scorecardI tried 23 popular frozen meals from Trader Joe's, and would buy at least half of them again
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I tried 23 popular frozen meals from Trader Joe's, and would buy at least half of them again

Savanna Swain-Wilson   

I tried 23 popular frozen meals from Trader Joe's, and would buy at least half of them again
LifeThelife21 min read
  • As part of an ongoing series, I reviewed 23 of Trader Joe's frozen entrées to find the best ones.
  • I absolutely loved the chain's chicken chow mein, garlic-and-pesto pizza, and mushroom ravioli.

From shareable snacks, like gyoza, to single-serve dinners, such as jackfruit curry, Trader Joe's wide selection of frozen foods has been a lifesaver.

I'm picky about instant meals, though, so I reviewed 23 of Trader Joe's frozen entrées.

Keep reading to find out which options I'll be purchasing again, and the ones I'll skip next time.

Trader Joe's riced-cauliflower bowl is a blend of filling, fresh-tasting ingredients

This veggie bowl had a lot going on. It consists of seasoned chickpeas, tofu, and sweet potatoes, all tied together by cauliflower rice and a flavorful tahini sauce.

My mouth was treated to a symphony of textures and flavors with every bite.

The vegetables got to be the star of the show without feeling overly wholesome, but the meal also didn't taste like convenient, frozen food.

The tofu and vegetables were perfectly cooked, with a slightly crispy exterior and tender center. Remove them from the tray, and you could probably convince me they were roasted in the oven.

Plus, every flavor component was a perfect complement to the others.

I enjoyed the soy-like marinade on the tofu, especially paired with the mild cauliflower rice. The tahini dressing's slightly nutty sesame flavor contrasted with the mellow sweet potatoes, while the onion and spiced chickpeas added an understated kick.

I can see this making a great filling for a wrap with a bit of tzatziki on the side.

This dish could've omitted the kale, as it didn't add much flavor and seemed a bit out of place. But there was so little of it that I didn't mind

VERDICT: If you're looking for a vegan dish to add to your dinner rotation that isn't pasta or fried, this bowl is your answer.

The mushroom risotto would work as an easy side

I'm fully convinced magicians work for Trader Joe's because there's no reason this bagged, frozen mix should've transformed into something this good.

I specifically bought this risotto because it was the last one available in my store, and an associate told me it's one of the chain's most popular items.

Now that I've had it myself, I get why it's constantly selling out.

At a glance, this risotto's texture seemed slightly less thick and creamy than some homemade versions I've tried, but that wasn't a total dealbreaker. The rice was still pillowy, soft, and yummy.

It didn't have an overly salty or processed flavor and tasted like the ingredients had been freshly chopped and thrown into the mix. It even included real mushroom pieces.

Although the simple combination of rice, onions, white wine, and mellow porcini mushrooms with a touch of garlic was yummy, the overall taste was boring.

No one component stood out enough to consider this anything more than a side dish.

VERDICT: I can't see myself buying this all the time, but I'd snag it to serve alongside a meal.

Even though it made for a simple and satisfying meal, the penne arrabbiata wasn't very memorable

This was a basic, no-frills pasta dish. There wasn't anything wrong with it, but it also didn't quite live up to my expectations.

The tomatoes dominated the dish, though it had a faint kick of a piquant, peppery flavor.

Based on the package's photo, I had anticipated that the sauce would be chunky, but it was thin and broth-like, sliding off the penne a little too easily and leaving behind a soupy pool.

Not all pasta dishes need to be elaborate, but this certainly wasn't one to write home about. Even though topping it with cheese definitely helped, this desperately needed some salt and herbs.

VERDICT: Although Trader Joe's penne arrabbiata could make for a satisfying, last-minute dinner, it wasn't memorable enough for me to buy again.

But if you're looking to feed some picky mouths or children, this could be good to have on hand.

The kung pao tempura cauliflower had great flavor but could've been crispier

I was very excited to try Trader Joe's cauliflower tempura since I'm always down for anything shareable that can double as an entrée or side.

Making this couldn't have been easier. I poured the florets directly onto a pan, cooked them for 20 minutes, and then tossed them in the sauce. Some of the edges developed brown tips, which I assumed indicated crispness. They looked like boneless chicken wings.

This meal had potential but wasn't quite there yet. I liked how each cauliflower floret was quite large, making nearly every chunk two bites instead of one.

Plus, the ratio of tempura crust to floret was on point since there was just enough of it on each piece to notice it was there without being overly bready.

The main issue was the texture. Although the batter around each piece was nice and crispy, the cauliflower florets were too soft, even bordering on mushy in some bites.

I've made cauliflower wings in the oven plenty of times and had them crisp up just fine, but maybe the sauce was too heavy.

Despite all this, I kept popping these morsels into my mouth. Once I stopped thinking about them as tempura and instead as their own unique dish, the soft texture became more appealing.

The kung pao sauce had a clearly detectable tang and just the right amount of sweetness, with notes of ginger and spicy soy. It was the definition of lip-smackingly good.

VERDICT: Although the cauliflower tempura could've been a lot crispier, the kung pao sauce was out of this world and made this totally worth the buy.

Next time, I'll prepare this in the air fryer to see if that helps the texture.

Trader Joe's cheese enchiladas would satisfy a craving for a spicy, cheesy meal

Trader Joe's enchiladas can be cooked in the microwave or oven, but the latter takes 25 minutes, which is far too long to wait for a frozen meal.

I went with the easiest route, and it didn't seem to have much of a negative impact on the texture. The tortilla edges were less crunchy, but there wasn't any kind of gummy or processed mouthfeel.

Before cooking, the frozen enchiladas had a crumbly cheese, corn, and cilantro topping, but after a few minutes in the microwave, those components completely vanished. Tiny bits of red and green bell peppers were the only noticeable contrast to the pool of sauce.

There were no meat or beans in sight, so it sort of felt like eating a baked cheese roll-up doused in red sauce — but not in a bad way. A river of gooey Monterey Jack oozed out of the tortilla seams when my fork touched them.

I would've preferred more bell peppers or onions. The red sauce was far from the best I've had, but it got the job done with a strong presence of cumin.

These weren't really spicy and left a lingering onion taste in my mouth for several minutes.

VERDICT: Overall, these enchiladas were about as basic as frozen food gets, though they could likely be improved with some additional toppings, like sour cream. I don't see myself buying them regularly, but if I ever crave an enchilada and don't want to make an entire tray, I may throw these in my cart.

The vegetable pad thai was an OK substitute for takeout but could've used more spice

Many Trader Joe's customers love this pad thai, but I just didn't see the hype.

I'm not sure why it used cashews instead of peanuts. I understand the desire to be allergy-friendly but that crunchy texture is the key to a good pad thai. Instead, the nuts got buried under everything else.

Also, why did this single-serving dinner have so many bean sprouts? There was no reason for Trader Joe's to give them a starring role when they're clearly supposed to be a supporting character.

I'm not exaggerating either. They're the first ingredient listed on the side of the box. The ratio of noodles to sprouts was a near-even split.

Meanwhile, the tofu suffered from a lack of seasoning, but there was so little of it that I barely noticed it was there.

The rice noodles also had an inconsistent texture. Some parts were crunchy, while others clumped into gummy piles.

But this pad thai had one redeeming quality — its sauce. It was far from perfect but darn good.

It had a nice sweet-and-sour profile with a faint touch of chile that was genuinely enjoyable. Though, it was noticeably sweeter than most pad-thai sauces I've had. Had the other components of the dish tasted better, I might've scraped the sides of my tray for it.

VERDICT: I'll always appreciate Trader Joe's for offering vegan versions of popular dishes that can be easily customized with the addition of meat and hot sauce.

If you're new to Thai food and want to try something that doesn't contain any fish sauce and isn't particularly spicy, this might be a good entry point.

But between its textural inconsistencies and good-but-not-great sauce, this frozen rendition was mostly disappointing. I won't be purchasing it again.

These stuffed shells would be perfect for anyone who wants a simple, cheesy dinner

I was pleasantly surprised by how tasty these shells were.

They perfectly captured everything I crave in pasta — an ample presence of gooey cheese, plenty of yummy, luscious tomato sauce, and an al-dente carb to hold it all together.

I would've been fine if these shells contained just cheese on the inside, but I appreciated how the spinach made them a bit more sophisticated. Plus, I certainly won't complain about any dish that helps me to sneak extra greens into my diet while still tasting like a comfort meal.

The filling had a slightly bitter, earthy taste, but the yummy tomato sauce and cheese did an excellent job of masking it.

Overall, these shells made for a satisfying dinner, and I loved that I didn't need to turn on my stove or oven to make them.

Unfortunately, some of the sauce-and-cheese mixture solidified into a thick ring of burnt crust that clung to the sides of the tray, rendering it totally inedible. I didn't microwave it any longer or less than instructed, so be mindful of your appliance's strength when consulting the cooking time.

VERDICT: Although I could've done without the dieting lingo on the label — "Reduced-guilt" pasta? C'mon, Trader Joe's — I thought these stuffed shells were worth the buy.

The mushroom ravioli was a dream come true

Unlike the fresh options, this ravioli comes with the sauce in the frozen mix, which I've found can be a hit or miss. As a result, I lowered my expectations.

Turns out, I seriously underestimated Trader Joe's.

This ravioli was unbelievably delicious. Between its soft mushroom-ricotta filling and rich yet amazingly not heavy truffle sauce, this meal felt far more luxurious than a frozen entrée.

The sauce was like a thick gravy, with tiny bits of mushroom speckled throughout that accentuated its savory flavors. It seeped into the ravioli pockets and gave them an irresistibly buttery, melt-in-your-mouth quality.

Each bite boasted an earthy, umami truffle flavor that balanced out the saltiness in the sauce. The only thing missing was the presence of an herb.

Overall, this was pure comfort food in less than seven minutes.

VERDICT: If you're a fan of mushrooms — and particularly, the taste of truffle — this is an absolute must-buy.

Although the Cuban-style rice bowl had some good qualities, it didn't blow me away

Based on the box's picture, I believed this bowl would contain a vibrant, colorful medley of ingredients, but I found a muted, yellow palette.

Most notably, there was no green to be found, as the cilantro is not included.

Unfortunately, the lack of color seemed to be a good indicator for what was to come, since this rice bowl left a lot to be desired.

The rice tasted fine and had a subtle lime flavor, but the chicken was dry. The beans had a decent, albeit boring, profile.

On top of that, there were only three plantain chunks in the entire bowl, which I found super disappointing since they added a unique sweetness that paired well with the citrusy component.

The hot sauce I added improved the meal, but this dish wasn't worth it.

VERDICT: This could've been great with a few minor tweaks, but it was pretty lackluster as is and not worth buying.

Trader Joe's garlic-and-pesto pizza was one of the most amazing frozen pizzas I've ever made at home

This pizza's strength was in its simplicity.

The crust was the star of the show, with just the right balance of buttery and salty flavors. I loved how it had some puffy, airy pockets and crunchy thin sections, giving me the impression of freshly baked dough.

I was initially skeptical about the lack of tomatoes or sauce, but this was loaded with so much scrumptious flavor that I didn't even miss it.

The combination of four luxurious cheeses — mozzarella, Parmesan, burrata, and provolone — along with the garlic bits, mouthwatering crust, and dollops of smooth, nutty pesto was otherworldly.

But this pizza's brilliant construction was what really set it apart. The dollops of pesto around the surface accentuated the other flavors rather than overpowering them, so every ingredient had time to shine.

VERDICT: As someone who has eaten plenty of frozen pizzas in my life, I can confidently say this may be one of the best. Between the fresh-baked taste of its crust and scrumptious, cheesy pesto topping, it's yummy enough to keep me from ordering delivery.

For instant vegan comfort food, look no further than this yellow jackfruit curry

Jackfruit is the true MVP of plant-based protein, and the stringy, meaty fruit has become one of my favorite meat replacements.

This meal took over five minutes to make in the microwave but was well worth the wait — it was easily one of the best foods I've tried from Trader Joe's frozen section.

The rice and curry are separated, which is nice since I could alternate bites. However, I mixed mine together in a separate bowl to get the full effect.

In addition to jackfruit, this curry boasted a delicious melange of colorful bell peppers, onions, and eggplant, which didn't develop a rubbery texture in the microwave. The rice also turned out perfectly fluffy and yummy.

The sauce really won me over with its complex combination of aromatic spices, like coriander and turmeric, and the rich coconut milk was absolutely amazing. It also had a decent amount of heat, about on par with a medium salsa.

Plus, the meal kept me full for hours without feeling heavy.

VERDICT: I highly recommend adding this jackfruit curry to your list. It was easy to throw together and incredibly delicious.

Trader Joe's French onion soup tasted much better than it looked

Straight out of the package, this entrée comes as two frozen masses of broth, onion, and cheese about the height of a small coffee mug.

I liked that it came with two individually wrapped servings, so I didn't have to worry about cooking everything all at once.

Per the instructions, this soup can be prepared in the microwave or oven, but I opted to cook it the fastest way possible.

Unfortunately, the soup looked pretty mediocre out of the microwave. Clumps of cheese separated into tiny bits, giving the broth a chunky and murky brownish-white appearance that was anything but appetizing.

Thankfully, this meal tasted better than it looked. I wouldn't call it amazing, but it totally satisfied my craving for French onion soup.

The broth was decent, though noticeably less salty than restaurant versions, and the onions were definitely the dominant flavor, giving it a more mellow, earthy taste rather than a savory, beefy one.

Thyme or a splash of red wine could've added some depth, but since this soup came together in less than five minutes in my microwave, I leveled my expectations.

VERDICT: If convenience is your priority, this is worth having on hand. I'll keep this in the back of my freezer, especially during winter.

The vegetable gyoza is worth having on hand at all times

This gyoza has been my jam for several years now. I've tried many other frozen options from different brands, but none have held a candle to this one.

Each dumpling tasted light and fresh, like a spring roll, but it was flavorful enough to satisfy a savory craving. Its yummy vegetarian filling of scallions, cabbage, and carrots paired with bold notes of garlic and ginger satisfied a savory craving.

I say this as someone who loves sauce on everything: These dumplings are yummy enough to eat plain.

If you're interested, Trader Joe's sells gyoza sauce, but these only need a bit of plain soy sauce, if any.

Quick, convenient, and delicious, these gyoza are hard to beat as far as frozen foods go. They retain their firmness even after being microwaved, which makes them a great meal to throw together in a time crunch.

If you like your dumplings to have a crispier bite, you can cook them in a pan with some oil.

VERDICT: Great as a last-minute dinner or on a platter for groups, this easy-to-cook vegetarian gyoza hits all the right notes. It's a repeat purchase in my house.

The hatch-chile chicken wraps exceeded all of my expectations

Until these wraps, I'd never found a frozen meal that was so yummy it stopped me mid-bite. I immediately had to text my friend, "Hey, next time you go to Trader Joe's, you've got to try this."

Trader Joe's frozen section offers many different Tex-Mex and Mexican-inspired dishes, but I noticed these because of the "hatch chile" description.

The hatch chile is a green pepper from the Southwest part of the US known for its bold, spicy, and smoky flavor. It's slightly sweeter than its cousin, the chipotle chile, so it's great for giving dishes an obvious yet not overpowering kick.

The package has two separate wraps, so you can turn it into two light meals.

Each wrap contained several chunks of juicy chicken, mildly spicy green chiles, jalapeño, black beans, gooey mozzarella, and Monterey Jack cheese. These flavors formed an incredible combination.

On the outside, the folds of the flour tortilla provided a nice backdrop for all this savory, salty, and spicy goodness.

VERDICT: Even though I've only tried this wrap once, I can easily see it becoming my newest obsession. I don't know how I'll ever return to regular frozen burritos after this.

The vegan Bolognese was so delicious that it gave the meat version a run for its money

Even though I'm no longer a full-time vegetarian, I'm grateful that I live in a time when there are so many delicious meatless options. And this Bolognese marks another addition to my ever-expanding list.

I'm still amazed by how well the mushrooms mimicked sausage's texture, flavor, and scent. Had you served this to me without saying anything, I would've assumed it was meat.

Overall, this vegan bolognese was pretty good. It boasts twisted lentil pasta and a thick, chunky tomato sauce with strong notes of rosemary.

I'm not sure why Trader Joe's used lentil pasta since it didn't make this meal gluten-free, but the added kick of fiber and protein was still nice.

However, after a few bites, I quickly got bored of this dish. I couldn't quite put my finger on what was missing, but it lacked something crucial to make me want to keep eating it.

It may have needed some cheese, which defeats the purpose of it being vegan, but this was begging for an added kick of salty Parmesan or creamy mozzarella, at the very least.

VERDICT: Overall, this was a pretty decent-sized vegan meal with plant-based protein.

Between its solid protein content and savory meaty taste, I can totally see this dish winning over even the most devout carnivore.

The gluten-free chickenless riced-cauliflower stir fry wasn't my favorite, but it made a great base

Though I'll give Trader Joe's props for providing enough vegetables in the chain's chickenless stir fry to distract from the fact that it uses cauliflower rice, I thought it was lacking in the flavor department.

The bag says it's seasoned with ginger and tamari but to me, it literally just tasted like a cooked bag of plain vegetables with a hint of stir-fry sauce mixed in.

I thought the plant-based "chicken" morsels didn't add much, other than an awkwardly chewy texture. More than anything, I was disappointed by the amount of pineapple. I had to dig through a mountain of peas and carrots before I found the measly two pineapple pieces in the mix.

I ended up topping the stir fry with every possible chile sauce I had on hand to make sure it didn't go to waste. But by the time I finished eating, I wished I had just made my own stir fry.

VERDICT: Unless you're really trying to commit to a low-carb diet, I think you're better off buying instant rice and frozen veggies for your own stir fry.

The vegan Thai green curry had great flavor, but I wasn't impressed by the tofu

Trader Joe's vegan green curry contained tofu sheets rather than cubes, which, after microwaving, turned into fibrous and overly chewy rectangles that took up the bulk of the limited tray space. I was also caught off guard by a lime wedge buried in the mix.

I wish the valuable tray space had been used to hold more vegetables, like bell peppers, instead of the lime wedge. There were maybe two pieces of actual vegetables in the entire meal.

It's a pity because, in my opinion, the green-curry sauce was fantastic. It was spicy and aromatic, with notes of fresh lemongrass and Thai basil coming through on the nose and palate. I ended up spooning the soupy mixture over the rice and eating that, which was great. Unfortunately, there was double the amount of rice than curry in the tray, so I had a lot of extra rice.

VERDICT: I applaud Trader Joe's for giving customers a vegan curry dish that can be whipped up in minutes, but I'll stick with takeout.

Trader Joe's outside-in stuffed gnocchi was like a grown-up take on pizza rolls

Historically, I haven't been a huge fan of Trader Joe's frozen gnocchi, so it almost seems silly that I bought the chain's outside-in stuffed version. But this gnocchi is the first one I'm giving a positive review for.

After cooking on the stove per the instructions, the gnocchi developed slightly browned edges and a soft, doughy, dumpling-like texture. The flavor was reminiscent of pizza rolls but far less salty.

To be honest, the tomato sauce and mozzarella-cheese filling didn't pack as much flavor as I hoped, but its presence was still welcome. Adding a few shakes of red and black pepper and grated Parmesan really made the gnocchi pop.

As with most frozen gnocchi, I'm sure it would greatly benefit from being served in a creamy sauce.

VERDICT: If I ever buy a frozen gnocchi again, it'll be Trader Joe's outside-in stuffed one.

The chicken chow mein was one of the best frozen meals from the chain's Chinese-inspired lineup

Don't get me wrong, I love the frozen orange chicken as much as the next person, but to me, Trader Joe's chicken chow mein works much better as a stand-alone meal. It's got some carbs from the noodles, protein from the chicken, and fiber from the vegetables.

Each component is tied together by a delicious, slightly sticky sauce that has the right balance of soy and hoisin for a touch of sweetness. Despite all the flavor, it somehow tasted quite light with no weird artificial aftertaste.

I thought it tasted even better the next day after all the flavor soaked into the noodles. Best of all, everything is cooked together in a single pan, so no veggie-chopping or noodle-boiling is required.

VERDICT: Trader Joe's chicken chow mein is a keeper.

Add some salsa to the cheese-and-chile tamales for an easy, delicious vegetarian meal

The exterior of Trader Joe's cheese-and-chile tamales was soft and fluffy, with a mild corn flavor I found unexpectedly sweet — like cornbread. The tamales were filled with mild, creamy cheese, which made the sweetness even more apparent.

I wondered if the meatier varieties have a more savory flavor to counteract the sweetness. The green chiles were a nice touch, but to me, they got buried under the sweetness.

Overall, the tamales weren't bad. They were just a little one-note. I'd buy them again and top them with hot sauce or chopped onions and cilantro to make them more savory.

VERDICT: I prefer the frozen bean and cheese burritos, but this is still a great way to enjoy tamales without all the prep work.

I thought Trader Joe's vegetable-and-cheese enchiladas were a disappointing, soggy mess

Each vegetable-and-cheese enchilada contained chunks of nopal cactus and peppers, but they were indistinguishable under all the cheese and sauce. Unfortunately, the soupy red sauce wasn't anything to write home about, either.

To me, the enchiladas tasted mainly like tomato sauce that was heavily seasoned with chile powder.

I wasn't expecting frozen enchiladas to be mind-blowing, but they took 40 minutes to fully cook in the oven — just 20 minutes shy of what it would take to make this dish from scratch. Though they can also be prepared in the microwave, I still don't think this is worth making again.

VERDICT: Thankfully, topping the dish with avocado helped add more flavor. But otherwise, these enchiladas were very underwhelming.

In my opinion, the chicken-shawarma bowl was forgettable

The picture on the box promised a generous dollop of luscious, creamy garlic sauce over fluffy, herby, golden rice, juicy chicken bits, pickled onions, and red peppers.

However, the finished dish I pulled from my oven had sad-looking, barely flavorful toppings that almost disappeared when I moved my fork over the rice.

The dish didn't impress me even after going the extra mile to bake the chicken shawarma rather than cook it in the microwave. It had a dull note of savory garlic without any other distinct taste or seasoning. By the third bite, I was bored and ready to order something else.

VERDICT: Overall, I don't think the chicken-shawarma bowl is worth picking up from the store.

I hoped Trader Joe's spicy peanutty noodle bowl with chicken would be good

I had high hopes for this dish after the Trader Joe's cashier raved about it, and I'm happy to report my expectations were exceeded in every way.

From the sauce's layers of umami, salty-peanut flavors to the varying textures of slightly chewy udon noodles, tender chicken chunks, and crunchy-nut topping in each bite, this was seriously impressive for something out of a box.

I smacked my lips and marveled at the combination of ingredients, like brown sugar and hoisin sauce, listed on the package.

VERDICT: If I worked in an office, this would be a repeat lunch for me.

Click to keep reading other Trader Joe's taste tests in this series.