Convenience Food Grocery Shopping

I was perusing the Saving Advice forums the other day and I noticed that Marla was aghast at having discovered pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in her grocery stores freezer section. Marla commented “Have we really become a nation that is so lazy we can no longer even make a peanut and jelly sandwich?!” Well, Marla, I don’t think we can attribute such grocery conveniences solely to a collective laziness, but we can certainly attribute a lot of it to a collective foolishness.

It is not a surprise that over the course of the past few decades, grocery stores have offered an increasingly large number of products that appeal to the home cook’s desire to be more efficient. TV dinners, for example, were hugely successful when Swanson introduced them in 1954 and today the average American eats seventy-two frozen meals each year. As most grocery shoppers know, however, very often there is a price to be paid for convenience, but how much is that cost?

I checked out the price of PB&J Jamz at a local discount retailer. The cost for a package of 18 sandwiches (and truth be told, they look more like pastries) was approximately $12. That amounts to sixty-seven cents per serving — a rather small serving in my opinion. By comparison, at my local grocery store, I can purchase one jar of jelly, one jar of peanut butter and two loaves of bread for about $9, and that will make at least 25 sandwiches for my household. Given the ease by which even younger children can make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I can’t see myself purchasing a frozen PB&J convenience food, can you?

Although I did not find frozen sandwiches to be such a good deal, I was surprised to discover that my long-held scorn for pre-blended peanut butter and jelly was entirely misplaced. Over the years, I have always chucked when I saw jars of combined peanut butter and jelly, assuming that the producer charged a premium for the convenience of having to scoop from only one jar. My assumptions were completely wrong, as I discovered that the pre-blended BB&J was no more expensive than purchasing peanut butter and jelly separately.

Here are a couple of other things that I discovered about conveniences in the grocery aisles:

Sometimes Single Serving Packages Are a Good Deal: As with so many assumptions, not all are correct. I have always believed that single serving packaging usually means a higher unit cost, but until this week I had never actually put that to the test. My results were mixed. At my local grocery store, I discovered that it is actually less expensive to purchase a package of twelve single-serving bags of Lays potato chips (about 33 cents per serving) than to purchase a fourteen serving bag that is not pre-portioned (about 36 cents per serving). By comparison, however, the Kellogg’s cereal variety pack ($4.29 for ten single serving packs) was priced much more expensively than a regular box of cereal ($4.39 for sixteen servings and a more extreme sale price of $3.99 for twenty-six servings). I found even more extreme price disparities in powdered drink mixes and cookies, both of which were frighteningly more expensive in single serving packages.

Products that Save You Time Will Cost You More Money: Not surprisingly, in the grocery store time is money. The more time you are willing to spend in your kitchen, the more inexpensively you can shop. The more time saving purchases you want to make, the more you will have to spend. For example, three heads of Romaine lettuce will serve seven people and cost $2.99, but a bag of chopped Romaine which will serve three people costs twenty cents more.

In the meat department, there are a range of prices on chicken. A whole chicken is less expensive per pound than chicken that is already cut up, boned or skinned. At one extreme, a skinless boneless fillet costs $5.19 per pound, while a package of chicken breasts, thighs or drumsticks (still with skin and bone is only $1.69 per pound. Unless you have arthritis or other problems that affect your dexterity, it is not difficult to skin and de-bone a bird so the less expensive options should always be chosen.

Of course, sale prices and geography can make pricing vary in your grocery store. My point is not that there is never a time to purchase a time saving product or a pre-portioned product. Rather, what you need to understand is the importance of checking the unit cost on everything you buy. Whatever pricing assumptions you may bring to your shopping experience, you may find that some of them are disproved by the shelf tag information on the products that you are buying.

What do you think? What deals have you been able to find on grocery products that actually save you time in the kitchen? Are you willing to pay more just to avoid time working over a hot stove?

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14 Responses to Convenience Food Grocery Shopping

  1. Annie Jones says:

    I got stuck at “average American eats seventy-two frozen meals each year”. I suppose that’s true, on average, but I can’t even fathom it for our household. I’m not sure we eat even two of them a year. Wonder if that includes frozen pizzas and burritos, too. If so, then make that about 5 a year.

    You asked what deals have I been able to find on grocery products that actually save you time in the kitchen, and am I willing to pay more just to avoid time working over a hot stove?

    That’s a tough question, since I enjoy making a lot of things from scratch, but I’m sure there are some. Micro popcorn would be one…it’s quicker, easier and we prefer the flavor. We buy it at Sam’s so it’s as expensive. Shredded cheese from Sam’s Club is also more convenient, and is sometimes even less expensive than block cheese. But overall, no, I won’t pay a great deal more for something just for the convenience. I often find that convenience foods sacrifice quality in exchange for ease and time-savings.

  2. Annie Jones says:

    Sorry…I meant to write that we buy popcorn by the case at Sam’s Club so it’s NOT as expensive.

  3. persephone says:

    I’ll be frozen vegetables but I generally won’t buy frozen prepared foods. Like Annie Jones, we don’t eat frozen dinners (except when my older son buys them for himself because he is not willing to cook). I will buy boneless/skinless chicken breasts if I am in a rush but otherwise my husband will skin and bone the chicken for me.

  4. spicoli says:

    I don’t like to cook so I will pay more for prepared foods. Life is too short to be stuck in the kitchen.

  5. Ann says:

    I live alone and, on top of that, am modifying nearly a lifetime of bad habits by being on Weight Watchers, so…

    My life is a bizarre mix.

    I keep on hand some healthier, portion-controlled microwave meals so that, if I’m running around and suddenly realize I’m starving, I’m able to quickly satisfy my hunger without violating my diet. On the other hand, I do take the time to cook larger batches of things and divide them into single servings and freeze periodically. Single servings of healthy veggies aren’t worth the bother ’cause one of the things I’m learning is that high fiber, low carbohydrate veggies don’t have to be limited to one serving. LOL I do buy boneless, skinless chicken breasts and single serving vacuum packed salmon and other fish, but I’ll also get a lean cut of pork or beef or a turkey breast and slow cook it then divide into single servings.

    For some unknown reason, I will eat prepped lettuce faster than a bunch. Doesn’t make any sense to me, but it’s true. I found myself tossing lettuce that had gone bad and decided that it was actually cheaper for me to buy the prepared stuff. Weird.

    One of my downfalls is ice cream and/or good frozen yoghurt (preferably lowfat). There is no way I can bring a half gallon into the house! I don’t have any choice but to buy one of the small single serving or 2-serving containers. Actually, when it comes to all desserts, I’m best off going out to eat, ordering one and, if possible, only eating part of it there and packing up the balance to bring home for another day. Doesn’t work with ice cream, but is great for those days when you crave a slice of cake! Unfortunately, out in the country, where I live, there’s nowhere that I can go to purchase just one of something decadently good. 🙁

    Weight Watchers is a points system, so I will buy a block of a certain cheese, when I crave it, and then cut it into one ounce portions and calculate the points for each portion. That way I’ll know how much I’m eating when I grab a cube.

    I have an acid tolerance problem (my body converts ascorbic acid into a poison), so I have to be careful about how much fruit I eat. Unfortunately, that translates into not being able to buy the generally more cost effective bags of apples or oranges. I have to buy them one by one. LOL

    My grocery bills are less these days and truly fast foods are a thing of the past, but I’m going for higher quality. I’ve discovered organic beef, which is the best thing I’ve ever tasted! I’ve also switched to eggs from free range chickens. I never knew an egg could have a slightly sweet taste and I love the darker yokes. I’m going to miss the farmers’ market when it shuts down in 3 weeks. Nothing beats fresh produce! If you’ve never tasted corn picked just that morning or tomatoes fresh from the vine, you have no idea what you’re missing! And the small, wild strawberries I bought this past spring were to die for!!!

    But too many things in the market and too many recipes are just not geared for a single person, so I do end up with a mix. Oh, well. 🙂

  6. Emilie says:

    My thoughts on whole chicken is: when you buy the whole bird your pay for the bone and the dark meat that I don’t really like anyways. What I do is wait foe the special 2.99/lb for skinless boneless chicken and I stock up enought to last mer until the next specials.
    A lot less work.

    Just my opinion.

  7. Jackie says:

    From left field – a friend of mine buys those pb&j frozen sandwiches and stores them at work. Her son has severe food allergies, including peanut, and so she can’t have peanut butter in the house. Occassionally, she craves a pb&j sandwich. Before they started selling those fozen ones, she’d have me make her a sandwich every once in awhile and bring it in to work with me. And, those puppies taste just fine. The bread is not soggy nor too dry.

    Now, making your own pb&j is too simple to replace with the frozen convenience (especially since you have to wait 30 min for them to thaw) but as a single person some of those items in the grocery store work better for me.

    Or, like packages of applesauce or peaches. I take those to work with me. Real peaches would be healthier, but I don’t have the time nor the space for the mess of peeling, cutting and eating those kinds of fresh fruit. So while it’s more expensive and less healthy, the convenience of having it at work make it worth while.

  8. Bryan says:

    We actually tried those frozen PPNJs once and my son didn’t like them at all and I thought they weren’t that good either. I would much rather spend the 2 minutes to make one by hand and save money then popping on in the microwave.

  9. whitestripe says:

    well – i can safely say that i haven’t eaten a frozen meal in about three years 😀 but then again, i’m not american.

    and with the single serve options, i may be a minority here, but i would rather pay 3c extra per serving if it means that all that extra packaging isn’t going to landfill. sometimes the cheapest option isn’t the best for the environment, and what is more important to you? the planet? or 36c in savings? i know what i’d pick – but then again, I’m probably a minority…

  10. Buying foods for convenience reasons throws a big amount of money away, and the quality is never what you should be eating. Those pre-packaged airtight meals are often 6 months ol, there’s no way they are fresh.

    John DeFlumeri Jr

  11. minny says:

    Here in the UK the prepared meal aisles in the supermarkets get larger by the week! They may not always be frozen but the ready meal is a big deal here.

    Peanut butter is not as popular as in the US, but I would have thought the combined with jelly was easier to spread.

    I have a tip with lettuce. I have a salad spinner into which I put washed lettuce or salad green leaves – use it to spin the water away and put the leaves in a plastic bag – close the end and put it in the salad drawer of the fridge. It lasts at least a week.

    So, I usually wash and spin lots of salad leaves in batches. This means I don’t have to face washing every time – beats the bags of pre prepared salad!

  12. Ann says:

    Hadn’t thought about it, but whitestripe has a point about garbage and landfill. Since I started eating more healthfully, my garbage has decreased a lot! I do the recyclable stuff wherever possible and use reusable containers when I’m dividing up stuff I bought in quantity.

    And thanks, Minny! I picked up a salad spinner and will try your suggestion after doing some grocery shopping today. 🙂

  13. Gail says:

    Since I became chronically ill and disabled, I have found that sometimes it is more than just ‘convenience’ to have pre-made frozen food in the house. My hubby will eat a frozen meal (I personally won’t touch them) and so on days I am sick and can’t cook, it is convenient for him to heat up in the microwave. I’ve also found things like premade salads easier when I need to eat something and can barely stand up. When your arthritis is killing you and you need to eat, you are more than happy to have some convenience things around. I would have never written this years ago, but as life changes so do our needs. I do try to freeze my own things ahead of time when I have the energy.

  14. David G. Mitchell says:

    Of course, in Gail’s circumstances, pre-made foods do make sense. I don’t think any of us would debate that. Arthritis changes a lot. My brother is actually a trained chef but he is also now disabled. He needs to eat a lot of prepared foods, too.

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