Save or Splurge: Pre-packaged Produce

by elleryturner

We’ve all had the urge…you walk through the produce section and see those carrot sticks, neatly sliced and all the same size, then you spy the onions, diced perfectly (and no more tears!), and finally the herbs, nestled into their cute little plastic boxes with a pretty picture and trendy font on the label…it’s hard not to buy them simply because they look good or seem so easy.

My general rule for pre-packaged produce is to save your money.  You will typically get less product for your cash since you’re paying for someone else to slice, dice and package it for you.  Always – and this goes for all ingredients, not just produce – check the cost per pound listed on the price tag.  It’s listed on every tag and is an excellent way to compare costs, but is shamefully underutilized.

Checking that sticker will reveal that you’ll end up paying more per pound for the herbs in the tiny plastic boxes than for a full bunch.  Buy the bunch, wash it, and keep the stems in a cup of water to help them stay fresh for longer.  The pre-chopped veggies are another no-brainer.  It’s tempting to buy the pre-cut, smaller packages if the recipe you’re making doesn’t require a lot of that vegetable.  However, it doesn’t take much effort to dice onions or peel and chop carrots, and those are both ingredients that can be added to tons of different dishes, which helps to ensure they don’t sit in your fridge long enough to spoil even if you end up buying a larger amount.  So as nice as the perfectly cut portions look, buy the whole veggies.

You should also consider the process that certain foods went through before they were packaged.  Some prepared ingredients that really will save some serious time and effort – steamed beets for instance – should be passed by because the high-intensity steaming process used on those beets dramatically reduces the nutrients, so you’re better off buying fresh and cooking with a method that doesn’t require many steps, such as roasting.

I do have a few exceptions to this rule.  In many cases, the main reason for buying pre-packed foods is to literally buy yourself some time, so you just have to weigh the cost.  Is the price of the time saved worth the extra cash?  Sometimes it is – I often buy butternut squash already cubed simply because the task of peeling and cubing a whole one myself is too daunting, too time-consuming, and I usually end up peeling away half of the squash anyway.

So the next time you’re considering taking a stroll down easy street (aka the pre-packaged produce aisle), check the cost per pound, see if there’s a viable fresh and whole option, and decide whether a couple extra minutes is worth a couple extra dollars.