Consumer IQ

Pre-Made Supermarket Foods: Are They Worth the Extra Expense?

frozen pizza

The worst supermarket impulse buys may not be a candy bar or magazine at the checkout line.

Grocery stores are full of food shortcuts that promise shoppers a few minutes less in the kitchen squeezing lemons, peeling garlic or doing other prep work. But there can be a number of trade-offs: there can be a premium price, and home chefs say a lot of the time, the flavor isn’t as good.

“In general, I think shortcuts make sense when preparing the basic form of the item takes longer than five minutes,” says Stephanie Nelson, the founder of CouponMom.com.

“Shortcuts may not save all that much time, either,” says Jeannette Pavini, a savings expert with Coupons.com. “The more a food is handled and processed, the more likely the item will come into contact with germs.,” she says. “The FDA recommends washing all pre-cut and pre-bagged produce, so you aren’t saving that much time.”

We asked supermarket-shopping experts and chefs which shortcuts are worth your cash and which aren’t. Here’s the verdict:

Peeled garlic

Verdict: Skip it.

“Fresh, whole garlic is your best bet,” say Teri Gault, founder of TheGroceryGame.com. “Peeled garlic is hassle free, but you’ll pay a bit more for it and the flavor is compromised,” she says. “Peeled garlic really loses that sharp, fresh garlic taste when it’s peeled even an hour before you use it.”

At Safeway, a six-ounce package of Christopher Ranch Refrigerated Peeled Garlic regularly sells for $3.99, and $1.99 when it’s on sale, according to The Grocery Game. The store’s organic garlic bulbs, meanwhile, go for $1.99, or $1 on sale. Three two-ounce bulbs would cost 75 cents at full price.

Even if the peeled garlic were on sale, you’d still save $1.24. (Time saver: garlic peelers cost just $2 to $3, and make it easy to shuck the skins off whole cloves, fast.)

Prepared fruit

Verdict: Skip it.

“Cut your own melon or strawberries,” Nelson says. It takes just a few minutes and tastes fresher than pre-cut fruit that may have been sitting out for hours (or days).

At ShopRite, cantaloupe cost $4.99 per piece, while a container of chopped cantaloupe costs $3.99 per pound. A whole melon generally weighs four pounds, meaning a shopper might save $10.97 over buying a similar weight in prepared fruit.

Shredded cheese

Verdict: Get it.

“Shredded cheese is often the same price as chunk cheese,” Gault says. Coupons and sales can push prices even lower, and save you the need to whip out the grater.

At Safeway, she stacked a store sale, store coupon and manufacturer’s coupon to get an eight-ounce package of Lucerne Shredded Cheese for 79 cents instead of $2.49. The same tactics dropped an eight-ounce block of Lucerne Shredded Cheese from $2.99 to 79 cents.

Peeled/shredded carrots

Verdict: Buy selectively.

When they’re on sale, peeled “baby” carrots can cost the same as whole carrots — about $1 per pound. But the peeled babies don’t last more than a few days in the fridge, so even on sale, skip them if you won’t use the whole bag quickly, Gault says.

By Nelson’s “Five-Minute Rule,” shoppers save buying whole carrots. “It takes less than five minutes to peel and cut up a one-pound bag of carrots,” she says. “When I calculated the savings, it averaged $37 an hour for the labor to prep carrots by buying the shortcut version.”

Lemon juice

Verdict: Get it.

“It’s way cheaper — and easier — to buy bottled lemon juice, rather than whole lemons,” Gault says. The Grocery Game reports that at Bi-Lo, a 32-ounce bottle of Southern Home Lemon Juice sells for $3.22. Fresh lemons typically cost $1, and go on sale for 50 cents each.

“One good lemon yields about two ounces,” she says,  so buying fresh can be up to five times as expensive. “But while bottled juice makes a good substitute for cooking, fresh lemons can have a better taste in uncooked dishes and salads,” Gault says. (Time saver: if you find a great sale or have access to a lemon tree, use a juicer to make your own. Gault suggests freezing cubes of the juice.)

Bagged lettuce

Verdict: Skip it.

“Prices are more expensive, and you’ll still spend a few minutes washing it for safety, negating most of the time savings,” Pavini says. At Safeway, according to The Grocery Game, an eight-ounce bag of shredded iceberg lettuce is $1.99, or as little as $1 on sale. But a head of iceberg lettuce — about 28 ounces — is at most $1.69. You’ll save $1.81.

Rotisserie chicken

Verdict: Skip it.

“Although a ready to eat rotisserie chicken is so much easier, it is also much more expensive than a raw chicken,” Gault says. The Grocery Game reports that at Fry’s, a rotisserie chicken costs $6.99 per pound, or $4.99 per pound on sale. Foster Farms whole (uncooked) chicken costs $1.59 per pound and 77 cents on sale. For a two-pound chicken, you might save $10.80.

Canned beans

Verdict: Skip it.

Yes, soaking dried beans takes time, but it’s not active cooking time — just let them soak overnight. Canned beans are more convenient, but much more expensive. “You are paying at least three times the price for added sugar or sodium and more waste,” says Steven Zussino, president of GroceryAlerts.ca.

A $1.99 bag of dried beans contains 15 servings, versus two in a 99-cent can. That’s 13 cents per serving, instead of 50.

Take-and-bake pizza

Verdict: Get it.

If your family likes the taste, store-made pizzas beat out prices for delivery and sometimes even DIY. Gault says a Signature Cafe Family Size Pepperoni at Safeway costs $8.99 regularly, and as little as $5 on sale. Fry’s has the Kroger Self Rising Crust Pizza for $4.05, but can cost just $2.99 with promotions.

In comparison, buying groceries to make pizza — Pillsbury pizza crust, Ragu pizza sauce, Sargento shredded cheese and Hormel pepperoni — would cost $7.26 even if purchased on sale and with coupons, she says.

Pre-made garlic bread

Verdict: Buy selectively.

“Garlic bread can often be purchased even cheaper than just a loaf of French bread,” Gault says. The Grocery Game reports that at Safeway, a 17-ounce loaf of Safeway Select Artisan Garlic Bread costs $2.49, or as little as $1.49 on sale with a store coupon.

The same size loaf of Safeway Select Artisan French Bread is regularly $1.99, but 20 cents more expensive than the garlic bread when both are on sale.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie