By Paul Schrodt
May 29, 2019

Trader Joe’s is a paradise of frozen food—that doesn’t taste like frozen food.

The grocery store prioritizes ready-to-eat items, and over the years, has excelled at developing frozen meals that will fool your taste buds into thinking you ordered takeout from your favorite place down the block.

As with most items at Trader Joe’s, it’s also very hard to beat the prices of these flash-frozen products. I’m a regular customer at my local Trader Joe’s in Los Angeles and have scoured and tasted my way through the aisles. While not everything is a gem, there are a few under-the-radar treasures worth trying.

Here are the best buys in the Trader Joe’s frozen-foods section that can be found for $5 or less—and that you’d even feel confident serving guests.

1. Kung Pao Chicken, $4.99

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It’s rare to find a Chinese frozen dish at Trader Joe’s that packs real heat, but you’ll get it when you dig into this version of kung pao chicken, especially if you bite into a whole dried pepper. Trader Joe’s doesn’t skimp—and even includes a package of peanuts to sprinkle on top.

How easy is it to cook? All you need is a stovetop and to follow the package directions. Pair with rice.

2. Chinese-Style Pork Buns, $3.49

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Also known as cha siu bao, this addictive type of Chinese pork bun might be challenging to find if you’re not at morning or afternoon dim sum service at a Chinese restaurant. Unless, of course, you happen to grab the four-bun frozen package at Trader Joe’s. I’ll confess the dough doesn’t live up to fresh, homemade bao, but they still deliver. Plus, they’re so filling, two basically equal a meal.

How easy are they to cook? Steam over a pot of boiling water or on a steaming tray in a rice cooker, according to package instructions.

3. Thai Shrimp Gyoza, $4.99

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Trader Joe’s is a secret dumpling paradise, if you know where to look. Your first stop should be these impeccable frozen Asian-influenced dumplings. Try to overlook the confusing name—they’re called Thai even though gyoza is a type of Japanese dumpling. Featuring juicy shrimp coated in sharp ginger, these gyoza come in a one-pound package (equaling about 15 gyoza).

How easy are they to cook? Steam over a pot of boiling water or on a steaming tray in a rice cooker, according to package instructions.

4. Chicken Tikka Masala, $3.69

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This dish of roasted chicken in a mild curry sauce is perhaps the crown jewel of American (not to mention British) Indian takeout dishes. Longtime fans rave that the Trader Joe’s version matches what you can expect from a local restaurant—but at a fraction of the cost.

How easy is it to cook? Throw in the oven according to package instructions. Got a microwave? That works, too. (We won’t tell anyone.)

5. Wild Mushroom and Black Truffle Flatbread, $4.49

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Frozen pizza is a hallowed American tradition. Elevate your guilty pleasure (just slightly) with Trader Joe’s absurdly luxurious mushroom-and-black-truffle pizza—excuse me, flatbread, as it insists on being called. The fragrance alone is enough to soothe your stomach pangs.

How easy is it to cook? Incredibly. Cook in the oven according to package instructions.

6. Cauliflower Gnocchi, $2.69

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Gnocchi made from cauliflower? Might sound dicey, if you don’t know what to expect. But I can’t recommend highly enough these cult favorite, gluten-free, and supremely healthy Italian-style dumplings.

How easy are they to cook? Dismiss the poorly conceived instructions on the back and follow our own recipe for this Trader Joe’s staple: Defrost the gnocchi, pan-fry them, and cover with sauce, cheese, or whatever toppings you desire.

7. Chicken Taquitos, $4.49

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Taquitos are the ultimate snack for noshing on the couch while watching Netflix. This generous package of taquitos can also easily transform into dinner, especially when paired with your favorite go-to salsa or guacamole.

How easy are they to cook? Throw those taquitos in the oven until they turn into crunchy sticks of deliciousness.

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8. Quiche Lorraine, $5.49

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Okay, technically this breaks our self-imposed $5 budget, but only barely—and this quiche is more than worth the extra pocket change. Loaded with 20% uncured ham and plenty of Swiss cheese encased in a flaky crust, this rich dish serves up to four. Get ready to ascend to pork-and-dairy heaven.

How easy is it to cook? The quiche is already fully cooked. A few minutes in the oven, per the package instructions, and it will crisp up beautifully.

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