5 Things You Should Know About Prepared Foods, According to a Whole Foods Prep Cook
Prepared foods are undeniably convenient. Who among us hasn’t bought rotisserie chicken, pre-made soups and salads, or sliced fruit and veggies before? We know we have! Whether you’re looking for a dinner shortcut or concerned about consuming whole quantities of items before they spoil, prepared foods are certainly easy — but are they worth the extra cost?
We chatted with Carolina Martinez, Whole Foods Market’s principal culinary program manager, to get some insider information about when to shop, what to look for, and the one pre-cut item she always recommends! Here are five of her best tips.
1. Visit the store on Wednesdays for the most variety.
Wednesday is when major grocery stores, like Whole Foods, have their change-overs and sales updates, explains Martinez, which means the latest batches of prepared soups, salads, proteins, pizzas, and more are added to shelves. You’re also a lot more likely to nab the pre-cut or pre-cooked vegetables. (Those items are some of the most popular, according to Martinez.) If you can’t make it on Wednesdays, the mornings are your next best bet.
2. Shop around 11 a.m. or noon for the freshest rotisserie chickens.
While a certain beloved warehouse is known for its $5 rotisserie chickens, many grocery stores make their own juicy birds — and they’re just as delicious! Grocery store kitchens start prepping the birds around opening time, which is typically around 7 a.m or 8 a.m. If you’re shopping at your local Whole Foods, Martinez recommends you head over to the store between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m., which allows for plenty of time for the bird to be cooked and set out for purchase.
3. Ask about the longevity of items — beyond the date label.
Most prepared foods have a picked- or packed-on date printed on the packaging. Those provide a good gauge for freshness, as does evidence of serious browning, bruising, or moisture — especially in the case of fresh produce (think: a pool of pink juice at the bottom of a container with cut watermelon). But if you’re unsure of the freshness — or concerned about getting through say, a container of guac, before it goes bad — you should ask! According to Martinez, cut fruit, fresh guac, and other dips tend to have a shorter shelf life (two to four days) than vegetables like prepared celery, broccoli, root vegetables, trimmed beans, and leafy greens (two to eight days).
4. Scan the list of ingredients.
Yes, even the food made in-store can contain additives like hydrogenated fats, high-fructose corn syrup, and sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin. Soups, sauces, dressings, and deli meats are just a subset of the prepared foods whose labels you should carefully scan prior to purchasing, according to Martinez. She also points out that more and more stores, including Whole Foods, are eliminating such ingredients (and hundreds more) from their prepared foods.
5. Buy the pre-cut cheese!
Cubed cheese is a perfect, simple snack — especially when it’s on sale. It also makes a great shortcut for mini sandwiches, and meal and party prep. Martinez recommends using the cubes as a stuffer for burgers, meatballs, and rice balls. She also thinks the pre-sliced cheeses are excellent toppers for a slider or petite sandwich.
Are you a grocery store prep cook with a shopping tip? Tell us about it in the comments below.