Getting back in the swing of weeknight dinners and breakfasts on busy school mornings isn’t always easy. Sometimes those pre-packed items or ingredients in the grocery store look even more tempting than usual. But in reality, just because they look appealing and convenient doesn’t mean they’re the saving grace to your weekday meals.
Shortcuts can save you time and much-needed energy throughout the week, but the key is knowing which items will really satisfy your family’s needs. More often than not, pre-cut, pre-packaged foods are more expensive and not as trustworthy as you’d think. Fear not, we’ve got a grocery store cheat sheet ready for your next shopping trip.
Store-bought guac can come in handy when it’s needed as an ingredient in a recipe or a topping for your tacos. When you don’t have time to make it fresh, look for the guac that’s made in-house rather than the packaged container with a brand label. Usually, the dip made in the store is chunkier, fresher, and contains less chemical additives. Check out our ranking of store-bought guacamoles for our staff-favorite brands.
Don’t: Bagged salads
Just to clarify, it’s not bagged greens were ruling out here (as long as you wash them first). It’s the sad sack of romaine that comes with a packet of dressing and maybe 3 croutons. We understand the appeal: It’s all in one. But you get, like, a serving and a half of salad when you’re paying as much as you would for salad supplies to feed four. If you really need a salad shortcut, grab a larger bag of slaw mix (which is basically just shredded cabbage and carrots) to throw together a quick chopped salad. Also, utilize prepared bottled dressings from a brand you like rather than relying on the small bagged portion. It might be pricier, but a bottle of dressing will last you for many salads to come.
Do: Frozen riced cauliflower
Cauliflower rice is continuing to have a serious moment, which means you can find the finely chopped veggie at essentially any grocery store. Sub it out in a regular rice dish, but note that you’ll get more excess liquid when cooking it.
Don’t: Grated cheese
You know when you see ads that say “100% real cheese” and think to yourself ‘what else would it be?’ You should know that all cheese is not as it seems. Pre-shredded cheese in particular is often made with non-cheese fillers, such as cellulose (or wood pulp), to cut costs. Even if no fillers are used, grated cheese is usually doused with a chemical coating that keeps the cheese from sticking together in the bag or spoiling. Grating a fresh block is worth the (small amount of) effort.
Do: Frozen chopped onions
Avoid the tears and let the freezer keep onions fresh and ready until whenever you need them. Anything that minimizes your chopping is a handy item.
Don’t: Baby carrots
If your child will eat the carrots you put in their lunchbox, that’s a win. But did you know that baby carrots are really just full carrots, shaved down to a fraction of their size and treated in a chlorine dip? This process can affect both their flavor and nutritional properties. Instead, opt for carrot sticks which are just as easy to eat, but don’t discard as many of the vitamins and minerals that live just under the carrot’s skin.
Do: Pasta sauce
Jarred spaghetti sauce is easy and convenient, and there are many brands now that feature bold flavors with very few preservatives. When there’s no time to make a batch of your own, you can always buy a pre-made tomato sauce and spruce it up yourself. And we’re not just talking tomato; even jarred Alfredo sauce can act as the foundation for an effortless, family-friendly meal, like this Chicken Alfredo Soup. Just read the ingredients list before tossing a jar in your cart, and don’t forget to put it in the fridge after opening!
Don’t: Garlic paste
If you’ve grabbed garlic paste over chopped garlic in a jar, you might want to think again. The tubed product often contains everything from whey to glycerin to sodium lactate. That’s far from the fresh garlic you probably thought you were getting. While jarred garlic has significantly less flavor than a freshly chopped clove, it doesn’t contain nearly as many chemical additives. If you need more tricks for dealing with fresh garlic, look here.
Do: Rotisserie chicken
There are countless ways to utilize a pre-cooked chicken, from chicken salads to easy casseroles. And starting with a fully-cooked bird instead of fresh or frozen, raw chicken breasts will shave time off any of your favorite recipes.
Do: Frozen peas and carrots
This iconic duo can be a savior in desperate, veggie-less times. Chopped and ready to heat, these mixed veggies are an excellent, healthy addition to soups, pasta dishes, or pot pies.
Don’t: Taco seasoning
Even though this product sounds like it’d make your Taco Tuesday a whole lot easier, most popular taco seasoning blends contain much more than seasonings alone (i.e. corn flour, maltodextrin, corn starch, caramel color, autolyzed yeast extract, etc.) Chances are, you have a whole lot of common taco spices in your pantry already, so mix up your own blend and keep it in a bottle for future quick uses.
Do: Frozen chopped butternut squash
The tough skin and irregular shape of butternut squash might be enough to make you avoid it altogether. When it’s already peeled, cut, and frozen, working with the veggie becomes way easier, and your favorite seasonal dishes instantly seem more approachable.
Don’t: Hard-boiled, pre-peeled eggs
Not only are these eggs over-priced, but they also can't compare to the DIY version in terms of taste. The egg white is rubbery and the preservatives leave a synthetic taste behind in your mouth. Not worth the convenience factor, especially because hard-boiled eggs are a breeze to make.
Don’t: Frozen prepared side dishes
While frozen vegetables might be the greatest gift you can bless your freezer with, be wary of prepared side dishes (we’re talking frozen mac & cheese, potatoes au gratin, or chicken pot pies). More often than not, they have way more sodium, fat, and added chemicals to make them taste great after 4 months in the freezer and 2 minutes in the microwave.
Do: Spiralized zoodles
If you’re aiming for a low-carb pasta night, buying pre-cut veggie noodles will make it easier for you to stick to the plan rather than reaching for the pasta box (again). That being said, these zoodles tend to be way more expensive than the uncut veggies themselves, so if you want to eat on the cheap, invest in a spiralizer and buy your veggies at a quarter of the price.
Don’t: Boxed rice dishes
If you’re reaching for these convenient boxes because you’re trying to eat on the cheap, grabbing a plain bag of brown rice is the better way to go. The boxed version, with just a few seasonings added, will put you out more money and will only last you one meal instead of 3 or four.
Do: Pizza dough from the deli
If you're trying to get dinner on the table in an hour, there’s no time for kneading, proofing, and baking pizza dough. That doesn’t mean you have to give up the fun of DIY pizza night. Opt for the whole wheat option for a meal with a little more fiber. Leftovers to the lunchboxes!
Do at your own risk: Pre-cut pineapple and watermelon
Although stores are profiting from your aversion to cutting these bad boys yourself, we completely understand that these are intimidating projects to tackle, and often leave you with more fruit than you know what to do with (not to mention, a sticky countertop). Sometimes all you need is a few cubes of pineapple for a slaw or stir-fry. So, if you choose to go this route, make sure to check the best buy dates and pick the fruit that was cut closest to the current date.
Don’t: Microwave popcorn
If you haven’t been warned about the dangers of microwave popcorn yet, trust us, you just don’t want to go there. Popcorn is a great after-school snack, and making it on the stovetop takes the same amount of time as heating a bag in the microwave without the lingering artificial taste. While you’re at it, add fresh popcorn to your grits or scrambled eggs, just for fun.
Do: Frozen corn
Frozen corn is great for the months when corn isn’t in season, or for the nights when shucking ears of corn is simply out of the question. The frozen variety is still fresh and flavorful with more crispness than the canned stuff.
Have you ever noticed how 50% of all your chip bags are usually air? When you buy large containers of individually packed chips, pretzels, etc., there’s even more room for air. And chances are, you’ll be paying a whole lot more for that packaged air. Instead, buy the family-sized bag and portion out snack-sized servings yourself.
Do: Refrigerated mashed potatoes
Look for refrigerated mashed potatoes in the section where you’d find fresh pasta and pick up a brand with a recognizable ingredient list (such as Simply Potatoes). Whether you opt for the traditional, garlic, or sweet potato variety, mashed potatoes can be easily incorporated into a dish, or can complement the meal as a simple side.
Absolutely do: Canned beans
Inexpensive, nutritionally dense, and shelf-stable until virtually the end of time, canned beans are the best grocery shortcut around. Give them as much or as little cooking you wish and flavor them any which way. Canned beans can add protein and fiber to almost any meal.
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