The Pre-Made Appetizer You Should Stop Buying from the Grocery Store

updated May 1, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Christine Han)

Quick! What’s the appetizer with the best ratio of effort to pleasure? You could make an argument for a cheese board, or even seven-layer dip … but if you really want your guests to know you care, bust out a shrimp cocktail tray. Juicy shrimp paired with a tangy cocktail sauce makes for a simple yet delightful way to start an evening.

When it comes to buying those pre-made trays of happiness, most hosts grab the first one they see, at the first grocery store they visit. But you’re not most hosts, so you might be wondering: What’s the optimal price per shrimp? Does the type of shrimp matter? Is there a way to DIY that tray for less? Keep reading for all the answers to your crustacean questions.

(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

How Much Do Shrimp Cocktail Trays Cost?

To determine what’s fair when it comes to shrimp cocktail tray prices, I visited four national chains near my apartment in South Carolina. Here’s what I found.

  • Walmart: $7.98 for 14 ounces (35 shrimp)
  • Whole Foods: $12.99 for 16 ounces (35 to 38 shrimp)
  • Kroger: $12.99 for 17 ounces (40 shrimp)
  • Trader Joe’s: No pre-made trays, but sells 16 ounces of frozen shrimp for $9.99

That works out to between 23 and 37 cents, and an average of 31 cents, per shrimp. That’s not bad, but price doesn’t tell the whole story. Cheaper is not always better — especially when it comes to seafood.

So I asked Ryan Bigelow, the program engagement manager at Seafood Watch, to explain which types of shrimp are sustainably caught. “Shrimp is really complicated,” he admitted. “We eat a lot of it, and we buy it from all over the world. It’s harvested and farmed in so many ways that it can be tough to make an informed decision.”

The best strategy would be to read through the organization’s shrimp recommendations — but if you don’t have time for that, Bigelow suggested simply shopping at businesses that have committed to carrying sustainable seafood. You can search the (incredibly helpful!) Seafood Watch app for participating grocery stores near you.

Where I live, the only Seafood Watch partner is Whole Foods, so that’s probably where I’d end up purchasing my shrimp cocktail trays. If you’re in a pinch, though, the shrimp trays from Walmart and Kroger both had one of the eco-certifications Bigelow recommended. “I won’t go so far as saying [those products] are ‘sustainable,’ but they’re at least a good alternative,” he explained. “Still some issues, but one of the better performers.”

Why DIY Shrimp Cocktail Trays Might Be Best

Another idea to consider? If a store near you sells quality shrimp, make your own shrimp cocktail tray. Look for frozen, raw, large, tail-on shrimp (if you have access to fresh seafood, fabulous — but if not, frozen will work great).

In my comparison shopping, I found that prices ranged from 40 to 53 cents per frozen crustacean. For a tray of 40 shrimp, that’d work out to between $16 and $21. So, while this is one case where DIY isn’t cheaper, it’ll probably be tastier. You’ll have the chance to select sustainable shrimp, steam them yourself, then serve them alongside some delicious homemade cocktail sauce. Best of all, you can present your appetizer on a pretty platter (and skip that black plastic atrocity better known as a “tray”).

When was the last time you served shrimp cocktail? Did you buy a pre-made tray or make it yourself?