The dirt on pre-packaged meals

Even at your local health food store, clean eating might not be so clean (or healthy).

Pre-packaged meals can be a time-saving hack for the busy high-performer: They keep convenient eating at arm’s length, and the options are aplenty. But while packaged salads, veggies, and pesto dishes might be tastefully merchandised at your gourmet health food store, many are not as nutritious (or clean) as you’d think.

In June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) slapped Whole Foods with a citation for unsanitary working conditions in their Massachusetts plant, which preps ready-to-eat meals for 74 of the grocer’s chains. Issues included ceiling condensation dripping onto work surfaces; employees handling products without washing or changing gloves; and the most damning: Whole Foods didn’t take proper precautions to protect food from contamination with “chemicals, filth, and extraneous materials.”

When you eat pre-packaged meals, you hand the control over to someone else; the more hands involved, the more opportunity there is for bacteria to grow, says Marianne H. Gravely, a member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) food safety and inspection service team.

Meals on-the-go also mean giving up the reins on ingredients. And in order to promote a longer shelf life (and make food tastier), pre-packaged meals tend to run high in sodium; and can sometimes contain up to 70 different ingredients, including additives, chemicals, dyes, and preservatives, says Elizabeth Tripp R.D., a New York-based dietitian.

You’ll never have full control over what you’re eating if you’re eating out. Ahead of the next time you pick up a pre-made meal, arm yourself with some knowledge.

A commercial grocery store refrigerator is about 10 degrees colder than your home fridge.

As a result, products chilled in the store will last longer than they will at home, says Gravely. That means pre-made meals should be eaten right away—and at the very least should be kept cool before eating. This is especially important with fish, poultry, and meats, she says.

Sell By’dates are intended for the grocer. ‘Use by,’ ‘best by,’ and expiration dates are meant for consumers.

Just bought a meal with a ‘sell by’ date six days away? Your meat won’t last six days in your home refrigerator. Use it within two days of purchase. ‘Use by’ dates, on the other hand, are storage recommendations. Your food should last in your home fridge till the date marked. And if a product says ‘best by Oct 15,’ it should still be of good quality on October 15. Your best bet, though, is to choose a product with the farthest away expiration date, suggests Gravely.

Consider the food, too. Products with eggs, meat, cheese and fish have the most potential threat of hosting bacteria past their ‘sell by’ date; and leafy greens such as spinach and arugula will decompose quickly in the presence of oxygen, increasing the growth of harmful bacteria, says Tripp.

Bad food looks differently.

Watch out for meat with grey coloring; and slimy or shriveled, brown or molten fruits and veggies with bad odors.

Not all pre-made meals are created equal.

Scout out proteins that are roasted or grilled, not fried; vegetables that are clean, as opposed to cooked in butter and oils; and leafy green salads that allow you to add your own dressing, suggests Tripp.

A meal that looks like it’s for one person might actually feed two or three.

Consider serving size. A serving of pasta should be the size of your fist, while one serving of meat (3 ounces) should be the size of your palm, advises Tripp.