Why is Trader Joe’s so good at making small foods? I’m thinking it’s Newton’s Third Law, providing balance to all of Costco’s extra-large foods. Remind me to bring this up at my next dinner party when I pull a batch of spanakopita out of the air fryer to serve to my guests. If you’ve been a long-time shopper at Trader Joe’s, you know that this grocery store does frozen appetizers better than actual dinners. So if you’re preparing for marathon holiday hosting, here’s my list of the best bite-sized apps, in order from the least messy to most messy. They can almost all be prepared in the air fryer too, which frees up your larger oven for the enchiladas I hope are for dinner. Always hoping.
Mac and Cheese Bites
An absolute icon at Trader Joe’s, these frozen fried mac and cheese balls are arancini’s Gen Z cousin, replacing its job at a quarter of the price (the price of cooking prep time, in this case). Adorable, delicious, crunchy, oozy. If these are at your party, served with a pepper jelly or spicy mayo getup, I won’t sneak out the backdoor like I usually do.
Mess-o-meter: 2/10. You’ll need a cocktail napkin or plate to help contain the ooze.
Another classic. These two-bite samosas have approx one Lego cube of potato, a single pea, and maybe a flake of cilantro inside, but they’re the perfect beer snack. For dunking, the Sri Lankan Mango Chutney would be nice here.
Mess-o-meter: 2/10. While the crust is nice and crisp, it stays pretty contained when you bite in.
Any Salami + Marcona Almonds
Make a version of one of Bon Appétit’s swankiest yet simplest party tricks—marinated salami and almonds—with Trader Joe’s standbys. The rosemary-flavored Marcona almonds are great (though if you are lucky enough to find the Guara Almonds, those are even better IMO). I don’t think the salami at Trader Joe’s is fantastic, but the secret to this “recipe” is that the oil, lemon, and pepper make even the cheap stuff taste amazing.
Mess-o-meter: 3/10. Oily! You’ll need a napkin or hunks of baguette to catch those drips.
I’ve been eating these French-accented ham pizzas (tartes, sure) since college. The crust is paper thin, the Gruyère is generously laden, and it cooks in under 15 minutes. If you’re sharing with guests, cut it into small rectangles to avoid any floppy slices, which happen sometimes because there’s a lot of grease here. (Or save the floppies for yourself.)
Mess-o-meter: 3/10. The toppings can be gooey and may overfloweth.
Roasted Hatch Chile & Jalapeño Cheese Dip
It’s chile con queso. Will yours ever look like the photo on the package? Not unless you add sliced jalapenos and more cheese to the top and actually figure out your broiler (no chance on my end). You don’t need to go for glamour here. Microwave it, serve in a better bowl, and make everyone at the party happy. For the record: Trader Joe’s Restaurant Style White Corn Tortilla Chips are the best (extra salty, sturdy, and just the slightest hint of lime).
Mess-o-meter: 4/10. I’ve never seen human beings eat queso and not drip it all over the surrounding table.
Breaded Fried Ravioli
Decadent and slightly depraved, these are the appetizer for the party that starts at 11 p.m. (or the one you start alone when you get home at 2 a.m.). What’s happening here? A cheese-filled ravioli is coated in breadcrumbs, fried, and frozen for your temporary pleasure. It’s bar food at its most obvious, and it re-fries like a charm. I love them with Trader Joe’s Italian Bomba Hot Pepper Sauce.
Mess-o-meter: 4/10. Greasy, saucy, pass me a napkin.
If you need me, I’ll be by the coconut shrimp, making small talk about coconut shrimp. Tragically, this shrimp doesn’t come with the pineapple sauce that’s featured on the package. Didn’t it used to? You’ll have to make up your own dip, which some people do with a Thai sweet chili sauce and apricot jam. I did the old fashioned squirt-some-sriracha-into-mayo.
Mess-o-meter: 5/10. Those coconut flakes.
Parmesan Pastry Pups
Welcome to the flaky pastry portion of our evening. You might know these pups as “pigs in a blanket” but Joe has never been one to follow convention. (Just profits lol.) Make a little honey mustard to go with these, and always buy one more box than you think is needed.
Mess-o-meter: 9/10. Think of puff pastry’s flaky confetti as spontaneous party decor. It means your guests are having a good time, all over your rug.
I’ve been buying these since I could swipe a credit card and while the packaging and recipe have changed throughout the years, the last batch I bought were great. Stuffed with spinach and cheese, and they puffed up nicely in the air fryer. You need to brush them with an egg wash or butter before cooking, because otherwise they turn out really dry on top, quickly going from pale to burnt. It makes for a depressing presentation, which is fine if these are your dinner, but if it’s for a party, make ’em pretty!
Mess-o-meter: 10/10. The filo is legit. If you breathe too hard near it, it will shatter into the atmosphere around you.
Puff Pastry + Any cheese + Everything But the Bagel Spice
For a homemade-ish appetizer, I like to do these easy puff pastry cheese twists from Dessert Person Claire Saffitz. The twists look nice but when you don’t have time for arts and crafts, I have a shortcut: Defrost puff pastry. Roll it out a smidge. Brush egg wash all over. Sprinkle cheese and spices all over. Bake at 400° until browned. Cut into squares and serve.
Mess-o-meter: 10/10. This is a beautiful mess. But don’t worry about it. You’ll vacuum tomorrow.
Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit
More Cooking Stories From Bon Appétit
Get Bon Appétit in your inbox with our daily newsletter.
Here’s what our editors are cooking and baking at home at home.
Who makes the best boxed mac and cheese? Our editors find out in this taste test.
These food-filled children's books are perfect gifts for aspiring chefs and picky eaters alike.
The secret to the best mashed potatoes is a ricer.
Chris Morocco solves your kitchen emergencies on our podcast Dinner SOS.
Cook all the BA recipes you love in the new Epicurious App.