“Store-bought is fine.” These famous passive-aggressive words, uttered on repeat by Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten, have been a meme since meme-ing was in its infancy. But you know what? After the wits’-end, tear-out-your-hair-and-cry couple of years we’ve had, store-bought is more than fine. Store-bought is a godsend.
Thanksgiving has traditionally been a meal made at home, but honestly, none of us are above ordering a few items from the outside. As food inflation reaches its highest levels since the 1970s and restaurants raise their prices accordingly, many tired, struggling families are turning to more affordable solutions. With more Americans cooking at home ― 91% of consumers, per a recent GlobalData survey released in September ― grocery stores are amping it up even more with their heat-and-eat dishes and seasonal and baked goods.
We’re not just talking about Whole Foods and neighborhood upscale markets. “Regular” chains have been stepping it up quite a bit, challenging corporate chefs to get creative or nostalgic. For instance, Amy Fisher, public relations manager for Home Chef, an offering by Kroger, reveals, “Our green bean casserole is actually a riff on one of our culinary chef’s grandmother’s classic recipes!”
Tidbits like these are what’s making offerings in the refrigerated cases much tastier than in the years of yore. So much so that even food writers, chefs and hosts extraordinaire are looking gratefully at stepped-up prepared foods from the grocery store to make this year’s celebration an easier one.
Here are some of the most popular and highly recommended hacks to simplify your Thanksgiving this year, now that store-bought is way more than just “fine.”
Buy your bread; don’t bake it
Baking was all well and good as a lockdown activity, but the time-consuming nature that made it a boon is exactly why Thanksgiving isn’t the time to show off this new skill. There’s a lot of other prep work to be done, and coddling dough is as inefficient as giving it the much-needed oven space. Luckily, supermarket bakeries have gone the artisan route in the past few years, and experienced hosts like Michelle Guacci can count on their quality.
“We tend to make everything from scratch, but I get my bread from ShopRite in Morris, New Jersey,” she reveals. “They’re really high quality and baked daily. They make a delicious round semolina Italian bread that has a traditional home-baked crispy crust with an airy crumb, while remaining moist. They also have a really awesome artisan raisin walnut bread that you can pass off as homemade!”
Home cook Kerry Piraino goes to the big box for her bread side ― namely the Wellsley Farms cornbread mini-loaves from BJ’s. “I love that sweet slightly sticky top!” she says, and so do her guests.
Ariel Knutson, associate editorial director for Dotdash’s Food & Drink vertical, goes for an even more neutral good solution. “I opt for Martin’s potato rolls,” she says, speaking of the plush, smooth Pennsylvania favorite that catapulted to national attention as the Shake Shack bun. They come in dinner and slider sizes, too, and “you can find them at a number of grocery stores around the country or online.”
Don’t waste your energy on made-from-scratch appetizers
With hours between the first and last baste of the big bird, guests are bound to get peckish as you prep. “Appetizers are an important part of a celebration, in my opinion,” shares popular food and lifestyle writer Lia Picard, “but I also don’t have time to make those from scratch.” Costco has an incredible selection, with an entire wall dedicated to them, but Picard prefers to head to Trader Joe’s frozen foods section for mac and cheese bites, spanakopita and camembert cheese and cranberry sauce phyllo bites.
Knutson confesses that when she’s feeling rushed or stressed, she also makes a beeline for Trader Joe’s to cobble together a killer hors d’oeuvres spread, picking up caramelized onion dip, Unexpected cheddar, and rosemary Marcona almonds.
For more general crowd-pleasers, Costco has food and culture writer Meghan De Maria covered. “I love their shrimp cocktail, and they also carry King Cheese Spirella Minis and plenty of assorted meats and cheeses!” she adds.
Side dishes worth purchasing
For some, the sides are more important than the main ― and therefore, maybe too important not to leave to the pros? Prepared sweet potatoes are a popular supermarket grab, particularly Kroger’s Home Chef’s Sweet Potato Souffle, which Fisher describes as “fresh whipped sweet potatoes blended with the perfect amount of butter, then topped with a sweet and nutty, crunchy topping.”
Home cook and travel expert Heather Hendrix goes to Fresh Market for its chunky take on holiday sweet potatoes. “There’s a surprise burst of dried cranberries” she loves. This healthy market’s competitor, Sprouts Farmers Market, on the other hand, has a vegan sweet potato casserole that flies off the refrigerated shelf.
Knutson goes for a less traditional prep of the beans, though. It’s not her favorite ingredient to prepare, so her go-to is Whole Foods’ hot bar. “I look for something crisp and citrusy over mushy,” she says.
“I’m not above grabbing some frozen veggies and sprucing them up with fresh seasonings,” Picard admits. “I love to hit up the veggie section at Trader Joe’s to see what seasonal kits they have around the holidays.”
Former food blogger Lauren Ruth also hits up that store for her salad course. “The salad bags are really good, and I regularly use the kale and broccoli slaw for parties, potlucks and holidays,” she divulges. “The ease-to-flavor ratio is great. I toss the slaw with dressing the night before to allow the kale to soften, then the other package ingredients right before serving. It takes five minutes max and feels like an upgrade and is extremely versatile.”
Underground Dining Club chef-owner María Mercedes Grubb agrees: “It’s so good!” But her most recent side dish hack is from Costco. “Last year, I got their mashed potatoes. When heating them up, I rewhipped them with good butter and cream for that pommes purée vibe,” she adds.
Another cult favorite is Publix’s orange cranberry relish. “I love to make it homemade, but in a pinch, for a group meal, I’ll grab a tub of it,” Grubb says. It’s a ringer for from-scratch, and Publix director of communications Maria Brous spoke to us about why.
“The cranberry-orange relish was developed by our own chefs and is made in our Deli Kitchen in Lakeland, Florida. We wanted a spin on traditional cranberry sauce, and what better way than by giving it a Florida flair with a touch of citrus?” Brous says. This sauce is the key to the success of Publix’s famous Holiday Turkey Cranberry Sub, which is a customer favorite requested as early as June. “We don’t dare make any changes to this!” she says with a laugh.
And when it comes to the all-important stuffing, lifestyle writer Meg St. Esprit says, “Giant Eagle—a large grocery chain around Ohio and Pennsylvania—has the best stuffing. It’s very flavorful and perfectly moist, and rivals my mom’s … who makes great stuffing.”
The best store-bought desserts
There’s nothing more Thanksgiving than pie for dessert, but ― surprise! ― the way most food and dining experts opt to simplify their prep is to leave the pies to someone else. Cookbook author Nandita Godbole always gets her pumpkin pie from Whole Foods. “The pumpkin is flavored just right. It’s creamy and lightly sweet, with a perfect hint of nutmeg and cinnamon, the crust is done well, and great at room temperature or even slightly warmed up,” Godbole says. Dressing it up with a dollop of cream, she says, makes it perfection.
De Maria goes for efficiency, citing Costco’s pumpkin pie as a “must-have” for her table: “It’s baked fresh in the warehouse and can feed the whole family!” On the other hand, smaller portions are as key for Picard as nostalgia, who gets hers from Publix. “It tastes like childhood; that’s the pie I grew up on in Florida,” she notes.
On the West Coast, home cook James Kareka cheats with Safeway’s crumbles and Dutch apple pies. “Their bakery is above average ― they taste freshly baked, don’t have any artificial taste as though the fruit came from a can, and their cakes are super moist. My go-to cake is their Colossal Carrot Cake, which is super moist. I love drizzling bourbon over it and topping it with whipped cream,” Kareka says.
And he’s not the only one to offer an alternative to this season’s most popular gourd. Newsday restaurant critic Erica Marcus confesses, “I loathe pumpkin pie.” Instead, she opts for Trader Joe’s key lime pie and lemon bars. “Both are tart and clean ― not earth-shaking, but better than a lot of what you find and pay top dollar for in bakeries. And personally, I think that citrus dessert ― since they no longer make the opera cake! ― is a nice finish for a Thanksgiving meal,” Marcus says.
And we have to agree ― because, like all of the other pro-approved dishes, if it doesn’t have to be made at home and tastes like it was, it’s a great finish to a fabulously simplified feast.