14 Convenience Foods I Refuse to Do Without

Convenience foods really can save money. For instance, if faced with the choice of either grabbing fast food or purchasing some convenience foods at the grocery store, you are better off buying bagged salad or jarred sauce. And if you work, have a relationship, kids, pets, and outside interests, you have to make choices about how you spend your time and money.

Which brings me to this list. I went through my freezer, refrigerator, and pantry looking for my favorite shortcuts. I love these time-savers and won't give them up.

1. Grated Cheese

Sometimes I just want a couple of tablespoons for a baked potato, or to top some scrambled eggs. If I grate it myself, then I have to unwrap the cheese, get out the grater, grate the cheese, wash the grater, and put away the cheese. The alternative: buy a bag of pre-grated cheese, unzip, sprinkle cheese, re-close bag, and refrigerate. I never used to buy grated cheese until my husband pointed out that sometimes, on sale, the price per ounce for grated is actually less than the large block. Pay less for convenience? Count me in.

2. Chopped Nuts

I find that I fool myself with those big bags of nuts from Costco. When they come out in October, I think oh, yes, this is the year I'll bake cookies for everyone; I need this giant bag of nuts. Well, we all know about those good intentions. Nuts do have a shelf life. Sure, you can freeze them, but the odds of your remembering that you have those frozen nuts are not great unless you're a prepper. So, yes, I occasionally buy those little half-cup packages of pre-measured, pre-chopped nuts.

3. Olive or Canola Oil Spray

I resisted these oils-in-a-can for a long time before finally giving in, thinking they were an unnecessary expense. Oh, the ease of simply spraying a pan, or barbeque rack, instead of getting out a paper towel or a pastry brush! Now I own specialized sprays, too — canola, olive oil, and "grilling" spray. I do not use them on my frying pans, at the manufacturer's recommendation, but I love them for baking cakes and cookies or roasting vegetables.

4. Teabags

No argument here — loose tea makes a better-tasting cup, but I don't always have time to clean up the mess it makes. Especially at work, a teabag is easier and more practical (no one wants to deal with my loose tea in the sink, I am sure). Plus, by the time I heat water, then pack a tea ball, use it, empty it, and wash it, there went my break. Bags are just faster and less messy.

5. Dijon Mustard in a Squirt Bottle

I bought the mustard in the plastic squirt bottle (instead of the usual jar) because it was on sale, not anticipating how much easier it would be. Also, the lid doesn't get gunky; I like that for cleanup. You can shake it, rather than getting a spoon to stir it up. Because it was so convenient, I found myself making more sauces (add to a little butter and stir into vegetables, or spoon over grilled chicken). I also starting using it more often on sandwiches, since it is easy, has lots of flavor, and fewer calories.

6. Bagged Salad

In a hurry? You could stop and buy fast food. Or, you could buy a bag of salad, slice a grilled chicken breast on top, and add dressing. Not only would that be a healthier alternative, but you'd have enough for several servings. There are also so many varieties, from Asian to cranberry-pecan, Caesar, European, American, and the like. These can be turned into a meal very easily with the addition of a little meat, fish, poultry, or beans.

7. Bacon Bits

Per ounce, yes, it is much more expensive to buy a little packet, or jar, of bacon bits. The cheaper alternative would be buying bacon on sale, cooking it, chopping it, and freezing it. But sometimes I just want a tablespoon in an omelet, or to sprinkle on a salad. Those little bags (or jars) are just enough to get the bacon flavor without a lot of mess and fuss. To be honest, when I fry bacon, I tend to nibble at the cooked pieces (as does my husband, and then the dogs always want a bite). So, for me, there probably is a cost savings by buying the tiny bag. Not to mention the mess that cooking bacon involves, no matter how you do it.

8. Breadcrumbs

Making breadcrumbs is a great use of stale bread. I save pieces and ends in the freezer and those all become croutons or bread pudding, at some point. But as for making crumbs, naah. They aren't hard to make, but I have really grown to prefer these two options: Panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) or smashed Ritz crackers. Panko makes for superior fried chicken as well as fried vegetables, such as zucchini or eggplant. Shake chicken in a mixture of white flour (and a little rice flour, for super crispiness) and seasonings. Dip into egg wash, then roll in panko; bake or fry. Ritz crackers, or their knock-offs, are at their best when smashed to oblivion and used for breading (try dipping that chicken in egg wash, then rolling in a combination of grated cheddar cheese, smashed crackers, and seasonings; bake).

9. Ready-Made Pie Crusts

Ever since Bon Appetit grudgingly gave its green light to using Pillsbury pie crusts, I never looked back. I've always been crummy at making crusts from scratch, and they gave me license to make pies, both savory and sweet, with decent success. They come two to a package, which ends up being very handy — and they freeze well. If you bring somebody a pie, they are going to love you regardless of whether you made your crust from scratch.

10. Spaghetti Sauce in a Jar

I truly prefer my own homemade, simmer-all-day marinara, but in a pinch, a purchased jar of pasta sauce works. It is good over noodles, in an impromptu calzone, or on a pizza. The less expensive brands tend to contain corn syrup and, to me, are quite sweet. I watch for better brands to go on sale. There are several "celebrity chef" sauces out, now; some are worth a try.

11. Rotisserie Chicken

Ah, the Costco $5 rotisserie chicken. Need I say more? When you can't even buy a dang chicken and cook it for yourself for that price, well, load up. I use the carcasses to make chicken broth, but if I am pushed for time...

12. Canned Chicken Broth

It's very handy, isn't it? Some brands are dollar-store cheap, but if you are watching for MSG, be careful. There are brands that do not contain MSG; they naturally cost a little more. Even if you are a purist who wants to only make your own, if you are sick, I promise you there is nothing better than that bowl of chicken broth with your Jell-O. It is worth keeping around just for that emergency.

13. Frozen Vegetables

Watch for sales and load up! My favorites are mixed veggies, which are great in soups and pot pies; spinach, for stuffing mushrooms and quiche; and peas, for salads and fried rice.

14. Canned Beans

If you are watching your sodium, look for the brands without added salt. I prefer to rinse mine, too. The things you can do with a can of beans! Kidney beans make a quick chili (vegetarian or with added burger). Garbanzos quickly become hummus. Cannellini beans can go into soups or pasta dishes. Pintos with rice are a family favorite. Black beans make a salad a meal. The alternative, and the way I learned to cook beans, is to soak dried ones. This is definitely a cheaper method, to be sure, but you had better be a good meal planner. If you have a pressure cooker, that's another good way to go — but for pure convenience, open a can.

What are your favorite convenience foods?

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Guest's picture

#11 Rotisserie Chicken!

We use those all the time at my house. Excellent for a chicken and sausage gumbo!

Guest's picture

I feel better seeing that I'm not alone in stocking spaghetti sauce, canned chicken broth, and canned beans as pantry staples. I often cook batches of pinto beans in the crockpot and freeze them, but sometimes a can of beans comes in real handy. (One of my go-to quick meals is beans on toast.) However, I rarely buy grated cheese (#1). Instead, when I grate cheese in the food processor, I grate extra for later use. Same applies for bacon bits (#7) When cooking bacon, I cook extra, crumble it and freeze for when I only need a spoonful.