At this age, and 3,000 miles from the house I grew up in, I can’t use the “But Moooommmmm, there’s nothing to eat” while listlessly staring into pantry cupboards, holding the knobs while my arms swing about dejectedly. At least, not out loud. Well, not the Mom part, anyway.

So, when the “What’s for dinnerrrrr” whine arises, look deep into those cabinets to find that carton of Trader Joe’s Butternut Squash Soup. It’s probably ages old, who knows, and it doesn’t sound very exciting. Not to mention you probably won’t eat the whole carton in one sitting. Or, you will. No judgment. Been there. It’s not like it’s cookie dough. (That would be bad.) If you can exercise self-control, however, you get to make raaaadically different meals from the same carton.

Photo from Shannon Lightening the Load

Right, where was I? Oh yeah, you’re STARVING. You have a carton of TJ’s lovely butternut squash soup. YOU HAVE A MEAL! A THING TO END THE GNAWING PIT OF DESPAIR AND RAGE GROWING WITHIN YOU! And lucky for you, this particular soup seamlessly takes on the flavor profiles of any added ingredients. You can very easily customize, personalize, and bedazzle this neutral soup base to become not just dinner, but a deliciously epic dinner! Like you-might-want-to-Instagram-it kind of dinner.

Here is a semi-comprehensive, far short of definitive, but certainly robust list of MIX-INS, GARNISHES, DOLLOPS, AND SPRINKLES to jazz up your next bowl of Trader Joe’s soup!

Use a single item from this list if you’re basic, or combine a few (like three—come on, this isn’t fro-yo) for an impress-some-grown-ups (his parents? Yours?) restaurant-style bowl o’ cheap soup you’ll actually want to eat.


Photo and recipe from Half Baked Harvest

1. Diced apple (Granny Smith is best)

2. Sliced pears

3. Pomegranate seeds

4. Toasted coconut (especially Dang)

5. Avocado slices


Photo and recipe from Willy B Mum

6. Roasted corn

7. Green chiles (from a can is fiiiiine!)

8. Sautéed mushrooms

9. Caramelized onions

10. Braised leeks (or fried!)

11. Kale chips

12. Hominy

13. Jalapeños

14. Chipotle peppers (also in a can!)

15. Roasted poblanos


Photo and recipe from Floating Kitchen

16. Fried sage leaves

17. Pesto

18. Chimichurri

19. Scallion curls

20. Cilantro and lime

21. Chives

22. Toasted nori

23. Dukkah (Egyptian spice mix)

24. Candied ginger

25. Grated cardamom

26. Ground cumin

27. Chopped parsley and thyme

28. Thai basil


Photo and recipe from Keepin’ It Kind

29. High-quality extra-virgin olive oil

30. Chile oil

31. Za’atar oil

32. Honey

33. Balsamic vinegar

34. Maple syrup

35. Sherry

36. Sherry vinegar

37. Calvados

38. White soy sauce

39. Coconut milk/cream

40. Pumpkin seed oil

41. Lemon oil

42. Harissa

Photo and recipe from Smile Sandwich

43. Leftover chicken (especially Jamaican jerk chicken)

44. Bacon

45. Pancetta

46. Shrimp

47. Spiced ground lamb (with pine nuts!)

48. Pulled pork

49. Caviar (just trust me here)

Photo and recipe from Club Narwhal

50. Blue cheese/Gorgonzola

51. Crème fraîche

52. Sour cream

53. Cotija

54. Greek yogurt

55. Feta cheese

56. Brown butter


Photo and recipe from Smitten Kitchen

57. Tortilla chips

58. Brown butter croutons

59. Cornbread croutons

60. Spiced popcorn (with garlic and rosemary—seriously, try this one)

61. Baguette toasts with melty cheese (Gruyère!)


Photo and recipe from Savory Simple

62. Sliced almonds

63. Toasted hazelnuts

64. Pepitas

65. Candied pecans

66. Almond butter

67. Chestnuts

Now, choose a few. Pear, Gorgonzola, and pancetta is basically the best thing ever. Cotija, cilantro, and lime juice is perfect if you’re looking for something brighter. Harissa, dukkah, and some Greek yogurt for a spicy North African vibe is a personal favorite. You know what to do.

Header image and recipe of Roasted Butternut Squash Soup from CHOW

Vanessa W. Simmons is a former cook living in San Francisco, helping to run a food business. She’s probably hungry, but if not she could eat.
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