When you head to the grocery store, you probably carefully consider your produce to make sure that you get the best-tasting fruits and veggies. But even if you know how to pick the perfect watermelon, you might not know how to choose the best rotisserie chicken or the freshest bread. You may not know how to get a jar of tomato sauce or a bottle of olive oil that will taste great, either.
Below, check out of our favorite tips for picking out the best foods at the grocery store.
1. French bread
Most American grocery stores sell French bread, or baguettes, but you have to pay attention to get one that’s fresh and tasty. Your best bet is to avoid baguettes that look too pale or feel too soft. The crust should look crispy. And, if you don’t mind getting a few strange looks, you can test the crispiness by putting the baguette to your ear and squeezing lightly. You should hear an audible crunch. And if you can give that baguette a sniff, you should detect a tangy, slightly sour smell that signals proper fermentation.
2. Sandwich bread
If you’re looking for sandwich bread, we also have some tips for you. First of all, Food52 has some advice on choosing the right kind of bread for every sandwich. In the bakery section at most grocery stores, you’ll see labels that tell you when a loaf was baked. (Plus, you can always ask an employee for help!) For standard sandwich bread that’s baked commercially, the newest product will be at the back of the shelf, like many other items at the grocery store. As for that oft-circulated advice that you can choose the freshest loaf of bread by the color of the twist tie? According to Snopes, that’s true — but only if you call the manufacturer to ask “what (if any) color-coded tag system they adhere to and what their delivery schedule to your favorite store is.”
3. Deli soup
Soups are another great item to buy in the deli section of the grocery store when you’re short on time but need to get a meal on the table. However, you’ll want to ask a deli clerk how fresh the soup is before you make your purchase. Consumer Reports notes that many prepared foods aren’t made on the premises at your local grocery. In fact, some grocery chains use a centralized kitchen to make large batches of ready-to-serve dishes, like soup. Then, they get delivered to each store. Sometimes, grocery stores sell foods that you think are fresh but were actually delivered frozen. There’s no way to tell by looking at the container, so you’ll need to ask to get the lowdown.
4. Deli appetizers
Most delis sell plenty of appetizers and sides, and they make the perfect addition to your cart when you need a quick meal for your family. But how do you choose the best one? One way is to ask the deli clerk which sides are the most popular. Those have the best chance of tasting fresh, since the store will need to replenish them a lot more often than the less-popular sides. If you’re concerned about health, it also pays to take a look at the ingredients list. But what if you’re short on time? Steer clear of the shiniest sides, which are likely loaded up with high-calorie oils, Women’s Health notes.
5. Deli meat
Some people steer clear of deli meat, but others depend on it for sandwiches (and lunches at work or school). Exactly what kind of meat you buy will depend on your personal taste and preferences. However, the Food Network recommends that you know what you’re looking at. Whole cuts are cooked and flavored, then sliced and sold by the pound. Sections and formed meat products are “glued” together to create a larger piece. Processed meats — like sausage, salami, and bologna — use a mix of meat and meat byproducts. Whatever you order, just get an amount that you’ll use within a few days. As the Food Network notes, you shouldn’t store deli meat longer than three days.
6. Ground beef
The Spruce reports that when you evaluate the ground beef at your favorite grocery store, you want meat that was ground at your store, preferably on the same day that you’re buying it. Look either for meat behind the counter that an employee will weigh out when you ask for it. Or, look for it in a styrofoam tray with plastic wrap pulled across it (and touching the meat). You want meat that looks pink, with flecks of white fat visible. Steer clear of meat in case-ready packaging, with a deep tray and an overwrap that doesn’t touch the meat. This kind of beef will probably look bright red because the package has been pumped full of oxygen or nitrogen plus carbon dioxide. This meat wasn’t ground locally, but was instead manufactured somewhere else and then shipped to your store — exactly what you want to skip.
7. Rotisserie chicken
Bon Appétit reports that a rotisserie chicken makes a quick, easy, and delicious meal — particularly if you choose the right one. The publication’s most useful tip is to go with the heaviest bird. The combination of the heat lamp and the plastic container continues to cook the chicken. So a heavier bird is one that hasn’t had all of its juices evaporate out of the meat. It also helps to look for the plumpest, prettiest chicken, since one that looks deflated will also taste dry. The publication also recommends going with a plain chicken, instead of a lemon-rosemary or barbecue one, especially if you want to make a stew or turn the carcass into stock.
When you head to the seafood aisle at your favorite grocery store, trying to pick the right fish seems overwhelming. But as the Los Angeles Times reports, there are some easy ways to choose the freshest fish. Good fish should smell clean and fresh, or a little briny. (You should never detect a “fishy” odor.) When you buy a whole fish, the eyes should look bright, shiny, and full. Cloudy or milky eyes signal that the fish has been sitting around too long. Similarly, the skin should look bright and metallic, not dull. It should also feel firm, not squishy. The gills should look clean and bright red. If you buy steaks or fillets, the flesh should look bright and firm, not dull or soft.
When you go to the grocery store to buy lobster, Serious Eats reports that you should look for a “lively” lobster. The publication explains, “When a healthy lobster is picked up, it should lift its claws, move its legs energetically, and raise its tail, perhaps flapping it a few times. Lobster with limp claws or little movement should be avoided.” As for whether you should go for a big lobster, or stick with a smaller one? Serious Eats notes that smaller lobsters are easier to cook evenly, and cheaper, than larger lobsters.
Another seafood favorite? Scallops. Unlike lobsters, you don’t have to look your meal in the eye when you go to the store to buy scallops. The Kitchn recommends looking for scallops that have a uniform, “pearly white color with firm, slightly moist flesh.” They shouldn’t look completely dry, nor should they drip with moisture. The Kitchn advises, “Don’t spend your money on scallops that look mangled or shredded. This shows mishandling and can also sometimes indicate lack of freshness. Also, we wouldn’t bother with frozen scallops, as their texture and flavor aren’t nearly as good.”
You’d think that many sushi connoisseurs would turn up their noses at the idea of buying sushi at the grocery store. But sometimes, it’s a cheap and convenient way to enjoy some sushi without breaking the bank. Thrillist spoke to one expert who recommends going with vegetarian sushi if you want something store-bought. That’s because the fish may not be exactly what the label claims. And either way, it has likely lost its flavor in the refrigerator case. Secrets of Sushi adds that you should always check the sell-by date if you buy sushi at the supermarket. And if you really want sushi with fish, you don’t want the fish to look dry.
Prefer tofu to meat or seafood? Your grocery store likely has lots of different varieties available, and you’ve likely already figured out which firmness you prefer for your favorite recipes. Epicurious reports that most tofu comes in water-packed blocks in the refrigerator case. You should look for the date on the package that’s furthest away. As the publication explains, “Tofu should look uniformly white and smell fresh. Any sour odor or discoloration means it’s been on the shelf too long or has undergone temperature abuse.” Tofu in a shelf-stable carton will last longer. However, the tradeoff is a blander flavor compared to fresh tofu.
13. Tomato sauce
If you had all the time in the world, you’d probably make your own tomato sauce at home. However, we’re all busy, so most of us pick up a jar of tomato sauce at the store at least once in a while. The brand and type you buy will depend on your taste and preferences. But if you want something with the best taste, look for a sauce that uses olive oil instead of canola oil. You want quality ingredients, which give you a better taste — and more health benefits — than cheaper ingredients.
14. Olive oil
Whether you’re throwing together a salad or making an entire meal from scratch, choosing the right olive oil will make everything taste better. Munchies learned that you should look to the harvest year and the “best before” date to help you choose the freshest bottle. (The fresher the oil, the better the taste and the more plentiful the health benefits.) You don’t have to worry about buying olive oil that comes from Italy. However, it pays to do some research and find a brand you trust. Go for extra virgin olive oil, and avoid bottles that say “extra light,” “pure,” or “100%.”
15. Frozen pizza
A frozen pizza can make a great (and easy) meal for your family. And you don’t have to sacrifice flavor if you know how to choose the right pizza. To make sure you’re getting the best option, it’s a great idea to look at the ingredients list. Check for a variety of different cheeses, which will give you a rich flavor. Also, look for fresh vegetables on the ingredients list. Surprisingly enough, you may also want to check out the temperature the box suggests you set your oven to. A pizza that you can bake at a slightly lower temperature will be a better value than one that has to bake at 450 degrees.
16. Salad mixes
You probably don’t always have time to assemble a salad of multiple kinds of greens and other vegetables. However, not every bag of pre-made salad mix is worth your hard-earned dollars. Epicurious recommends going for salad mix in a plastic clamshell package, instead of a bag, since it can better protect those fragile greens. Go for hearty greens, like baby spinach and baby kale. Always look for the furthest expiration date, even if it means going for a package at the back of the shelf. And when you get your groceries home, transfer the salad mix to a different container to give the greens more room to breathe.