Sometimes the produce section can feel overwhelming. Not only do you have to choose what's best for your body, but you also have to buy what's best for your budget. And there are just so many options. Those bagged apples, for example — are they really a better deal? How about those "microwaveable" potatoes?
I compared prices and called up some pros in order to find the best and worst deals in the produce department.
First, it's always good — for the environment and for your wallet — to purchase produce that's in season. And if you have extra, you can always freeze most leftover fruits and vegetables.
As for the "best" and "worst" deals, it really depends on you. What do you eat frequently? What do you have time to prep? You're typically going to pay more for the convenience of having something pre-cut versus buying it whole, but maybe the time saved is worth it?
The 5 Best Deals in the Produce Section
Keeping that in mind, here are some deals that will benefit most people.
I do my best to eat a salad for lunch every day, which means I always have a big clamshell box of spinach in my fridge. I've compared the price of the box versus buying the leaves in bulk or in bunches, and the box almost always wins. Erin Chase, the grocery savings expert behind $5 Dollar Dinners, says she'd choose these boxes for sure, because they're the cheapest option at her grocery store.
Because I use onions in the majority of my dinner recipes, I opt for the mesh multi-pound bags, as does Chase. She notes they're cheaper by the pound than loose onions, and the bulbs come in smaller, more manageable sizes. They also keep well — two to three weeks in the pantry, and maybe even four weeks in the fridge.
Spiralized Vegetable Noodles
As keto and Paleo diets have grown in popularity, so has the availability of pre-spiralized noodles made from sweet potato, zucchini, squash, and more. You can, of course, make these at home — although Chase notes you'll have to choose between "a cheap $20 spiralizer that won't work or a $200 one that will."
So, she says, "If you're all in and hardcore, go ahead and get that $200 spiralizer because it'll pay for itself in a few months." But if you're just an occasional consumer of spiralized veggies, she called the pre-cut ones a fairly decent deal.
Apples and Bananas
On average, bananas cost 29 cents per serving, and are portable and peelable! Plus, if they start to go bad, you can throw them in the freezer or make banana bread. Bagged apples can also be a good deal, costing less per pound than their loose brethren.
Unlike many of the other pre-sliced items in the produce section, you won't pay a premium for pre-sliced mushrooms — and they'll also save you some time. Chase says these are priced fairly, so go wild and purchase whichever 'shrooms you need for your cooking.
5 Worst Deals in the Produce Section
Now for the deals that aren't so great …
Whole Butternut Squash
I love butternut squash. I don't love the three hours it takes to prep one. So, although the pre-cut variety is undoubtedly pricier, it may be worth the time it'll save you. Alternatively, you can buy it frozen if you're cooking it down into a soup.
These are one of the greatest mysteries of the produce section. "The only thing they've done is chosen a small size that's easily microwavable, then wrapped it in plastic," says Chase. Save some plastic and some dough by making your own potatoes in the microwave, or roasting several at the beginning of the week to reheat later.
Personally, I never buy baby carrots because they're expensive and get slimy really quickly. An IRI study found that whole carrots cost 25 cents per serving, while prepped carrots cost 41 cents. Since I don't mind the taste of unpeeled carrots, I just buy the big ones and am good to go. Chase disagrees with me on this one, however, saying: "Baby carrots are fantastic for packing lunches in the morning, since you just drop 'em in and go."
Bags of Iceberg or Romaine
If you like iceberg lettuce, Chase advises buying it whole — especially if you're eating it frequently. "It's by far cheaper to buy that head, chop it up at the beginning of the week, and mix up your salad each day," she says. Food writer April Blake agrees: "I prefer to get heads of lettuce rather than pre-shredded bags so it doesn't get all oxidized and pink on the edges as quickly," she says.
I'm sorry, but who really thought pre-cut strawberries were necessary? Or grapes suffocating in plastic wrap on a styrofoam tray? "With pre-cut fruits, don't even bother," says Chase. "It's like twice as much as if you were to buy it whole."
She thinks pre-cut apples are a particularly bad offender, saying, "You can cut those in 14 seconds and soak them in lemon water to get the same non-browning effect." Need further proof? Prepped watermelon costs 48 cents per serving, according to IRI, whereas whole watermelons cost 17 cents. That's nearly three times as much!
When it comes to the best and worst produce deals, this list is just a start. The best thing you can do is think about what you're eating on the regular. If you're just making something special for dinner tonight, grab whatever's easiest. But if you're eating an ingredient multiple times a week, it's probably smartest to buy the whole — and therefore cheapest — variety.
Do you have anything to add to either of these lists?