Grocers know that every advantage counts when you have a limited amount of time to get dinner on the table, which is why we’re seeing more and more pre-washed and pre-cut foods in the produce aisle—but these shortcuts don’t come cheap. The question is: Which ones are worth it?
Chatelaine scoured the stores for fruit and veggies that come in a variety of ready-to-cook portions and preparations—from diced and sliced, to spiralized, chopped, processed and more. We assessed each by three factors: time saved, taste and price. Here’s what we’d buy again, and what we’d prep ourselves next time.
These prepped items cost a little more, but bring big returns in the kitchen without sacrificing on flavour. This is where we feel the best value lies.
While it’s good to know how to cut butternut squash, it is one of those kitchen tasks that takes time and effort. For what you lose in savings on the prepared version, you save in time and energy in the kitchen. (Definitely worth it when you’re on a dinner deadline.)
Just like squash, sweet potatoes are lower in moisture and more difficult to cut up. They’re also not graded like regular potatoes, so there are huge size variations, which adds another step to your grocery shop: digging through the bin for similarly sized potatoes. We think the prepared option is a great when you’re feeling rushed, and looking for a quick, healthy side dish.
Spiralized Zucchini, Sweet Potato and More
Unless you own a good spiralizer (hand-held options are fantastic for soft veggies like zucchini or cucumber), spiralizing hard vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, squash and beets can be difficult. If you’re not sure about investing in a spiralizer, the pre-prepared options are worth the occasional purchase (and a great way to determine if buying your own spiralizer is a good investment). Recipe inspiration: pesto and zucchini noodle pasta.
These are often the same price as whole mushrooms—so there’s no real reason to debate it, unless you don’t plan to use the whole container quickly, or you need whole mushrooms for your recipe. Score.
Fresh Beans and String Peas
When it comes to saving time, cutting beans and de-stringing peas is not even close to the top of our list of things we want to spend time doing in the kitchen. Pre-prepped wins out every time.
Sure, you’ll get way more for your dollar if you cut up a whole pineapple at home, but it can be a juicy, messy task. And if food waste is a concern, buying a smaller portion of the pre-sliced stuff is absolutely worth the price tag. (Unfortunately, we can’t help you with pineapple mouth, the prickly sensation on the tongue you get from eating too much of the golden stuff.)
Shortcuts Worth the Price
These are worthwhile tricks and long-lasting ingredients that cost a bit more and, while not being huge time-savers, they’re great to have available in a pinch.
Yes, it’s more affordable to buy a head of cauliflower and make your own cauliflower rice (blitzing it up in a food processor is pretty speedy). But, if you don’t have the time, the tools or don’t want to wash your Cuisinart, the bagged stuff is a great alternative.
Squeeze Bottles of Herbs
When it comes to taste, herbs are best fresh. And when garnishing a dish, adding a final flourish of pureed herbs just doesn’t cut it. But we understand that having a bunch of fresh basil or oregano always at the ready is a bit of a pipe dream, so if you’re looking to add a last-minute hit of flavour to a sauce or dressing, “freshly squeezed” will do the trick.
Minced Garlic and Ginger
How to prep garlic is a polarizing topic among chefs, but if your goal is to save on time and potential food waste (as recipes don’t usually require using a whole bulb), our food director, Irene Ngo, swears by the jars of both pre-minced garlic and ginger. If you don’t use a lot of either ingredient regularly, it’s a handy staple to have in the fridge.
Items That Minimize Food Waste
You’re not only saving time with these quick-fix essentials, you’re cutting down on how much food you could end up tossing out.
Bagged Vegetable Medley
If you’re looking for an assortment of veggies, this is it. Buying one of each loose is not as cost-effective, and you run the risk of fridge over-crowding, which can lead to loosing track of your crisper contents, spoilage and food waste.
A whole head of cabbage is the cheapest option, but it’s also harder to use up. (It does have a remarkably long shelf life, but can still lead to unnecessary food waste if you’re not diligent about cooking with it.) We wholeheartedly support the bagged options as a regular purchase.
Prepared Items With a Short Shelf Life
Think twice when reaching for these—they can save time but you lose on flavour and longevity.
When you chop or dice onions, the flavour immediately starts to degrade. While buying pre-diced onions may save on tears from the fumes, you lose out on flavour, which is usually the key purpose of adding onions to any recipe. We’d consider these more an exception than a go-to. Whole loose onions can’t be beat for cost and shelf life, and if you’re worried about making it through a large bag (which is the most affordable option of them all) make sure to store it in a cool, well ventilated space to lengthen the lifespan.
Peppers are sold either in multi-packs, or as singles by weight. And if you’ve ever stood in front of the bin weighing peppers in each hand to find the lightest one, you’re not alone. But aside from the effort to avoid paying for heavy peppers (aka, the seeds), the markup and shorter shelf life of sliced peppers means that exercise is still worth it. So unless you plan to use those pre-cut slices immediately, save room in the grocery budget for the real time-savers.
Probably Not Worth It
Celery is too cheap and easy to prep to make this a regular purchase.
If you buy them whole, apples last longer, and don’t turn brown from oxidization before you’re ready to get snacking. But hey, maybe you need to eat something, like RIGHT NOW. (Hanger is a thing, we totally understand.)
How to peel and core an apple
Originally published in March 2018. Updated in November 2019.