The Gross Truth About the Prepared Foods Section at the Grocery Store

Prepared foods section are becoming more and more popular among shoppers. People don’t have time to prepare an entire meal. Instead, they reach for quick ready-made food at the grocery store. Learn the facts — including some gross ones — behind prepared foods, ahead.

Paying more for convenience

banking and people concept
It could be a waste of money. | Dolgachov/iStock/Getty Images

Buying a whole pineapple costs less than a container of diced pineapple but who wants to chop up a pineapple? No one. Naturally, the cost is higher because someone has to take the time to chop pineapple up themselves.

Hint: Be strategic about what prepared foods you buy.

Save time and money with this trick

Rotisserie Chickens
Spend your money on items that are harder to make. | David Silverman/Getty Images

“Kristen Gradney, R.D.N., L.D.N., a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, suggests spending on items that are the most time or labor-intensive,” according to Consumer Reports. A good example of this is rotisserie chicken. Forget about cooking a chicken at home and buy one instead because it can produce food for multiple meals.

Hint: Prepared foods are a huge money maker.

Prepared foods are extremely popular

Grocery store prepared food
They’re a huge part of grocery stores. | Niloo138/iStock/Getty Images

Prepared foods are so popular, they bring in $29 billion annually, according to Consumer Reports. Grocery stores are being renovated to accommodate more space for a bigger and more aesthetically pleasing prepared foods section. Think: food stations with a restaurant feel.

Hint: Restaurants consider this trend a huge threat to business.

Prepared foods section is competing with restaurants

Waitress bringing coffees
Consumers like the time-saving options. | monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images

Prepared foods are now competing with restaurants as a convenient meal for consumers. “Consumers want the time savings they could get from a fast-food restaurant, but fresher, healthier meal options and more customized choices,” Karen Buch, R.D.N., L.D.N., a food industry consultant and former supermarket dietitian, told Consumer Reports.

Hint: Snacks will be available in prepared foods section.

 Consumers love to snack

Carrots and hummus make a delicious and healthy snack.
Snack sizes are becoming more popular. | Robyn Mac/iStock/Getty Images

Grocery stores are offering foods for snack-happy consumers. “Rather than focus on selling products by the pound, progressive retailers are looking at selling smaller portions at lower prices that are packed to go,” Mathes Martines, a growth expert at Beyond Brands, told Supermarket News. Expect to see many more portable snacks in grocery stores’ prepared food sections.

Hint: Grocery stores are now hiring people usually found in fine dining restaurants.

Chefs are taking jobs at grocery stores

Afro American chef in restaurant kitchen
Grocery stores need chefs to keep up with the demand. |

One not-so-gross aspect of the prepared foods section is that grocery stores are now employing chefs. “There are more corporate chefs and more store chefs than there have ever been,” Rick Stein, vice president of the Food Marketing Institute, told Progressive Grocer.

Hint: People are contracting this illness from eating prepared foods.

People get sick

prepared foods fruit display
The foods aren’t always safe. | littleny/iStock/Getty Images

Two cases of Hepatitis A at a Whole Foods Market in Detroit, Michigan stem from the store’s prepared foods section, according to the International Business Times. Foods served by other grocery stores have also caused customers to be taken ill. The reason for the illnesses has to due with popularity. Learn exactly how, next.

Hint: Why people are getting sick.

Popularity and sickness go hand in hand

Deli meat
There are risks to prepared foods. | MSPhotographic/iStock/Getty Images

“It’s most likely due to the fact that demand for prepared foods has grown considerably […] as has the complexity of the dishes,” according to Delish. The greater the popularity of prepared foods, the greater the risk for food-safety issues. Grocers are handling lunch meats, chicken, fish, desserts, and so on. In short, the risk of contamination is much higher.

Hint: Prepared foods may not be made at the grocery store.

Food may not be made in-house

Bright blue modern popular huge comfortable big rig semi truck
They might be shipped to the stores. | vitpho/iStock/Getty Images

In a study conducted by Consumer Reports, “meals were actually made with packaged processed foods.” And only half of the food purchased were made on a grocery store’s premises. Food may be prepared in another ZIP code and shipped to other stores.

Hint: Food probably isn’t fresh.

The food may not be fresh

cobb salad
Don’t assume someone made them that day. | Bonchan/iStock/Getty Images

Stores don’t promise their prepared foods are fresh or made on-site. Customers may assume food is prepared behind the counter, but there’s a good chance it isn’t. The reason for this is that in-store kitchens are expensive, driving up the cost of the prepared foods. Grocery stores may even use bottled or canned products like salad dressing at the deli counter.

Hint: Prepare foods are loaded with this seasoning found in your kitchen.

Prepared foods contain high amounts of this preservative

Salt shaker
Some foods are extremely high in salt. | Sebalos/iStock/Getty Images

Another shocking discovery from the study conducted by Consumer Reports is that many prepared foods contain staggering amounts of salt. “Mini turkey meatloaves from The Fresh Market were mini salt licks: 891 milligrams in 6 ounces.” The FDA recommends 2,300 milligrams of salt per day.

Hint: You may not know what exactly you’re eating.

Nutrition labels aren’t included

nutritional label centered on fat content
You won’t know exactly what you’re getting. |

“The Food and Drug Administration requires packaged foods to carry Nutrition Facts labels, but it isn’t mandatory for many fresh prepared meals to have those same labels,” according to Consumer Reports. This can be especially concerning for those with food allergies.

Hint: Prepared foods don’t include this usual information.

There’s no such thing as portion control

close up of creamy potato salad with herbs and shallots
Things can get unhealthy very quickly. | iStock

Portion size is included on nutrition labels but as we know, prepared foods aren’t required to have such labels. Therefore, they don’t include information on portion size. Foods can get unhealthy very quickly by taking a heaping scoop of potato salad from a plastic container.

Hint: Grocery stores are adding this to be more competitive.

Amenities accompany prepared foods section 

prepared food section of a grocery store
You might get free Wi-Fi with your olive bar. | mariusz_prusaczyk/iStock/Getty Images

Another not-so-gross but rather a downright pleasant truth about the prepared foods section is that they’re often accompanied by free Wi-Fi and a seating area, according to the Food Marketing Institute. Grocery stores are offering customers more in-store amenities to retain customers.

Hint: Grocery stores don’t always offer this.

Consumers want fresh food; stores don’t always deliver

Bowl of colored rotini pasta
The foods might not always be what they seem. |

Driving the market for prepared foods are consumers who want fresh food, according to Nielsen Perishables Group. But prepared foods at the grocery store don’t always deliver on being fresh. As mentioned earlier, they’re often loaded with salt and may have even been sitting around for a few days.

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Read more: The 6 Cheapest Grocery Stores in the U.S.