5 Prepared Foods You Should Absolutely Buy at the Grocery Store — and 5 You Shouldn't

Prepared grocery store dishes can save a lot of time, but it's important to be discerning when deciding which ones to purchase. We asked a group of professional chefs to share their favorite premade supermarket foods, along with the ones that aren't worth adding to your cart.

Now that more and more people find themselves heading back to the office and hosting get-togethers on their days off, there's reason to be concerned about the "kitchen time crunch" once again. Busy schedules don't always allow for long cooking processes, and when you're scrambling to get a meal on the table after a long day, the occasional shortcut can make a big difference.

"Making [your meals] from scratch is always the best, healthiest, freshest option, but not everyone has the luxury of being able to make all their dishes from scratch for every meal. Sometimes, there is just not enough time," says chef, podcast host, and cookbook author Maria Liberati. She also points out that, if you need some help executing a complete meal, "prepared dishes from the supermarket will most likely be a healthier, fresher choice than food from a fast-food eatery."

Depending on your local supermarket of choice, you may find excellent premade dishes available for purchase there. We surveyed a group of professional chefs to find out which dishes are most likely to turn out well when prepared at the grocery store, what you can add to them to boost their flavors and give them an extra level of "polish", and which premade dishes should be avoided when you spot them in a supermarket display area.

Plastic containers of food on supermarket shelves
Julien McRoberts/Getty Images

5 Prepared Supermarket Foods That Are Always Worth Buying

1. Pizza

Does your supermarket offer premade pizzas that just need some time in the oven once you get home? Liberati tells us that these pies can be well-worth purchasing, particularly if you stock up on fresh toppings.

"[Pizzas] that are premade are usually lacking in flavor, but that's okay, because before baking them, I usually add sauteed veggies on top. [I especially like] mushrooms or spinach that are sautéed in olive oil and garlic. Other great toppings could be cubes of fresh mozzarella, chopped fresh red or green peppers, fresh oregano, or even a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil before baking," Liberati explains.

2. Soups

According to chef, owner, and blogger Jessica Randhawa of The Forked Spoon, grocery stores often carry premade soups that are "super easy to upgrade with additional fresh ingredients when reheating or serving, such as tomatoes, cheeses, spinach, etc. When upgrading soups in a hurry, I tend to use these types of fast cooking fresh ingredients or freshly ground pepper, and spice mixes like my seven-year-old son's favorite Trader Joe's South African Smoke, which includes black pepper, smoked paprika, garlic, salt, and other dried herbs in a self-contained glass grinder."

3. Rotisserie Chicken

Several of our consulted chefs named rotisserie chickens as their favorite prepared food to buy at the grocery store. Catherine Smart, a chef and instructor at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street who also cofounded the Not Just meal starter brand, insists that, "while I love roasting a chicken at home when I have the time, rotisserie birds are a great shortcut, especially on busy weeknights. You don't have to turn on the oven, and there's no clean up! Shred [the meat] and roll it up in enchiladas, toss it into a stir fry, soup, or pasta, or mix the leftover bits with mayo and maybe a little store-bought pesto to make chicken salad,"

4. Other Roasted Meats

Chef and recipe developer Devan Cameron of Braised and Deglazed recommends the purchase of precooked roasted meats — like roast beef and porchetta — from the grocery store as a useful way to decrease your dinner prep time.

"Whole roasted meats are usually safe bets and an easy way to save time. For example, an eight-hour whole-roasted porchetta at the grocery store can be a good take-home option because it has enough fat to keep the meat tender and reheats well," Cameron tells us.

Served with a homemade side dish and a fresh salad, store-bought roast meat makes an excellent (and speedy) entree for a busy evening.

5. Sandwiches

Many grocery stores offer assembled sandwiches in their deli sections, and chef de cuisine Qi Ai of Travelle at the Langham in Chicago assures us that these sandwiches "are ultimate convenience food. No prep, no cooking and no dishes. These are the reasons I go to get prepared foods in the first place anyway."

5 Prepared Foods You Should Avoid at the Supermarket

1. Guacamole

Unfortunately, some available prepared foods at the grocery store aren't worth their price. In the case of guacamole, you're always better off making your own from scratch, Catherine Smart insists: "I would never buy premade guacamole! The texture is awful, the consistency is baby-food-like and the high heat processing gives you a cooked flavor. I'm all about shortcuts, but save that treat for when you have nice ripe avocados."

2. Chopped or Sliced Vegetables

The supermarket produce section often includes containers of pre-chopped and sliced vegetables intended to cut a few steps out of the cooking process. However, Devan Cameron claims that this mise en place shortcut causes more problems than solutions.

"I would never buy pre-prepared vegetables or anything pre-cut. This is because cut vegetables lose flavor (and nutrition) quickly once cut and are better purchased whole," says Cameron.

3. Reheatable Pastas and Noodles

Some prepared dishes suffer more from unappealing textures than from unappealing flavors. In the opinion of chef Vanda Asapahu of Ayara Thai in Los Angeles, premade pasta and noodle dishes from the grocery store fall into this category.

"A friend bought me a re-heatable Pad Thai at the local supermarket a few weeks ago, and I was not able to finish it. The nature of noodles and pasta causes them to bloat once cooked and reheated. Not only is [the reheated dish] not as tasty, but it also turns into 'resistant starch' and makes it hard to digest. Best to eat it fresh," Asapahu explains.

4. Coleslaw

When hosting a backyard BBQ, many home cooks will eschew the cabbage shredding and veggie slicing required to make coleslaw from scratch, instead opting for a premade version at the grocery store. However, chef Max Hardy of COOP in Detroit cautions against this temptation: "Coleslaw is a big no-no to buy [at the grocery store]. It usually is too wet or too dry, with no love in sight."

Instead, Hardy encourages home cooks to invest the extra time and prep their own coleslaw, which they can season and calibrate to their exact preferences (without the fear of mayo overload).

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