What’s Your Default Dinner?

When I was an editor at Cookie, we ran a page called Default Dinners. It was devoted to meals we fell back on again and again that could be made in minutes and usually with the help of some storebought product that one of the editors would swear tasted fresher than homemade. The genius of these kinds of meals, I find, is that they call for doing something slightly more ambitious than pressing the “start” button on a microwave — whether it is assembling or quick sauteeing — so even though most of the heavy lifting is taken care of for you, you get to play out your yummy mummy fantasy and pretend you’re serving a mostly home-cooked dinner. (I have a theory that this is the real reason Sandra Lee’s Semi-Homemade empire is as successful as it is.) My pick for the page was chicken or vegetable curry made with Maya Kaimal’s Simmer Sauces, which I had just discovered. And it wasn’t a phase — almost three years later, I still think of Whole Foods as “The Place That Sells Maya’s Simmer Sauce.” I always pick up at least one or two when I’m there.

But strolling the aisles of Trader Joe’s the other day, I found something that might give Maya a run for her money. Have you guys seen the pre-packed organic beef patties they now sell?  We don’t usually buy pre-packed or pre-seasoned patties (I find they are either too packed or too seasoned), but I loved the fact that they were organic. We threw them in the cart along with a package of organic American cheese (still trying to wrap my head around that one — isn’t the very definition of American Cheese that it is processed?) and I found myself dreaming of cheeseburgers until the moment we all inhaled them the next night for a superfast family dinner. A 60-second tomato salad (with mozzarella, basil and olive oil) a big delicious dollop of special sauce, and dinner was served.

(OK fine, so I did go to the trouble of roasting the potatoes. But you don’t have to.)

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Melissa@Julia's Bookbag

It’s processed but Trader Joe’s will forever be special to me in my heart for their Orange Chicken — that’s our default dinner! I’m going to have to go run after those organic patties…..thanks for the tip!


I cook a chicken or some chicken breasts a couple times month and keep the cooked shredded chicken in the freezer. If inspiration isn’t striking and I need something quick and universally pleasing, it’s chicken tacos with the shredded chicken and a can of mashed-up black beans.


My default dinner is always eggs, served either overeasy on crusty toast (buttered and thrown under the broiler because that’s even easier than hauling out the toaster), or poached in spicy tomato sauce, also served over crusty toasted bread.

If I’m feeling crazy, I’ll make bacon too. Usually, I’m not that crazy though.


Baked ziti is a high frequency default dinner. If there is no time or inclination to make sauce, there is a stash of Trader Joe’s marinara in the pantry.


Newman’s Own Organic Marinara. If I don’t have batches of marina frozen in the freezer, I always have a jar of this in the pantry. As for the dinners I fall back? Quessadillas are such an easy way for me to do something fast and throw the veggies in tehre that may be wilting. I’ll just saute them all up with garlic and throw them between the tortillas with cheese. Add guac, salsa….easy and not a ton of guilt.


If its a TJ’s dinner then its the frozen veggie fried rice or chimichurri rice… add a protein and bam dinner is done (and yummy).


Spaghetti. On one of the first dates my husband and I went on, I took him to my second favorite restaurant. He ordered spaghetti. I assumed that meant he hated everything else on the menu. Turns out he just loves spaghetti. Even though it often means an immediate bath for my 9 and 32 month old daughters, it’s the easiest way to get everyone to sit at the dinner table.


My fall back dinner used to be salmon tacos, but now my default meal is teriyaki chicken made with TJ’s Soy-yaki, chicken thighs, frozen brown rice and steamed broccoli. I always have those items in my freezer so it’s ready to go at any time. I will stop feeling guilty about using frozen brown rice eventually. I just know it.


Mine is pizza. I almost always have pizza dough in my freezer from stew leonard’s (for those of you who don’t live in westchester/CT, trader joe’s dough is also good, or so i’ve heard). so it’s easy to just thaw one out in the morning or the night before, and then top it with whatever i have on hand that evening. dinner can be ready in 20 minutes – toppings can be prepared in the time it takes to preheat the oven and pre-bake the crust, even if it means sauteeing some veggies, and then it only takes 5-10 more minutes to bake the pizza. it’s a bonus if i have fresh mozzarella on hand instead of the bagged shredded stuff. the sauce is always from a jar though.


Quesadillas. I always seem to have some left over meat and veggies in the fridge, and find that anything encased in melted cheese and a tortilla goes over big.


One of our default dinner from Trader Joes is “burrito casserole”. I grab either bean, chicken or chicken verde burritos, place them in a casserole dish, smother in salsa (or salsa verde) and bake at 350. Sprinkle w/cheese and broil for last 5 minutes. Serve w/rice. The other TJ default dinner is chicken potstickers w/rice.


How about a can of baked beans with toast. Takes five minutes to heat up and is also very healthy!

Susan M.

Our default dinner is brown rice, steamed broccoli, and baked tofu (marinated in soy sauce and ginger). It’s the only dinner everyone in the family will eat all parts of, and we always have the ingredients on hand.

flyer printing

Default dinner yesterday was roasted duck with some sauce on it which I didn’t know how to do it coz my mom made that. Also a fried rice with scrambled egg and peas. Yummy!


Still in a summer haze and haven’t quite wrapped my head around the fact that school and less time and more to do is right around the corner. Think I’m going to make a list of quick default dinners to help ease the transition.


Hi Jenny,
First, let me say I am a huge fan lest you think I’m some random kid food site internet muckraker. I read your feeds everyday for inspiration. But, I’m wondering if you’re aware of some of Trader Joe’s less worthy practices called out in this article for example: http://zesterdaily.com/zester-soapbox-articles/944-trader-joes-says-no-to-increase-for-florida-tomato-farmworkers

I also find that most of Trader Joe’s ready-made foods are loaded with extra salt and sugar, and sometimes unlabeled MSG. I know it’s impossible to expect moms to make everything from scratch, or buy exclusively from Whole Foods, which can be really pricey but I think it’s important for kids as well as other parents to know that sometimes TJ’s low prices come at a high price for others. Thanks for hearing me out.


Our default dinner? Chicken tosdatas for sure. They can be as easy or as ‘fancy’ as you want them to be –

As far as breakfast goes, I eat the same thing every single day – we are big on consistency here and things don’t seem to get old. TJ’s whole wheat cinnamon raisin muffin with (crunchy) peanut butter and a drizzle of honey and a side of TJ’s frozen mangos. My son eats the same thing, but swap out the english muffin for TJ’s whole wheat waffle.


P.S. Your tomatoes look beautiful! I have yet to find some that look that, well, ‘summery.’ I don’t know what is going on here in Chicago….!


I actually keep a list of my “default dinners” on the fridge because by the time I get home from work I can’t think any more. My list:
– Rick Bayless’ garlic soup (poach garlic, heat broth, and chop)
– chilaquiles
– huevos rancheros with quick sauce made with garlic roasted in skins, tomatoes and chipotles
– sopa seca from Cook’s Illustrated
– kale boiled to death in veggie stock with a fried egg and parm on top
– soft boiled eggs with “soldiers” spread with whatever soft cheese is in the fridge, preferably pureed with some canned artichokes
– penne alla vodka
– penne puttanesca
– spaghetti noodles with vaguely thai peanut sauce (peanut butter, soy sauce, sesame seeds) plus shredded carrots and whatever tofu we have in the house
– your baked potato bar
– your shrimp tacos
– Michael Chiarello’s broccoli with cambozola sauce (oven-roast broccoli, melt cambozola in cream, serve both on toasted slices of break)


Our default dinner is actually not prepackaged. It’s pan-grilled chicken (boneless skinless thighs 0 this is a dark meat household) seasoned with some sort of salt and herb mixture and cooked in a non-stick skillet so no added oil is needed. We serve it with basmati rice and some sort of green vegetable, fresh if we can, frozen or canned green beans if we can’t. It’s all done in the 20 minutes plus coming to a boil time that it takes to make a cup of basmati. We’ve recently discovered that pork chops do well with a similar treatment though I usually make a pan gravy for pork chops and boil potatoes (small red ones cut into 8 pieces so they cook quickly) instead of rice.