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Getting meals on the table during busy weekdays is an absolute chore. But that’s exactly why prepackaged grocery shortcuts exist. Designed to save you time and effort, items like pre-chopped onions and peppers, packaged seasoning blends and marinades, cut-up fruit and even trays of prepared meal ingredients take dinnertime from exhausting to ready in mere minutes.
However, as convenient as they might be, not all grocery shortcuts are actually smart choices. In an effort to make cooking easier for you, these shortcut items can skimp on flavor, freshness and nutrients. And some certainly aren’t clean. Not to mention the unnecessary plastic waste.
The next time you’re searching for a shortcut, skip these prepackaged and pre-prepared items that are supposed to simplify your life. When it comes to the following five foods and ingredients, opting for the slightly more time-consuming option pays off in value for your money and reducing plastic waste – which is well worth the few extra minutes if you ask us.
1. Instant coffee
Incredibly convenient and almost effortless to brew, instant coffee is more than just a grocery shortcut. It’s a staple in plenty of households, thanks to its affordable price and early morning ease of use. And if you drink a lot of coffee, instant is even more appealing.
But opting for instant coffee over traditional ground beans isn’t necessarily the best idea. It turns out that instant coffee is less caffeinated than its “real” counterpart.
According to Mashed, a cup of instant coffee contains anywhere from 30 to 90 milligrams of caffeine. A cup of regular coffee contains 70 to 140 milligrams. That means even if you’re choosing a strong variety, odds are instant coffee isn’t going to deliver the same caffeine punch as regular brewed coffee.
And instant coffee has another drawback that’ll make you want to put it back on the store shelf. Instant blends contain a high amount of acrylamide, a potentially harmful chemical that occurs when coffee beans are roasted. While traditional ground coffee and coffee beans also contain acrylamide, the amount is significantly higher in instant coffee.
A 2013 research study found that instant coffees contained 100 percent more acrylamide (358 mcg per kg) than fresh roasted coffee (179 mcg per kg). Regardless of how dangerous or mild this chemical might be, it’s clear that you’re getting more in every sip when you choose instant coffee as a quick fix.
What to Use Instead: Stick with good old “slow” coffee – or coffee that’s meant to be brewed rather than mixed with hot water. If you’re looking to save time, skip the whole beans and use pre-ground bean blends, and consider a coffee maker with a timer that will be freshly brewed the minute you wake up.
2. Pre-minced garlic
Pre-minced garlic seems like such a smart product at first glance. Unlike garlic powder, it’s fresh garlic – and unlike whole garlic cloves, you don’t have to waste any time peeling and chopping to get a whole lot of this key kitchen ingredient. It isn’t messy, you don’t have to get your hands dirty and you can quickly add just the right amount into any recipe.
But this grocery store shortcut over-promises and under-delivers. Once garlic is chopped up, its cells release a compound called allicin. Allicin isn’t bad for you – it just tends to impart a bitter taste onto garlic. And the longer chopped or minced garlic sits uncooked, the stronger allicin’s flavor becomes. Prepackaged and pre-minced containers of garlic can, as a result, have a different taste than the fresh stuff.
Here’s another reason to skip the shortcut and choose fresh garlic instead: All of garlic’s natural health benefits are best taken in by the body when garlic is fresh. Pre-minced, jarred garlic isn’t fresh at all. In order to stay shelf-stable, it’s packaged with stabilizers and preservatives that make it a less healthy choice. A container of pre-minced garlic can contain extras like citric acid and phosphoric acid, which both preserve the cloves and alter the flavor a bit. And if you’re reading Clean Eating, you’re obviously a foodie looking for fresh, full-flavored dishes. Pre-minced garlic is basically a shell of its former self and will leave your dish’s flavor profile watered down every time. Just don’t do it.
What to Use Instead: Buy whole cloves or heads of garlic and mince them yourself so you’re getting the freshest, healthiest and best-tasting herb results possible. If you’re hoping to save time by skipping the peeling part of the process, you can opt for whole garlic cloves that are pre-peeled. Just make sure you check the packaging on these products to make sure they don’t contain any unexpected additions!
3. Riced cauliflower
Unless you really love taking the time to cut up and then rice your own heads of cauliflower, buying pre-made and pre-packaged riced cauliflower from your local store’s produce section sounds like a fantastic idea. And there’s no denying this grocery shortcut is a convenient one. However, there are a couple of big disadvantages to buying fresh riced cauliflower that’s already packaged for you.
First and foremost, pre-riced cauliflower is incredibly expensive. One blogger did the match and discovered that prepackaged fresh riced cauliflower can be up to 87 percent more expensive than making your own. Sure, ricing your own cauliflower is a little time consuming – but with a powerful food processor it’s really only a couple of minutes – so when you look at it that way, it’s not worth paying a whopping 87 percent more for!
Additionally, prepackaged riced cauliflower doesn’t perform as well as you might think. It’s often erratic in texture, with big chunks mixed into the rice-sized pieces because it’s made for speed, not perfection. And Today reports that the store’s version can be more watery and softer than a DIY version, which can mess with your recipes. Soggy cauli rice stir fry, anyone? Hard pass.
What to Use Instead: There is an alternative shortcut to freshly riced cauliflower that’s just as convenient yet even better: frozen cauliflower rice. The prepackaged frozen stuff tends to perform better when cooked and offers all of the perks of the premade fresh variety. In fact, we even recommend it!
But for max value and freshness, seriously just make your own. Each time you make it, you’ll get faster. And you can buy 3 to 4 heads of cauli and do it all at once, then freeze individual servings. Like a chipmunk, you can stash them away for winter and reap the rewards all season.
4. Seasoning packets
Seasoning packets are incredibly convenient. Instead of rifling through your spice rack to find the right herbs and spices needed for a marinade, rub or flavor-packed seasoning, you can simply rip open a prepared packet. This is a grocery store shortcut that’s cheap, with most packets priced at less than $1. And they’re versatile too – seasoning packets appear in recipes for everything from dips to slow cooker meals to barbecued meats.
Though pre-mixed seasoning packets are affordable and effortless, they’re not as helpful as they seem at first glance.
When it comes to cost, these flavor-filled prepackaged spice blends aren’t really as cheap as they appear to be. Sure, $1 sounds great. But a single seasoning packet is a one-time-use product; each packet provides only enough for one meal. Bottled spices, on the other hand, can be used for many meals and last for months (or even years). Over the long term, opting for individual spices rather than packets is actually more affordable.
And seasoning packets aren’t always healthy. When you buy a prepackaged blend, you can’t control the amount of each spice included – meaning you have no control over the amount of salt or sugar. Many prepackaged seasoning packets also contain preservatives to keep them shelf-stable.
What to Use Instead: Use individual spices to create your own seasoning blends, or use a mix of different options to create a varied flavor profile in your recipes. DIY-ing your own spice blends gives you complete control over factors like preservatives, salt content and cost.
5. Bottled lemon or lime juice
Looking for something that lasts longer than fresh lemons or limes? If you only use lemon and lime juice sparingly, it’s tempting to pick up one of those plastic little fruit-shaped bottles of juice at your local grocery store. After all, it’s more convenient to add a few drops from a bottle into a recipe than squeeze a whole lemon.
Though these prepackaged grocery shortcuts seem like a great stand-in that saves you time, effort and the messiness of juicing your own citrus fruits, they aren’t filled with fresh juice. In fact, the liquid inside those yellow and green bottles is packed with preservatives – and it tastes nothing like actual lemon or lime juice (getting back to our earlier point about the integrity of your cooking and dishes).
If you’ve ever tasted bottled lemon or lime juice, you’ve likely noticed that it’s pretty fake in flavor. Freshly squeezed lemon and lime juice doesn’t last very long, and its flavor changes the longer it sits. So packaged alternatives attempt to achieve the right balance by adding a whole bunch of preservatives and sulfites into the mix. Each time you use this stuff in your food, you’re mixing in these unwanted additives.
What to Use Instead: Fresh is best, so stick with squeezing a lemon or lime when you need a splash of these juices in your recipes. However, it is possible to find packaged lemon and lime juices that really are pure. You can use these products to save time – but as always, take a close look at their labels so you know you’re getting a truly clean juice.
Instead of opting for potentially stale, low-quality or preservative-laden grocery shortcuts, look for solutions that are as clean and flavorful as they are convenient. We’ve got a few ideas for you: