Pre-Made Foods You Should Buy At The Grocery Store And The Ones You Should Avoid

Whether you enjoy it or not, you can't deny that cooking is an essential life skill that every adult should perfect — at least well enough to know how to cook a few basic meals and master elementary cooking techniques. But even if you find incredible joy in cooking, there are days when you might not have the energy, time, desire, or creativity to make even the simplest of dishes. This is the ideal moment for pre-made grocery meals to step in and save the day.

Pre-made meals are available in several varieties — usually frozen, refrigerated, or packed at the deli section — and they all require minimal intervention at home. Though we can agree that homemade meals have no parallel, we'll admit that the convenience of these pre-made meals is hard to beat.

However, not all ready-made meals are created equal. Some seem pointless as an in-store option, while others are reasonably priced weeknight shortcuts that save you a lot of time. This list will guide you through some of the best options and warn you about the items you should skip.

Buy: Rotisserie chicken

Rotisserie chicken is probably the most predictable item on this list, and we'd be hard-pressed to find flaws in this staple. Most store-bought rotisserie chickens are alike — small to mid-size with a golden, crispy skin, which is usually one of its biggest selling points. The chicks are seasoned before they are put on a spit, adding layers of flavor to every bite. The basic version is usually a salty brine, but some stores use an array of spice mixes and seasoning blends.

The convenience of rotisserie chicken is unparalleled. You get the whole bird — which means both white and dark meat aficionados will be satisfied — cooked to perfection and ready to be munched down. Any leftovers are easily used in other dishes; think of soups, tortillas, omelets, or sauces.

Another equally important bonus is the incredibly affordable price. Though the exact cost varies among supermarkets, considering the amount of meat you get, most offers can be considered a bargain. If you compare it with buying a whole chicken to roast at home, rotisserie chicken is the absolute winner in the financial and time management departments.

Don't buy: Mashed potatoes

Mashed potatoes are a favorite American side dish, but the shortcut grocery versions will never come close to a classic homemade mash. Pre-made grocery store mashed potatoes come in several forms, but the most popular is the powdered or flaky instant version. Though the ease of mixing a powder with liquid to get creamy potato mash might sound appealing, keep in mind that this is a processed product with preservatives. There's no chance its nutritional profile can compare to the classic with real potatoes.

Another common version is a refrigerated mash to be heated in the oven or the microwave. This may sound slightly better, but pre-made mashed potatoes have a short shelf life and spoil quickly, so there is always a danger that the package has been hanging in the fridge for a while and is long past its peak. In the worst-case scenario, it will quickly become moldy.

Considering mashed potatoes are typically not eaten alone, you are probably already cooking something to serve alongside. You might want to skip the pre-made grocery store mashed potatoes and leave this decadent side dish for days you plan to cook a decent homemade meal. Who wants to eat days-old mashed potatoes anyway?

Buy: Soups

Soups are regularly and unfairly neglected from our daily menus. We perceive them as overly complicated and time-consuming to make. As they rarely constitute a full meal, we often skip them in favor of something that will keep us full for longer. This is where grocery store soups come in as the perfect alternative. These pre-made soups are generally available in two varieties: old-school canned versions with a long shelf life or pre-made refrigerated soups that can last for a few days in the fridge but should be consumed as soon as possible. 

Both types share similar advantages: They are relatively healthy, incredibly convenient, and usually offer an excellent quality-price ratio. The main reason you should buy grocery store soup is its convenience and minimal preparation required. This is a ready-made meal to heat on the stove, meaning it will merely be a couple of minutes before a bowl of comforting, nutritious soup is ready for consumption.

The diversity of these soups might be one of their most valuable assets. Even if you are a pro at making soup, chances are you regularly dish up a similar repertoire that cannot compare to what's available at the store. Ready-made soups can be a great way to vary your range. Plus, you can easily enhance them by playing with flavors and add-ons like spices or crunchy toppings.

Don't buy: Pre-made sandwiches

Sandwiches are the ideal meal as they are quickly assembled, usually inexpensive, and incredibly convenient to eat. But in grocery stores, they are also a perfect vessel to disguise deli products that are well past their prime. This means those nicely packaged sandwiches can come with stale ham and sliced cheese that has spent too much time on the counter. Also, these sandwiches are not the best nutritional source, according to dietitians.

If you decide to risk it, you should always avoid buying sandwiches with easily perishable ingredients or made with components that don't benefit from spending time smothered in sauces nestled between other elements. Fried food is the ideal example, as it will become a horrible, mushy mess. Sandwiches with fresh cheese or uncured deli meat are also not recommended.

It's always better to go to specialized delis with a fast turnover where your sandwich is assembled on the spot. Even better, whip up a sandwich at home in minutes so you know exactly what's inside. At the same time, you will save money as this is by far the most economical option.

Buy: Salads and kits with dressing on the side

Salads are generally considered one of the healthiest options for a nutritious and wholesome meal. Though they can be incredibly delicious, we often skip them as the prep work to slice, dice, and clean can be overwhelming and time-consuming. When the tiresome work has already been done by someone else, salads become a quick, effortless, and, most of all, healthy meal. A grocery store is a great place to get a packed salad meal, as the kits are sourced from specialty producers or made in-house.

The best pre-made grocery store salads serve the dressing on the side. This allows you to easily control how much you want to use, ensuring that your salad remains healthy. Ready-made salads can also be used as a blank canvas ready to be tweaked with additional ingredients. You can switch the dressing with your favorite version and top the dish with extra protein, veggies, beans, or croutons.

Don't buy: Sushi

Not all sushi is created equal, and the pre-made sushi boxes available at grocery stores are one of the meals you should refrain from buying. The most common sushi options you will find are pre-packed platters or boxes that are made at the store or outsourced from local suppliers. Though it's more affordable than going to a sushi restaurant, the quality of grocery store sushi is usually second-rate. 

Pre-packed sushi can also be a way to disguise poor-quality ingredients, but questionable quality is not the only peril when it comes to grocery store sushi. Since it is mainly made with raw fish, grabbing a box of sushi could be a risky option, as eating contaminated raw ingredients can cause serious foodborne illnesses (via Premier Care).

A slightly safer option is a grocery store with a designated sushi counter where rolls are prepared fresh. Still, as sushi is not a standard order at grocery stores, the quality and freshness are always uncertain. It's always better to visit your local sushi restaurant than to grab a grocery store sushi box.

Buy: Roasted meat

Roasts are generally easy to make at home, but there is one big downside — it takes hours to get the meat to cook down and attain that tender, fall-off-the-bone texture. That's why store-made roasts make a convenient alternative for days when you are craving something warm and comforting but simply don't have time to make the meal from scratch.

Just like with homemade versions, it's tough to mess up a classic roast, so you will most likely get a tasty (or at least a decent) meal. As there is usually a good selection of pre-made braises in stores, you can choose what best suits your taste. Serve the roast with a salad or potatoes on the side, and you will have a fantastic meal without the tedious prep work and long braising process.

Pre-made store roasts are also a better option if you want a smaller portion. Homemade roasts usually call for a big hunk of meat to cook at once, but with pre-made batches, you can buy a single serving, which is more economical and avoids unnecessary food waste. Alternatively, bigger portions can be a great way to feed a crowd.

Don't buy: Pre-mixed salads

Fresh salads and salad kits earned the spot on the should-buy list, but their pre-mixed cousins smothered in sauce and dressing fall in the less prestigious part of this list. We are referring to creamy salads such as egg salads, coleslaw, and tuna salad that are typically covered in a hefty amount of mayonnaise.

The biggest problem here is the freshness. Sure, these salads can spend some time in the fridge, but this will significantly affect their flavor and texture. Mayonnaise-based sauces tend to separate, leaving you with an unappetizing liquid mix that is only faintly reminiscent of freshly made mayo salads with a perfectly smooth, creamy dressing.

Additionally, pre-mixed salads tend to go heavy on the mayo, making it the star ingredient and the dominant flavor. Considering these salads are easy to make, it is always better to prepare them at home. You can easily adjust the amount of ingredients and make a delicious and healthy salad without the excessive amount of mayonnaise.

Buy: Pizza

Pre-made pizzas often get a bad rap, but that's simply because they can't compare to the freshly baked pies from the wood-fired ovens at your favorite pizza joints. If you bypass this unfair comparison, you will realize that you should buy grocery store pizzas more often. Pre-made pizzas are usually available frozen and ready to unwrap and shove into the oven. Apart from the frozen version, some grocery stores sell pre-baked versions in their deli sections, which is especially convenient when you are short on time. 

After 15 minutes or less, you will have a steaming hot pizza ready to eat. Nothing beats this convenience. Frozen pies have a long shelf life and can always be stored for nights when a pizza craving hits. You can also add additional toppings to improve the dish; shred extra cheese on top, add fresh arugula or sliced olives, and you have a fast, tasty, and usually affordable dinner.

Don't buy: Mac and cheese

Making mac and cheese is a breeze, and even the most inexperienced cook can whip up a decent homemade version. Making it yourself is also the easiest, and perhaps the only, way to control all the ingredients used in the dish.

Pre-made mac and cheese mixes are a familiar grocery store product. The most popular version is boxed and requires cooking the pasta separately and combining it with a powdered cheese mix. Though the box evokes many nostalgic memories, perhaps it's time to leave it in the past. The overly processed powdered cheese cannot compare to the real stuff that should be used in the dish. The packaged meal is also loaded with sodium and carbs, making it a not-so-healthy choice.

Along with boxed versions, there are also entirely pre-made refrigerated or frozen mac and cheese products that only require some time in the oven or microwave. Though these may be tempting, it's best to skip them altogether. Give this American favorite the treatment it deserves: Designate half an hour to cook the macaroni and smother it in real, good-quality cheese for a quick and ultimately comforting meal.

Buy: Beans

Beans are a staple ingredient in many households for a good reason. They generally have a great nutritive profile, and for a plant-based ingredient, they are an excellent source of protein. Though the most economical approach is to buy dry beans and cook them at home, the reality of our hectic day-to-day life usually does not leave that much time to be designated for cooking. This is where pre-made meals come in handy as the best route to incorporate more beans into our diets.

The most common bean-based meal you will find in grocery stores is a can of baked beans. This staple may have an old-school feel but it should not be classified as outdated or dismissed as forgotten. The beans come cooked and doused in a flavorful, usually tomato-based sauce. The best part is you can lightly heat the contents and serve the beans with bread for a quick, easy, and nutritious meal in no time. Apart from convenience, affordability is probably one of the biggest advantages of canned baked beans.

As baked beans can differ in style based on the type of sauce, make sure to find the variety that best suits your taste. Besides being an excellent meal on its own, you can easily serve this as a quick and nutritious side dish.

Don't buy: Fried chicken

Fried chicken is not the most common pre-made option at grocery stores, but you will find it at some locations with deli counters and even as a frozen meal to heat at home. Both options should be avoided.

Crispy fried chicken is best eaten when it's freshly fried. The crust retains its signature crunch and encases the steaming, juicy pieces of meat. At grocery stores, chicken is usually pre-fried, and there's no way to know how long it has been sitting in the container. Apart from questionable freshness, the crust soaks all the moisture and becomes sad and soggy as it sits.

It's best to skip all the uncertainty and get your fried chicken at an establishment where it is the core business. Your chicken will be fried to order and served straight as it leaves the sizzling oil. You'll have no reason to question its quality, and though it will probably cost more than the grocery store version, it is worth the money.

Buy: Frozen lasagna

Frozen lasagna is to be expected among our list of recommended items. Homemade lasagna is undeniably the king, but it is also a daunting, time-consuming dish to cook as the preparation calls for making multiple elements before assembling and eventually baking it. With pre-made frozen lasagna, you skip all the prep work. All you have to do is unpack it and leave it in the oven until it heats up and all the cheese turns into a crispy golden crust. Frozen lasagna can vary in quality, so choose brands that don't skimp on good ingredients.

Apart from the long shelf life, sheer convenience, and relatively decent quality, frozen lasagna is an exceptionally good grocery store purchase as it allows you to choose the number of servings you require at a given moment. Shelves are usually well-stocked with various portion sizes, so you should find a suitable option that can feed the whole family or a single-portion meal perfect for those cozy days at home when cooking is not an option.

Don't buy: Pre-cooked omelets

Eggs are a versatile kitchen staple that can easily be labeled as the world's perfect food as they are packed with protein and easy to cook in numerous ways. For this reason, grabbing a pre-made omelet from the grocery store seems like an absurd option for a ready-made meal.

Though you may think of pre-cooked omelets as a convenient option to heat up if you're on the go, most pre-made versions are either refrigerated or frozen, which means they require some intervention in the kitchen. At the same time, a decent homemade omelet takes no longer than five minutes to cook from scratch, so there's really no redeeming factor to choosing the grocery store option with unfamiliar ingredients and questionable freshness. We would definitely recommend against it. With all the assorted pre-made meals that actually save time and money, skip the packaged omelet and buy a carton of eggs instead.