These frozen foods are the answer to COVID-19 cooking fatigue

A salute to the unsung kitchen heroes of the pandemic.
Frozen food department of grocery store.
Frozen foods can be fast, easy and nutritious.Katrina Wittkamp / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

There's no doubt that the past few months have been a difficult time for everyone: Long periods of quarantine and isolation have taken a toll on many. One manifestation of that is "cooking fatigue," a phenomenon where people report being bored with their meal options and constantly cooking the same thing over and over, seeing meals more as a chore than anything.

One solution? Frozen foods, which can be fast, easy and nutritious. We spoke to TODAY Digital staffers and some of our favorite registered dietitians to find out their favorite freezer food recommendations.

Fruits and vegetables

Jen Laskey, an editor on TODAY Health, said that she's "crazy about" simple frozen peas, which can be found at any grocery store.

"I put them in everything from pasta to soups and sauces to salads," Laskey said. "They're also great for pan-frying and making pea cakes. But the quickest, easiest meal I make with them is a simple pasta with olive oil, garlic, Parmesan (cheese) and peas."

Samantha Cassetty, a registered dietitian based in New York City and the coauthor of "Sugar Shock", said that she swears by frozen stir-fry vegetables for easy meals.

"Like all frozen veggies, they're prepped, washed and ready to cook from the bag, and they're just as nutritious as fresh produce," Cassetty said. "I especially like the stir-fry veggies because it offers more variety than what I tend to cook on my own. I use a bag to make a quick fried rice, adding scrambled eggs, frozen peas, or frozen shelled edamame to boost the protein."

Both Cassetty and Laskey said they love frozen berries, as well: Cassetty said she loves to use frozen blueberries in smoothies or as toppings on pancakes or yogurt, while Laskey prefers to use frozen berries for scones and other baked goods.

Grains and pasta

Cassetty and Katie Stilo, a recipe developer for TODAY Food, both agreed that frozen rice is a great staple to have on hand.

"This may seem like a silly thing to stock up on, but trust me, you will thank me later!" Stilo said. "The rice cooks in minutes in the microwave and is the perfect addition to any meal such as vegetable stir-fry. Cooking rice traditionally on the stove top can be a long process and I generally don't have the time on weeknights. The pre-portioned bags are also a way to save on food waste by allowing you to control the exact amount you need."

Cassetty said that she also likes to keep frozen quinoa on hand, since it can be easily added to a grain bowl or served as a side dish. Most frozen grains can be heated up in two minutes or less.

Another favorite is pizza crusts, which make it easier than ever to make pizza at home. Registered dietitian Maya Feller said that she loves Banza's pizza crusts, which are made with chickpeas.

"I love it because it's a plant-based source of protein, and is low glycemic index food for people who are monitoring their blood sugars," she said. "The customizable crust is my favorite because it gives me the option to choose the toppings I enjoy. It's also delicious — everyone in my family enjoys the whole line of Banza pizzas."

Side dishes

Stilo said that one of her favorite side dishes is a seasonal Trader Joe's snack that she likes to eat at least once a week when it's available: Butternut Squash Mac & Cheese.

"It's a super easy weeknight option that comes together in literally five minutes in the microwave," she said. "You can also heat it up in the oven, but let's be honest, I'm too impatient for that. The blend of creamy cheeses and spices such as nutmeg and sage makes this the perfect fall or winter comfort food."

Cassetty's favorite side dish was another version of mac and cheese, this one a cauliflower option from Performance Kitchen.

"It tastes indulgent and slips in a full serving of veggies," said Cassetty. "Plus, whole grain pasta is a rarity in the frozen aisle, which makes this mac and cheese stand apart from the pack with 55 grams of whole grains ... Also, frozen meals are notoriously high in sodium, especially saucy versions like mac and cheese, but this one has 400 milligrams of sodium, which is more than reasonable."

Entrees and mains

When it came to main dishes, almost every TODAY staffer who responded said their favorite meal was available at Trader Joe's.

"I’m a big fan of the Mandarin Orange Chicken from Trader Joe’s," said social media editor Zach Pagano. "It’s been a longtime fan favorite, and rightfully so. It’s affordable, easy to make and tastes amazing. I usually cook it with some Trader Joe’s frozen vegetable fried rice, and it never disappoints."

Video producer Sara Snyder said that frozen burritos from Trader Joe's are a great quick lunch option, while senior photo editor Mish Coffey voted for the store's ricotta and spinach-filled ravioli with tomato basil sauce.

"I throw in a handful of fresh spinach, and it's delicious and fast," Coffey said.

One Trader Joe's meal was a particular favorite: both Stilo and commerce editor Jess Bender said they loved the store's cauliflower gnocchi.

"(It's) something I stock up on by the dozen whenever it's not sold out," Bender said. "The key to cooking it, though, is not following the package instructions. Instead, I like to brown up some butter and fry some julienned sage in it, then I toss the gnocchi in it straight from the package until it's warmed through. It's the perfect (and easy and lazy!) fall dinner."

Stilo said the real win of the cauliflower gnocchi was its nutrition, calling it a "healthy alternative" to pasta.

"I'm no nutritionist, but I feel like I'm getting my vegetables in," she said. "They sauté great in a skillet with a little olive oil. I love to toss these with some other frozen veggies such as broccoli, peas or cauliflower and add in chicken sausage to bulk up the meal. I'll either top this with marinara sauce or a store-bought herb sauce."

Stilo said she also loves Trader Joe's Chipotle Vegetable Quesadillas, which are great for either lunch or dinner.

"I recently discovered these and I'm hooked!" she said. "They heat up quickly in either the microwave or in a skillet on the stove top. They're filling and flavorful with the right amount of spice kick. I love to dip them in sour cream and guac."

Feller said that a non-Trader Joe's favorite was Tucson Tamales' Blue Corn Veggie and Cheese Tamales, which include blue corn, summer squash, sweet corn, tomato and green chiles.

"These tamales are a favorite in my house, especially with my vegetarian child," Feller said. "It's a nice mixture of veggies and cheese that are easy to make and pair well with a heaping plate of greens."

Kid-friendly favorites

Frozen foods can be a hit with the whole family! Cassetty said that since her teenager has been eating lunch at home every day during remote learning, she's "never without a bag" of Perdue SimplySmart Organics Whole Grain Chicken Breast Nugget.

"This brand meets my nutrition standards, but just as importantly lives up to his taste requirements," she said.