How to Dress Up Ready-Made Meals

Ever open up a meal kit or frozen dinner only to be disappointed at the meager portions and lackluster variations in ingredients? Think outside the box to add on to ready-made basics for easy, inexpensive, big meals worth getting excited about.

In an ideal world, one serving size of any cheap heat-and-eat ready-made dish is enough for one actually filling meal. A freezer section meal kit for four, for instance, would yield four full plates worthy of the portion sizes of the restaurant name emblazoned on the front and match the colorful image promised on the plastic. A blue box of mac and cheese would be filling enough for two and a half civilized portions instead of one naughty bowl of orange-powdered comfort but little nutritional value. And a can of soup that claims to "eat like a meal" would do so for two as prescribed, as opposed to curbing your hunger for just one sodium-spiked lunch with more carbs than protein or greens. Sadly, we don't live in an ideal world, but there are a few easy ways to bump up the taste and wholesomeness of pre-made meals.

With just a little bit of creative supplementation using common, affordable ingredients, it's easy to figuratively (and literally) beef up your ready-to-eat foods. Elevate your microwaveable meals and non-perishable solutions with accessible protein and vegetable enhancements to transform prepared food into satisfying, high-volume dinners almost effortlessly.

Reset Your Expectations

The first thing you need to do is stop thinking of the package in your hands as a ready-to-go meal. Instead, look at it as a base, a foundation to add onto rather than a finished product. By changing your mindset to a refusal to accept the dish of it at face value, you begin expecting more, which can help spark your creativity.

Start With a Flavor Profile

The best way to determine what to add on to a ready-made meal is to identify the flavor profile on the package. This is usually a geographic region or style, like Southwestern, Asian, Italian, or Mediterranean. Zeroing in on this will help you stay focused when it comes to adding ingredients, and avoid clashing flavors and potentially ruining your meal.

Imagine Ideal

Now that you know what part of the world your taste buds are visiting, you can think about other dishes you've had that match that profile and see what's lacking. Play a game with yourself of word association as you read the name of the dish: what's the first thing that comes to mind? Visualize, without looking at the package, what you think of, and what ingredients you look most forward to when you eat that dish.

For example, maybe the best plate of Orange Chicken you've had came with fried rice instead of white, and steamed carrots as well as broccoli. Or perhaps you had a great mac and cheese at a restaurant that topped the shells with barbecued chicken and onion straws, or you tried a twist on spaghetti marinara recently that incorporated red sauce-ready vegetables for a pasta primavera that blew your mind. By pulling from past positive experiences, you can easily brainstorm additions to pre-made meals.

Remember a Better Version

You picked out the pre-packaged, reheated meal you did because you're chasing a specific feeling or flavor. Think back on when you last had it and enjoyed it, and what made it great. We all know instant ramen comes nowhere close to restaurant-made, so why not load up some baby bok choy, Napa cabbage, and corn as well as add a soft-boiled egg and slices of pork tenderloin? Or channel your favorite pizza parlor — add some spinach or broccoli on your white cheese pizza, and some chicken or shrimp, too, if you're feeling fancy. And pre-made Tex-Mex dishes can always benefit from the addition of beans, sautéed peppers and onions, shelf-stable salsa, and additional proteins. Top off a frozen burrito with jarred queso for an indulgent treat, or throw protein-packed Greek yogurt on top of microwaved enchiladas and you'll never miss the sour cream.

Think About What Goes Together

For example, if you love broccoli with melted cheese, add broccoli to some mac and cheese. Think about the things that go well with Italian jarred tomato sauce, like mozzarella, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, Italian sausage, frozen meatballs, frozen shrimp, and turn simple staples into a restaurant-worthy fully laden pasta meal. Loaded baked potatoes have a classic, comforting flavor profile — replicate it with a potato item, like frozen pierogies or fries, adding scallions, bacon, cheese, and sour cream for a side dish that eats like a meal.

How to Add Protein

Oftentimes, manufacturers go carb-heavy when it comes to developing recipes, for cost-cutting purposes to maximize their profits. For that same reason, they tend to be skimpy on protein, despite product names that tend to highlight meat.

The easiest thing to do to fix the protein-to-carb ratio is to simply add more of the meat on the package, which is most commonly chicken and easy enough. However, you can also mix and match when you have pre-cooked proteins at the ready. And if you're in a pinch, adding a couple of fried, runny eggs on top lends a fun breakfast-for-dinner vibe to anything. Scrambling and tossing eggs into any kind of rice dish also makes anything an instant fried rice.

You can pick up seasoned, cooked chicken in the refrigerated or deli section of many supermarkets for an instant solution, including in flavors that may already match your package like Italian or Southwestern in addition to classic, simply cooked versions. Same with pre-cooked sausage, of which there is a growing medley of flavors, from southern Andouille to classic smoked. In the freezer section, many major poultry brands make bags of pre-grilled chicken strips you can keep on hand for anytime add-ins, and beef strips have started making their ways to these cases, too.

Frozen shrimp is another common protein available in a pinch. Buy them cooked and just a few minutes under running water will have you ready to go. Or, opt for the raw, cleaned version for a few dollars less. Thawing takes just the same amount of time, and the extra step of peeling and cooking them doesn't add too much more while helping you retain the flavor and juiciness of fresh shrimp.

Alternatively, you can save a few dollars by getting meat fresh. Buy a pack of chicken breasts and grill, steam, or bake them in one batch for the week. A salt and pepper preparation sets you up to add this to any flavor profile seamlessly. Slice them up and store them in the fridge in airtight containers or sandwich bags to toss them into anything you're making. Brown ground beef or turkey in advance of use with just a little salt and pepper; it reheats easily as well. Pork isn't generally as versatile for reheating, but there's no reason you can't add cheap chops and enhance your meal with freshly cooked ones.

Don't mind the carbs? Keep cans of beans on hand. Chickpeas and black beans are fantastic fiber- and protein-packed stir-ins, and the no-salt-added versions help balance out the tendency prepared meals have of being high in sodium by taking on some of that flavor when you toss it all together. Plus, buying the canned versions means you only have four steps to take: open, drain, rinse, and toss into whatever you're having. Heating it isn't even necessary.

How to Add Vegetables

Determining your best course of action for adding vegetables to your instant meal kit is a little trickier than the protein part. This is where the visualization of the dish you're trying to beef up comes in handy again, as does remembering a better version of what you're holding.

The easiest thing to do is to read the vegetable ingredients and think about what you want more of. For instance, do you wish the microwaveable lo mein you were holding had more celery like your local take-out? Do you love when minestrone has a lot of kidney beans, or when Italian wedding soup has more spinach, or when your New England clam chowder comes chock full of carrots and corn? All you have to do is throw in what you feel the package is lighter on to bulk it up seamlessly and without much thought.

We could all use a few more vitamins in our diets, and there are some staple vegetables that are versatile enough to add to anything. It's cheap to keep peas and carrots, green beans, and corn in your freezer, and smart to stock up on the frozen version of more expensive seasonal vegetables like peppers and cauliflower when these bags go on sale. Medleys are also great, since, like ready-made meals, they can be sorted by region or style. For example, stir-fry mixes for Asian dishes make it a no-brainer to mix and match.

Canned vegetables are not as ideal, as they're often pre-salted and don't hold onto their firmness as well, but mushrooms and again, beans, are good standbys.

Year-round, cost-effective fresh produce that goes with anything and stores well include broccoli, cabbage, onions, and carrots. Bagged spinach is also a fantastic innocuous add-in for any meal kit, and readily found in the salad greens section. Zucchini in the summer is a hero for adding bulk at very little cost.

With a little bit of imagination, a pantry full of staples, and a handful of on-hand meats and veggies, you'll never have a sad desk lunch or pathetic TV dinner meal again.

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