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Whoa$750 a month for groceries? That's the cost for some couples, according to the USDA. Bumping up those bills are containers of sliced strawberries, pre-shredded cheese and other time-savers. "Convenience ingredients typically cost 30% to 60% more," says consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch.
We all need shortcuts, but which should we choose? Consider how you eat. "You could probably do without ready-to-grill kebabs, but if you're not going to serve salad unless you buy bagged lettuce, then go for it," says Karen Ansel, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Read on for the smartest optionsand what to make with them.
Price: $1 to $2 more than a head
Kale is the queen of greens, packing vitamins A, C and K, as well as manganese and cancer-fighting flavonoids. But it's probably the most difficult green to deal with, says Ansel. Its curly leaves trap dirt so it needs a thorough washing. Ansel buys kale pre-prepped, often opting for baby kale, which is less bitter than full-size leaves.
Keep in mind that while a head of kale looks like a lot more than what you get in a
10-ounce bag, once you've removed the stems and any bruised leaves it ends up about the same.
Try this recipe: Whole-Wheat Pasta with Kale and Roast Chicken
Fancy-cut bagged veggies
Price: $1 to $3 more than whole produce
Packages of sliced mushrooms or broccoli florets are a waste because they don't save that much timeand, in the case of broccoli, aren't as healthy. (You're missing out on the mild, fiber-rich stems.) But some specialty-cut bagged produce, like sweet potato fries or julienned carrots, is worth the premium price, says Heidi McIndoo, RD, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to 200-300-400 Calorie Meals.
"Besides not having to peel the sweet potatoes, you also get the benefit that they are uniformly sliced so they cook evenly," she points out.
Try this recipe: Spicy Sweet Potato Wedges
Cooked fresh beets
Price: $2 to $3 more than raw
Sure, these antioxidant powerhouses are priceyabout $4 for an 8-ounce shrink-wrapped package. "But it's worth every penny not to spend an hour cooking them and have your fingernails and countertops turn pink" from peeling them, McIndoo says.
Try this recipe: Beet Salad With Yogurt Dressing
Frozen cooked whole grains
Price: $1 to $2 more than dry grains
Don't have the time to make fiber-loaded brown rice, quinoa, barley or farro? "Keep a few bags of frozen whole grains in your freezer to use on nights when you're in a rush," says Woroch. Unlike many of the grain mixes in the dry-goods section of the supermarket, these frozen packages are usually virtually fat- and sodium-free (check the nutrition label).
Try this recipe: Toasted Farro With Roasted Vegetables and Fennel
Frozen ready-to-cook shrimp
Price markup: $2 to $4 more per pound than fresh shrimp that hasn't been deveined
Shrimp is a super quick, high-protein mealif you don't have to peel and devein it. "When you add all that prep work, it wipes out the benefit of the fast cooking time," says McIndoo. "That's why I always pay a few more dollars for frozen shrimp that's ready to cook."
Try this recipe: Garlic-Ginger Shrimp
Price: $1 to $3 less than fresh
Surprise: Here's one convenience ingredient that is a bargain. Frozen tropical fruits, such as mango and pineapple, are a great valueand they actually work better for smoothies and baking than fresh. You're not sacrificing nutrition, either: Frozen fruit has the same amount of nutrientsif not morebecause freezing preserves them.
Try this recipe: Frozen Fruit Skewers With Honey-Yogurt Dip