When I first started writing this blog, I was the queen of DIY. I made everything from scratch–well, everything I could, because I hadn’t been cooking for very long, and I was still figuring it out. I made my own nut milk. I sprouted my own sprouts. I made fruit leathers, snack bars, and yogurt. I fermented vegetables.
Times have changed. I still love the idea of doing it all from scratch, but the truth is that lately I’m far more excited to find a time-saving vegan product on the shelves of my grocery store than I am at the prospect of new kitchen project. Maybe this is just a function of where I’m at right now, or maybe it’s the new normal–I’m not really sure. What I know for certain is that I am seriously grateful for a number of smart, useful vegan products, and I thought it was worth writing about them today.
I almost titled this post “the ten vegan products I can’t live without,” but of course that’s not true–I’d do just fine without the products I’m about to share. Making certain items from scratch is all just a matter of how one wishes to invest one’s time: I could make refried beans and yogurt every week, but right now I’d rather that time go to recipe testing for the cookbook or to opening up more space for work and life–especially since I have product options that really appeal to me.
It’s also worth saying that we all have staples that we enjoy making, and some we don’t, and it can be worth figuring out the difference. I love making homemade salad dressing, hummus, cashew cheese, granola, and muffins. I don’t really enjoy making homemade snack bars, fermented foods, crackers, or veggie burgers. On the list of things that sound really fun to make, but which I haven’t yet taken the time to master, is homemade bread. These lists will probably shift around over time, but they fit my life right now. Distinguishing between the homemade projects that feel fun to me and those that don’t allows me to spend my kitchen time wisely.
My list of go-to vegan products isn’t meant to be definitive or comprehensive: it’s simply a roundup of the items I rely on most, a handful of ways that I use them, and some of my favorite brand recommendations. The list may or may not speak to you, but if it does, perhaps it’ll give you some new ideas for saving time in your own kitchen.
More than anything, I hope it might bring home the idea that it’s OK to outsource some of your culinary work. I’m not suggesting, of course, that you give up cooking or that you give up on the idea of homemade staples. There’s an art–and often a lot of economy–to making one’s own pantry items.
But cooking can feel overwhelming at times, and I’m of the mind that strategically relying on a few store-bought vegan items can actually help to make the whole process more accessible. If purchasing a can of refried beans helps you to whip up some tasty homemade tostadas for breakfast, for example–rather than grabbing something lackluster at the corner deli on the way to work–that’s pretty great. And if it makes a plant-based lifestyle feel more within your reach, even better.
So, here’s a list of the vegan items that get me through busy times. It’s always evolving, and one of the great things about being vegan these days is that I know that more and more innovative, time-saving products are soon to come.
These are my favorite faux/plant meat product, and they always have been, but they’ve come a long way. The vegan chicken-free strips I’ve tried in the last few years are, I think, amazingly authentic in terms of flavor and texture, and they’re so versatile. I also tend to include seitan products in this category, since a lot of them taste (to me) like chicken.
Throwing into salads or vegan lunch bowls, using in vegan enchiladas, adding to pasta dishes or casseroles, adding to tacos.
Beyond Meat grilled strips, Quorn Vegan Chik’n Tenders, Gardein Teriyaki Chik’n Strips, Sweet Earth Foods Curry Satay
As mentioned, these are most definitely a go-to for me. I do a lot of tostada breakfasts–usually two corn tortillas with refried beans, leftover rice, avocado slices or guacamole if I have it, and other creative toppings (sometimes leftovers from the night before). Making refried beans from scratch is nice on a weekend, but having them at the ready makes weekday assembly so much faster.
Breakfast tostadas, enchilada casserole, nachos, tacos, dip/snack
Whole Foods’ 365 Refried Black Beans, Amy’s Light in Sodium Traditional Refried Beans, Pacific Organic Refried Black Beans with Chilis
I love to make a batch of hummus each weekend, but I leave crackers to the pros. I rely on a couple of wholesome brands–especially those that feature whole grains, like spelt, or nutritious nuts and seeds.
Easy snacks or snack plates, serving with soup
Wasa Multigrain or Flax Seed Crispread, Engine 2 Triple Seed Crispbread, Natural Nectar Flatbread
Pictured above in a super quick soft taco, but also a mainstay for homemade chili, skillet rice dishes, casseroles, and pasta sauce. I love the texture and heft and protein that crumbles and grounds can add to everyday cooking and comfort food dishes alike. I tend to go for chipotle, chorizo or Italian flavor profiles, but the plain ones can be really useful, too.
Stirring into skillet rice or quinoa for a quick Mexican-themed dinner, folding into homemade marinara for hearty pasta, adding to my gluten-free mac n’ cheese for chili mac, adding to casserole dishes, throwing into burritos or tacos.
Sweet Earth Savory Grounds, Beyond Meat Beefy Crumble or Feisty Crumble, Tofurky Chorizo, Lightlife Smart Ground, Gardein Beefless Ground, Field Roast sausages (great for crumbling by hand into pasta and other dishes), Neat Mixes
I am, honestly, super embarrassed to admit this one. After years of writing ad nauseum about the value of batch cooking whole grains on the weekend to use during the week ahead, I have–more often than I’d care to admit–leaned on frozen, pre-cooked brown rice as a staple this year.
I’m not proud. And I still cook a lot of rice at home. It’s just that sometimes our dinner plan changes spontaneously, and we’re suddenly eating something that cries out to be scooped over a bowl of rice. Or we’ve got most of an entree ready, but it needs a whole grain in order to be substantial enough. And when this happens, using the pre-cooked stuff is really quick, and really easy.
I’m not suggesting this, exactly. Theoretically, I encourage everyone to batch cook, then freeze, rice. This is what I do, too–theoretically. But we all know that real life competes with our plans and good intentions sometimes, and when it does, pre-cooked grains may just come in handy.
Stir fries, using as an accompaniment for curries, stirring into casseroles or bakes, using as a quick component for bowls
Whole Foods’ 365 frozen brown rice, Seeds of Change Brown Basmati Rice or Quinoa & Brown Rice, TastyBite rices
Another one I sometimes feel guilty about–after all, soups and chili are two of my very favorite dishes to make from scratch. But life happens, and when a pot of homemade soup isn’t in the stars, having a box or can in the pantry can make for a very quick meal indeed. Sometimes I even stir in a box of canned beans for a little extra protein and nutrient density.
Serving with bread or rice for an easy meal, stirring (chili) into my gluten free mac n’ cheese for chili mac, using as the base for a rice or quinoa casserole (especially good with mushroom soups)
Fig Foods organic soups, Pacific Foods soups (especially the butternut and red lentil), Amy’s vegan soups and chilis (I try to get the “light in sodium” options)
This is one of those dishes that I would actually always prefer to make myself–I love marinating and baking tofu and tempeh–but I do rely on the pre-seasoned varieties when things are super busy, or if I need to add tofu to a dish quickly but know that it needs flavoring first.
Adding to stir-fries or soba/udon noodle dishes, adding to grain bowls, adding to wraps, chopping and adding to salads
Soyboy Smoked Tofu (I absolutely love this stuff, and I use it in a lot of dishes), Wildwood Organics baked tofu, Nasoya TofuBaked, Fresh Tofu Inc. Lemon Pepper Tofu, Westsoy Italian Garlic Herb Baked Tofu, Hodo Soy Five-Spice or Curry Thai Tofu Nuggets
I used to be big on homemade nut milk, and I still love it as an evening treat, or for adding to homemade muesli. But my enthusiasm for making it from scratch has dwindled, and beyond that, I like to use store-bought varieties to ensure that I’m getting the calcium from fortification.
Oatmeal, cereal, soups, baking
Silk Almond and Soy Milk, So Delicious Dairy-Free Almond Milk, Califia Farms Almond Milk, Westsoy Original Soy Milk
Another one I’ve made in the past, but which I just prefer to invest in nowadays–especially soy yogurt, which is relatively inexpensive and my favorite option from a taste perspective. I love combining it with homemade granola (something I do relish making from scratch!), my crispy buckwheat cocoa clusters, or muesli. The unsweetened varieties (especially Nancy’s plain soy yogurt), are also great for topping curries or Middle Eastern dishes.
Muesli, with granola and fresh fruit for breakfast, adding to overnight oats, serving with Indian or Middle Eastern dishes
Nancy’s Cultured Soy Yogurt, Silk Dairy Free Yogurt, Amande Cultured Almond Milk Yogurt, Kite Hill Yogurts
I have a love-hate relationship with veggie burgers. When I make them and they turn out well, I love them–and so does Steven, who could probably eat at least one veggie burger every day of his life. But I find that it actually takes a lot of work and tinkering to get a recipe just right, and sometimes, I don’t have the patience.
For this reason–and because we eat a lot of them–I tend to buy veggie burgers, unless I have a bunch in the freezer already from a recent, homemade batch.
Serving on buns or English muffins with hummus or avocado, crumbling into rice skillets, crumbling into bakes and casseroles, folding into soft tacos for breakfast, wraps
Sunshine Burgers, Hilary’s Eat Well “World’s Best” Veggie Burgers, Gardein Black Bean Burger, Sweet Earth Veggie Burgers, Field Roast FieldBurger, Amy’s California Veggie Burger, Dr. Praeger’s Veggie Burgers (lots of vegan options), Neat Mixes (can be shaped into burgers), Engine 2 Italian Fennel Plant Burger . . . can you tell we’ve done some taste testing? 🙂
Again, this isn’t a comprehensive list in the sense that the products we need most are always changing. Once cookbook testing is behind me, I’ll be able to settle into a more regular cooking routine that includes more batch cooking on weekends and a lot more everyday staple foods, and I suspect that I’ll be able to DIY a little more.
But for now, these foods help to make my vegan lifestyle just a little simpler and more accessible, and I so appreciate that I have them as options. It seems as though more and more companies are bringing vegan options to the table these days, and I hope the trend continues.
I’d love to hear more about your favorite vegan brands and products–and if you’d like me to share any of the semi-homemade recipes I mentioned in this post, let me know!
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Thank you for the super inspiring post! It’s nice to know that even pro food bloggers like yourself use kitchen staples for convenience. I also love your recipes and the combinations you put together! Looking forward to being inspired by more exciting recipes 🙂
Thank you for the informative post. But I mostly prefer to make everything by myself if it can be so done. But sometimes, like everyone I couldn’t keep up cooking something or just have a bad mood or ill, and at that time I can afford go-to products
Really enjoyed reading this, thanks for posting!
So much love for this post. I’m a homemaker/stay at home parent with far more time at home than most people, and even I can’t make everything from scratchy the way I’d sometimes like! I’m so glad you are cutting yourself some slack, as we all should. A lot of the items on your list are staples in our house as well, and I’ll add a couple of absolute favorites: Good Karma flax milk- original unsweetened (the absolute best tasting plant milk, and I feel like I’ve tried them all! Just don’t accidentally buy the +protein variety…blech!), Field Roast maple breakfast links and apple sage sausages, and Steamfresh frozen rice blends (like you, I never thought I’d hear myself say that, but they now make a brown + wild rice blend with shredded carrots and broccoli florets that you can find at most average grocery chains and make a quick healthy meal with the addition of a can of beans.) I try to buy a lot of my food from local producers, but it’s so helpful to have these options at the store to round out my diet and keep my family eating well even when pressed for time or lacking inspiration in the kitchen.
in a pinch, TJ’s frozen organic brown rice is terrific.
I try to avoid too many faux meats/chik’n because of the
disgustingly high sodium levels. am tempted, but say nada.
love your list of no sugar yogurts! thanks!
In recent years it’s been very exciting to see so many more vegan options available everywhere!
At the risk of sounding like a commercial for trader joe’s i have to say they have some great options that are often several dollars less than the brands you mentioned here for readers who live near one. Some of my favorites from categories you mentioned include the refridgerated chickenless strips, soyrizo, itslian sausageless sausage, unsweetened almond milk, various whole grain crackers, the vegan shreds cheese, veg chili, canned cuban beans (two cans heated up and topped with avocado is a great soupy meal) the classic frozen veg burger and masala burger, as well as the assortment of frozen precooked grains like quinoa and rices.
Well , and the new-ish vegan marshmellows and coconut milk ice cream keep ending up in my basket too…. 😉
Good list, and a good reminder that very few of us have the time to cook from scratch all the time. Another reason I don’t do as much batch cooking of basics like rice and beans is that I run out of freezer space and would rather have room for ready-to-heat leftovers or homemade sauces than a freezer full of things that still need a lot of other ingredients to make a meal.
I would add to your list Field Roast sausages–all flavors. We use them all the time to round out a veggie hash, make a part of a classic meat-potato-vegetable meal, or to make a pasta dish heartier. The chipotle ones are too hot for me to eat straight up, but they’re great crumbled into chili or a Mexican-oriented scramble.
My embarrassing confession is instant mashed potatoes. Definitely nowhere near as good as the real thing, but a useful fallback when the potatoes in the bin are mush and you’re out of ideas 🙂 Or when you get home at 8:30 and need to get dinner as quickly as you can before bed!
I hope you find the time to try bread soon. I find it so rewarding, and with the no-knead recipes out there now it’s much less hands-on time and mess and fuss than what I grew up making. Miyoko Schinner’s baguette recipe from her pantry cookbook has provided a base method for full loaves of partly whole grain that I make pretty regularly. Whatever doesn’t get eaten in a day or so gets sliced and frozen for toast, or turned into strata.
Hi Gena, I’m in a similar place, and there’s a lesson in it, I suppose. Just a couple of years ago I was bragging that the only item in my kitchen with more than one ingredient (i.e. that wasn’t an ingredient or a whole food) was hot sauce. But the sad reality is that individual conditions are such that we don’t always get to live our ideal lives. Sometimes paying the rent is just too exhausting. Or we’re overwhelmed by a big work project. Or we’re battling depression.
So like your commenter above, I lament the extra packaging, etc., this is the world we’ve created. This is life under late capitalism. We are all compromising, to one degree or another, and as Etienne Balibar likes to say (I’m grossly paraphrasing) our ideological commitments and our practical commitments, given our differing circumstances, will not always be in alignment, and we can’t judge one based on the other. Doesn’t stop me sometimes from feeling disdain when I see someone drinking water from a plastic bottle. But I do try and realize that we’ve created collectively conditions that make certain individual commitments very hard indeed. Not that we shouldn’t try, and try hard, to resist participating in the corporatization of our food system. But since at the end of the day it’s impossible, we draw the line(s) where we can. And in some cases – fermented veggies being one – we can support some very cool folks who are making a SMALL living making and packaging these products for us.
Even when I’m at my best, with tons of energy, making sauerkraut and kombucha and yogurt and raw cookies on the reg, I’m not tapping maple trees or crushing olives into oil or roasting coffee or cacao beans etc. So we’re all, and especially we urbanophiles, are pretty much relying on others to pre-process at least some of the foods we’re consuming. What I’m outsourcing waxes and wanes, though I do have a rice cooker which makes cooking rice the easiest thing ever so can’t imagine that one. I make kombucha but also consume gallons of GT’s gingerade. I am loving Perfect Bars (www.perfectbar.com) and it’s been, um, way too long since I’ve made a green juice at home.
This is a great post, Gena. I, too, love making most things from scratch, and have, at times, taken pride in the fact that I rarely purchase processed foods. But, I think it is so important to also be able to step back and see when your day-to-day life and overall level of stress would be improved by relying more on store-bought foods. We are so lucky to be able to find vegan options made with healthy ingredients like the ones you mention above. I also think this post serves as a great reminder, as you said, that it is okay to not make absolutely everything from scratch. It is easy to get caught up in the extreme all-or-nothing way of thinking and feel defeated because “I bought a box of crackers!” It sounds so silly, writing it out like that, but I’ve been there many times and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
So interesting to get a look at what you rely on “behind the scenes” since we mostly only see your finished blog-worthy recipes. Is this part of your authenticity movement? I love it!
I’m in a similar place with food, but (maybe because I don’t have a public food blog where my shifts are continuously observed) I honestly could care less about the fact that I consistently use some of these staples. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an avid and committed cook, as well as an RD, and I love to diligently make homemade meals from whole, plant-based foods just about every night of the week… but I don’t feel like I need to make EVERYTHING. For me, it’s goes beyond just not having enough hours in a day, or being overwhelmed by the process when life gets busy… it’s more of a conscious choice to not have my life be completely enveloped by food and cooking and even health. It’s a big, big part of who I am, and I LOVE that… but it’s really important to me that I don’t let this part of me become the only part… does that make sense? I think everyone probably has their own version of what makes them feel balanced. Lately I feel balanced by purposefully trying to expand my horizons beyond food and pursuing other interests with some of my time (like working on my relationships with people and with myself, art, reading, etc).
In regards to your list: I never make homemade nut milk… I like soy milk for the protein most of the time anyway, and like you, get quite a bit of my calcium from fortified plant milks. And to be honest, I thought when I made homemade almond milk a handful of times, it wasn’t as tasty as the Silk or Califia Farms ones! *hangs head in shame* I love triscuits so 365 Woven Wheats are my cracker of choice (I think the ingredients are just whole wheat, water and salt) for hummus. And I don’t think I’ve ever in my life made homemade refried beans! Trader Joe’s made an awesome “savory” flavor marinated tofu for years but they just stopped carrying it, so I will have to try some of your suggestions. And where do you get Nancy’s plain soy yogurt? I have the worst time finding plain vegan yogurt. I love the Kite Hill strawberry almondmilk yogurt as a breakfast treat!
Some things you didn’t mention that I use religiously and rarely or never make myself: Vegenaise- original flavor (for making chickpea-salad sandwiches!). Trader joe’s hummus (I only make homemade hummus occasionally). Thai Kitchen red curry paste. Field Roast apple-sage sausages. Snap-pea crisps for snacking. Frozen bean burritos (this is my go-to quick breakfast (add fruit on the side) or lunch (add veg/hummus on the side) when I’m in a serious bind… sodium, shmodium). Trader Joe’s 10-minute barley or farro. Peanut butter. Kombucha. Wine! And I don’t know if this counts as a “product”, but I can’t live without the garlic-stuffed olives from the olive bar at Whole Foods.
I am super reluctant to make veggie burgers most of the time because I hate mushy texture and I am almost never satisfied with the texture of homemade ones. If you haven’t tried Dreena Burton’s mushroom pecan burgers (2nd version, from LTEV) you must- they are the only veggie burger recipe I SWEAR by… and my entire meat-loving family begs me to make them whenever I visit too! I make a double batch and freeze a bunch any time I make them. Recipe: http://plantpoweredkitchen.com/vegan-burgers-mushroom-pecan-sliders/
To your question about whether we’d be interested in any of the recipes you’d mentioned: I’d be very interested in any of these recipes that use time-saving products, mixed with some fresh plant foods (sort of semi-homemade, if you will)… particular ones you mentioned that caught my eye were the mushroom soup and whole grain casserole, chili mac, and meaty crumbles Mexican skillet meals.
To wrap up what I believe to be the longest comment I’ve ever left on your blog: I cracked up reading about your frozen brown rice… cut yourself a break, Gena! And have a great weekend!
I must say that I was a little bit decieved when I read this post.
I am a long time reader of your blog and a big fan of your recipes. I is mostly thanks to you that I eat a plant-based diet nowadays. What I have found very appealing about the way you cook is that, unlike other vegan cooks who use soy-cream and vegan cheese in every recipe, you make very little use of processed, precooked or convenience food.
I am very much aware that cooking from scratch is very time demanding and can feel overwhealming sometimes, and I also think that it is very important to have time to think about other things than food.
But I just feel that it is very contraditory to promote a vegan life-style for ecological reasons, and on the other hand, consume products wich are packed in plastic or in aluminium, and wich have been industrially transformed ( processes that also require more energy and wich pollute even more). Sometimes I ask myself if all this processing and transporting is not worse for the planet than if we just ate the meat sold by a local organic farmer.
Again, I insist on the fact that your use of such products is quite harmeless compared to others, but I found it a little bit sad that you promoted such products, without mentionning their ecogical cost.
Thank you for your work!
Thank you for this thoughtful comment and for reading — I feel honored that the blog has had an impact on your choice to eat more plant-based food.
The environmental cost of packaging is definitely problematic, and it’s something that I’m glad you brought up. To the extent that I do use packaged foods, I know that it is not ideal, no matter how diligently I work to recycle. I’m doing the best I can.
I’d leave crackers up to someone else too and the meaty grounds and strips are things that I would grab for as well. I don’t think it’s a crime to rely on certain pre-made items. It’s good to focus on what you do like and then order the rest. Why try to fight it or force yourself? You’ll only end up developing a negative attitude toward cooking and you don’t want it to become something you dread because you’re trying to DIY it all. It’s great to make things from scratch but it’s unrealistic to think we can do it all of the time along with all of our other daily responsibilities.
Good list, Gena! I DO make a lot of my own staples, because I find that by the time I get done arguing with myself about whether I want to take the time to make something, it could be made. I’ve taken a lot to putting soaked beans on the stove when I get up, or popping tempeh sticks and/or sweet potatoes in the oven. They are done by the time I want to go out the door. That being said, I don’t leave for a job every day And THAT being said, I, too, like a quick and tasty tostada, and those 365 refried beans from Whole Foods are the bomb for that. I get the fat free kind. Also am a fan for the Engine Two White Bean Kale Burgers, which happen to be gluten free. Sometimes I buy milk, too, but have to make sure it’s carageenan free–some of the brands you list here are. So hey, I’m with ya on making some things really easy some of the time. We’re lucky there’s some really good products to help with that out there now. xo
Love this, Maria! You’re totally right that sometimes in the time we spent dithering over whipping something up from scratch, we could certainly just make it — and I admit, I’m excited to get back to a clearer frame of mind when I’m not fretting over recipe development 🙂
But yeah, it’s so cool that we now all have options and choice. Those refried beans are the bomb, and now I have to try the white bean kale burgers — we tried the ones with habanero in them and they were way too spicy for me, but I love the fennel ones, so I bet I’d like the white bean ones, too!