cheese. Top with the remaining tortillas and spread the remaining enchilada sauce over the top. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup of cheese over the top.
  • Bake, uncovered, for 35-45 minutes or until heated throughout and cheese is bubbly.

Yield: 10 servings

Per serving: 345 calories, 22 g protein, 39 g carbohydrate, 10.5 g fat (4.5 g saturated fat), 27 mg cholesterol, 5 g fiber, 850 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 30%.

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