11 Frozen Meals You Should Always Skip At Trader Joe's

The package looks great, all glossy and full of mouth-watering vegetables and chicken. Or is it fish? But you're in a hurry, and it is Trader Joe's after all, so you reach in the freezer case and consider dinner a done deal. After that first bite of chicken — or is it tofu? — you remember the mantra, "No one can get it right all the time."

Trader Joe's has had its share of recalls, most recently its soup dumplings, but we're not here to report on possible contamination. Our sole job is to rate these frozen meals in terms of texture, taste, and the yes-no answer to the questions, "Would I want this for dinner tonight?" and "If not, why?" The answers are not pretty. Neither are many of these dishes — despite the enticing photos on the packages.

Trader Joe's does many things right. We love everything from its electrolyte water, to its Two Buck Chuck wines, to its potstickers. But frozen dinners are tricky, and before you reach for one, check out this list. Three of us did the work — during a weekend of tasting — so you don't have to. Most of the problems focus on lack of flavor or weird textures. And, of course, these frozen meals don't improve with age while sitting in the freezer aisle — they're going to stack up in that section until some unsuspecting soul picks them up. Don't let it be you. Here's several frozen Trader Joe's meals you should definitely skip. 

Breaded Fried Ravioli

Take a perfectly fine ravioli, bread the heck out of it, and then fry it. Great idea, right? What could go wrong? Well, you could end up wondering if you're eating deep-fried rubber. Taster one pronounces it, "Dry, dry, dry, and not like a good chardonnay." The crumb coating is more gritty than crisp, and (admit it) you bought these in the first place because you wanted something decadent and crispy. These are neither, and you will not fulfill your junk food craving by consuming one of the Breaded Fried Ravioli from Trader Joe's. Trust me, one is all you're going to want.

I bit into mine thinking that, despite the grit, the ravioli had promise. It was chewy, but then chewy isn't necessarily bad if there's a flavorful, cheesy filling inside. There isn't. Oh, there may be some cheese lurking around in there; according to the label, ricotta, Monterey jack, mozzarella, asiago, and parmesan are all inside. But you'd never guess it. Basically, the breading is all I tasted — and I was happy to have a bottle of water nearby.

These are promoted as appetizers meant to be dipped in a marinara sauce, yet no sauce is included — and that might have helped. Although the online reviews are mixed, I'd say give these a pass. Buy the pasta sauce you were going to use to dip these dough rocks and serve it over regular ravioli instead.

Artichoke Timbales

In the real world, timbale, taken from the French word for kettledrum, is a creamy concoction of chopped meat or fish with vegetables baked in a mold. It's delicate, elegant, something that can stand on its own or enhance an equally exquisite dish. If you look at the photo on the Trader Joe's package, you might be tempted. Bordered in an appealing light green, the timbales might be little mini-soufflés. Until you actually see them. The contents of the package bear no resemblance to those puffy little morsels pictured. Attractive they are not. Unappetizing is an understatement. Think day-old guacamole molded into the shape of a cupcake. And they taste just as bad.

All of us tasters rated these as one of the worst products we sampled. In fact, it was a race to the bottom for these versus, well, macaroni and glue. We concur with the person on Reddit who said, "I love artichokes but these tasted like burned broccoli or something. Nasty." I thought they tasted like baby food. Taster two pronounced them "mushy," and taster one pointed out that what appear to be artichoke pieces are too tough to chew. In all fairness to the dish, we wondered if we should have used the air fryer and not the oven. We considered the fact that we didn't have a fresh lemon to squeeze over the timbales as some suggested. But trust me — a whole tree of lemons wouldn't save this dish. Don't bother.

Reduced Guilt Mac & Cheese

Macaroni and cheese is the ultimate comfort food — gooey, cheesy, full of noodles. Even if you reduce the calories and make a healthy macaroni and cheese by using low-fat cheddar and swapping out the cream, you'll end up with a dish that's appetizing enough to serve to company. So why can't Trader Joe's come up with something better than a slimy, salty slab that looks like a sponge after you've cleaned the sink with it? I agree with taster two, who said, "This has the texture of cheese out of a can." And taster one suggests, "It might be great for the 2-year-old who will eat only plain noodles — but where is the cheese, please?" 

Taking the package from the oven is an underwhelming experience. No inviting golden crust beckons you to take your first bite. Instead, various shades of beige are streaked with a pale yellow trying to pass for cheese. If you can get past the texture, the flavor is vaguely reminiscent of mac and cheese minus the satisfaction. Why would anyone want to eat this? That was the question we asked ourselves. To feel less guilty about craving comfort food? This could certainly kill your taste for the real thing.

Folks at Reddit have mixed opinions about it. One of them pointed out the watery taste and said the overall fail was because TJ's changed the recipe. We don't know. This is the first time we tried it — and the last.

Butter Chicken with Basmati Rice

We were excited to try Trader Joe's Butter Chicken with Basmati Rice. Many online reviewers raved about it, and we were in the mood for tender pieces of chicken spiced with a creamy curry-tomato sauce. We were still encouraged when we spooned it onto our plates. Then, the excitement quickly dimmed. When the best thing you can say about a dish is, "It isn't horrible," you'd better reconsider if it's worth buying in the first place. The sauce is the tastiest thing about this meal — it's red-pepper spicy, but there's not enough of that. The rice is a little on the watery side, another reason for more sauce in this ultimately skimpy dish. Not that more chicken would have solved the problem. The pieces we sampled were on the tough side. Reviewer two says, "Better than some, but that is not a standing ovation." That pretty much sums up my opinion.

If a lot of heat in a sauce bothers you, look elsewhere. If you want butter chicken, consider making it yourself in a slow cooker. Or order from your favorite restaurant. Reach for this only as a last resort.

Meatballs Italian Style

When you think of Italian meatballs, you might conjure an image of a fragrant marinara sauce bathing plump, juicy meatballs just ready to spoon over pasta — or to serve as the filling for a hearty sandwich topped with melted cheese. That's not what you're going to get with these meatballs, not even close. Many online critics (although not all) love this dish, and we wanted to love it too. Maybe if the meatballs had come with sauce. Perhaps if they hadn't been so similar in texture to a sponge. Maybe if we didn't expect something that looked like the photograph on the packaging.

The moment I bit into one of these, I knew I was in trouble. It didn't taste like meat and certainly not the meat-and-breadcrumb mixture of a homemade meatball. But this wasn't homemade, and I gave it the benefit of the doubt until I just couldn't. The best we could give them as a rating was: This is just okay. That's not good enough for what should be a no-brainer dish. Making your own meatballs takes a little effort, but the results are better than anything out of a freezer. Or buy them ready-made at the supermarket.

Mixed Mushroom & Spinach Quiche

The container for this dish depicts a gorgeous crust holding a mixture flecked with cheese and vibrant bits of spinach. We ignored the fact that, once it's cooked, this quiche looks like a chicken pot pie. If only it tasted like one. It does have a pretty little fluted crust. How bad could it be? This bad: Imagine biting into a mixture that tastes like runny, watery eggs. TJ's calls that center a "savory custard." It's more like an undercooked omelet. Speaking of undercooked, the texture of the bottom crust was more like a sponge than pastry. And a little on the uncooked side. We considered baking it longer than the package directions suggest, but the top crust had already turned a deep bordering-on-burned brown. 

A great quiche, like a great soufflé, depends on a blend of spices to give some character to the base of beaten eggs. This quiche forgot that. Eggs are the first, second, and last things you taste, and the crust doesn't disguise the fact that nothing will make this a memorable meal except the decision to never repeat it. A quiche requires subtlety. This is about as subtle as a sledgehammer — okay, that's going a bit far, but you get the picture. If you do manage to get past the lack of flavor, be prepared to chew for a very long time. Better than that, pass on this sad little dish and just scramble some eggs.

Meatless Meatballs

The best thing you can say about these meatballs is that they're better than Trader Joe's Meatballs Italian Style. Slightly better. At least, your first taste is actually reminiscent of an Italian meatball.

These are smaller than the TJ's meat version, which is actually a plus on the flavor side. But although they do have a better flavor and combination of spices, they fail at texture. They're mushy unless you overcook them, and then, they're so dry the best sauce in the world won't save them. I usually keep meatless meatballs in the freezer, so I'm used to the ways they differ from meat as well as how to cook and serve them. I tried these without sauce and then, out of desperation, with sauce and a sprinkle of parmesan. The sauce helped, but it didn't bring them up to a standard that would convince me to buy them again. 

A meatless meatball should give you everything in terms of texture and flavor that you get from the real thing. There are really good ones available. You don't have to settle for these.

Beef and Broccoli

"This is a lot of trouble for a frozen meal," taster two says halfway through the cooking process. I agreed. First, you need to cook the frozen broccoli, and then you need to move it to a dish while you add oil and try to turn the frozen breaded beef into something that resembles the crisp pieces of beef you get at your favorite Asian restaurant — or even at that cafeteria-style place you visit when you're in a hurry and willing to settle for adequate. Both options beat this dish. 

"It gets soggy instead of crispy," taster one adds while trying to sauté the limp pieces of beef. That was our biggest complaint. This would be a passable meal if not for the breading on the beef, which once it soaks up the sweet-spicy sauce, turns into a mushy mess covering tough pieces of meat. 

Some online comments suggest that Trader Joe's Beef & Broccoli is as good as takeout. I don't know where these people are ordering their stir-fried dishes ... because in my playbook, no thank you.

Vegetable Bird's Nests

These are pretty little vegetable "nests," and unlike many Trader Joe's frozen meals, they come close to actually matching the photo on the box. TJ's has been selling them since 2003, which suggests a loyal fan base. 

The patties are a cross between tempura and fritters. They have the tempura-type batter-turned-crust, but unlike tempura, which consists of a single vegetable or piece of protein, these vegetables are julienned and fried together. The first bite isn't bad. The second bite not so good. And the third bite caused taster one to ask, "What am I eating?"

When they're fresh out of the air fryer, these vegetable nests have a definite crunch. But the moment they hit room temperature, the oil begins to ooze out, and they turn limp. A flavorful soy dipping sauce cuts the fat taste but not enough. That's the problem here: These things are loaded with grease — so loaded that once you're finished, you can almost see your reflection in the shine on your plate. 

I like the sauce, and I like the idea of a vegetable dish that mimics tempura — but hello Trader Joe's, can you please limit the grease?

Mushroom & Black Truffle Flatbread

Mushroom & Black Truffle Flatbread might have made sense in the TJ's planning room. Everyone loves flatbread, right? So why not slather it with grease (aka butter) and add some mushrooms and mozzarella cheese? A good idea gone bad. The first fail is the greasy cardboard crust. Yes, Trader Joe's says it's hand-stretched –we assume by human hands — but it's so tough I'm surprised my pizza cutter survived the slicing job. 

This is another case of the final product not matching the photo on the box. Don't let that mouth-watering, cheese-oozing flatbread on the box trick you into buying this meal. Taster two thought the mushrooms had a slightly plastic flavor. Taster one and I just found them generally unpleasant. This was such a disaster that the three of us could not finish it. Even the most generous online critics suggest that this flatbread needs something to enhance its flavor, everything from hot honey to chopped artichoke hearts to chili oil. It definitely needs something: a makeover. In the meantime, big pass on the Mushroom & Black Truffle Flatbread. 

Chicken Burrito Bowl

We love chicken. We love burritos. And we tasters all agreed that this dish doesn't do justice to either of them. "Mushy texture," says taster one. "Wouldn't eat it again." Neither would I. The package shows vibrant vegetables and crispy pieces of chicken, but that's not what you're going to find inside. It's much too dry and tasteless. "Have a big bottle of hot sauce and a bowl of salsa to give this some moisture," suggests taster two. We tried. It didn't help much, and we ruined a perfectly good bowl of salsa. 

If you're going to make a chicken burrito bowl, either shred the chicken or make sure it's crispy. No one wants to chew on rubbery meat. Then there's the matter of flavor. A burrito bowl should resemble the flavor of a burrito in some way. It should have a little heat and a lot of flavor. This has neither. Although we don't always agree with online critics, the verdict on this dish is close to unanimous. We aren't the only ones who noticed the lack of resemblance between the box photo and contents inside. Nor were we the only ones who thought a Healthy Choice Tex Mex bowl was a better choice. An even better choice is make your own vegan burrito bowl.

We tasters joked that this would pair well with Two Buck Chuck, but only if you drank a bottle of Chuck first. 


We love Trader Joe's, and as a long-time food writer, I know my way around the frozen-meal section of my favorite TJ's. This time, though, instead of seeking out the products my friends and I buy and prepare frequently, I picked those that have received mixed reviews online, as well as those that would usually make me think twice before I purchase them. 

Even the worst of them gave us a few laughs and made me proud that maybe I was saving someone the disappointment of buying any of these frozen meals. My two tasters (both journalists) and I tested these over the course of a weekend. I hope our experiences help you the next time you reach for a TJ's frozen meal — because as you know, the book (aka flatbread in this scenario) doesn't always match the cover.