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4 New Shortcut Ingredients That Make Cooking Dinner a Snap

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Written by Adriana Velez on CafeMom's blog, The Stir.

So there's the ideal of family dinner: You've cooked a perfectly delicious and nutritious meal, all from scratch, and you had two totally uninterrupted hours to do that cooking. And then there's the reality: You ran by the grocery store on the way home from soccer practice/piano lessons/work and you have three seconds to whip up dinner before you have to leave again for parent/teacher conferences or maybe your second job.

So a few shortcuts every once in a while are helpful -- but maybe you don't want to serve frozen pizza every night.

Here are a few nifty cooking time-saver products I've run across recently. Use these and you're still technically cooking, but that cooking just got a hell of a lot easier.

For you more advanced cooks, I've added tips for making your own versions of these kitchen prep shortcuts.

1. Frozen herb and garlic cubes -- I don't know if these are on moms' radar yet, but Dorot cubes are pretty darn handy. They're little frozen cubes of chopped herbs and/or garlic. You want to add some basil to your pasta? Just pop out a little cube into your hot food and it will melt right in there. Or maybe try out some of that sofrito paste from the ethnic aisle for something more spicy.

Make your own: If you like this idea but don't like the expense, you could always chop up a large bunch of herbs and freeze them in an ice cube tray for future use.

2. Soup starters -- It's not canned soup, but it's not just chicken broth, either. I've noticed Pacific has started selling "soup starters" in flavors like Tortilla. So you just heat and add whatever ingredients you want, but the point is you already have a base flavored with herbs and spices.

Make your own: We've told you how easy it is to make chicken broth. Next time you make a soup, make extra and freeze half of it for a quick meal on a busy night.

3. Flavored butter -- Challenge makes a Tuscan style spreadable butter, and it's tasty on bread. But I've also taken a few dollops to flavor some couscous. You could also use it to cook chicken. It's made with olive oil and herbs.

Make your own: It's called compound butter. Take a couple softened sticks of butter, mash with chopped herbs, garlic, or anything else you like, add olive oil, form into little balls, and freeze. Now you can cook with them.

4. Freeze-dried fruits and veggies: Naturally you want to cook with fresh fruits and veggies as much as possible. But these freeze-dried foods by Crunchies are interesting. You keep them on hand as snacks, but you can also throw them into a soup or casserole on those days when you're behind on your grocery shopping and are out of fresh or frozen veggies. (I find myself in that lurch WAY too often.) In fact -- I'm thinking you heat up some of that Pacific tortilla soup, toss in some Crunchies, and you've got a halfway decent dinner.

Make your own: Er, I think this one requires special equipment. Maybe some of you have dehydrators, though?

Do you have any kitchen shortcut treasures you've just found at the grocery store?

More from The Stir:

7 Quick & Easy Dinner Tips for Busy Moms

Easy Mac & Cheese Muffins Make Dinner Fun

5 Super Easy Microwave Recipes to Get Your Family Fed Fast

Are These Dinner Shortcuts as Good as the Real Thing?