7 Pre-Made 'Shortcut' Foods You Should Avoid at All Costs

The time you’ll save buying bottled lime juice is just not worth having to pour your flavorless and preservative-filled margarita down the drain.

Don't get us wrong—there are few things in life more satisfying than a solid shortcut, especially in the kitchen. We're strong proponents of the time-saving magic of sheet pan recipes, Instant Pot cooking, and the entire bottled sauce section at Trader Joe's. And what is meal prep if not an effectual way to clean, cut, and cook all your ingredients at once so you can just reheat it all when you're feeling lazy later in the week? When done well, shortcuts are lifelines.

That being said, some kitchen shortcuts will make your life harder, less delicious, and even unnecessarily expensive (anyone else who has ever cooked with liquid smoke or made mac and cheese in a mug knows exactly what we're talking about). Here are seven pre-made "shortcut foods" that will leave your wallet—and your palate—wildly disappointed.

01 of 07

Bottled Lemon or Lime Juice

Do you swear by making cocktails (or ceviche, or anything) with lemon or lime juice that came out of a fruit-shaped squeeze bottle? Sadly, this stuff tastes nothing like its fresh-squeezed counterparts. Pre-squeezed juice doesn't age well—this causes its flavor to worsen over time, and forces manufacturers to add a generous amount of preservatives and sulfites to the bottle.

02 of 07

Pre-minced Garlic

Similar to citrus juice, garlic that's been pre-cut and sold in a jar won't taste like anything close to the potent little cloves we love to eat (but hate to chop). Jarred garlic tends to have a more potent, bitter "kick" thanks to a compound called allicin, which forms when a clove of garlic's cells are cut. Once cut, this heady flavor continues to get stronger until you actually cook the garlic. If you aren't a fan of mincing fresh garlic by hand, try a garlic press.

03 of 07

Oatmeal Packets

Call us crazy, but instant oatmeal (that is sold in a tub, not a packet) is categorically easy to make. Adding cinnamon? No sweat. A handful of blueberries? We can probably handle that—not to mention that oatmeal packets are often pricey and filled with sugar. "Plain oats will have 0 to 1 grams of sugar, while a flavored pack will often have 11 to 14 grams of sugar," says Rebekah Blakely, RDN. Since most of these contain very little (if any) real fruit, the majority of that sugar is added sugar. "It's recommended we stay under 25 grams per day of added sugars. That means you've already had half your sugar for the day with one 150-calorie oatmeal pack!" Talk about a breakfast that will send you right back to bed. That said, some oatmeal packets—like those from RX and Kind—are legitimately delish and good for you.

04 of 07


In a pinch—meaning the avocado bin in your supermarket closely resembles a crate filled with small boulders—go ahead and buy guac from the grocery store's deli counter. But if you want a good and easy guacamole recipe, all you really need are fresh, ripe avocados, and a generous amount of salt.

05 of 07

Dried Herbs

Unfortunately, using dried parsley, cilantro, or basil in a recipe in place of fresh herbs will downgrade the flavor of your finished dish, bar none. Herbs are used to add crisp, lively zing—a flavor profile that dried herbs are decidedly lacking.

06 of 07

Pesto Sauce

This is along the lines of the rationale above: There are a number of solid reasons that pesto pasta is a gift from above, and one through four on that list include how fresh, bright, and balanced it tastes. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, pre-made pesto sauce falls flat. This is because the basil—or parsley, mint, or dill—are nothing close to fresh-picked. Also, the garlic is the same grade as the aforementioned jarred stuff, and we're not even sure what they use for the cheese component (nor do we want to know).

07 of 07

Commercial Salad Dressing

OK, we know these are fighting words—there are plenty of bottled dressings on the market that taste incredibly fresh and aren't filled with chemicals. That being said, most do not fit into any of those categories: They're filled with added sugar and preservatives and can be costly. If you're unmotivated to make vegan ranch or green goddess dressing from scratch, we fully understand, but you can also make a vibrant vinaigrette in five seconds by mixing your favorite zingy vinegar with a drizzle of heart-healthy olive oil.

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