Between long work hours and frustrating commutes, there isn't always a lot of time to make healthy meals for your family. Buying prepared food at the supermarket is one option—if you choose carefully. Here are a few guidelines to remember before you take the plunge.

1. Stay fresh. Buy prepared food to eat today or soon after. You want the dish to be as fresh as possible, so plan to store it in the fridge for no more than three or four days, max. (That’s true for leftover prepared meals, too.)

2. Buy prepared food last. When shopping, plan to pick up prepared food last so the cold items stay cold and the hot items stay hot. Buy hot food only if you plan to eat it within 2 hours, making sure to keep it at least at 140° F. Otherwise, it’s better to buy food that needs refrigerating, then reheat it to at least 165° F. No food thermometer? Pick one up so you can make sure your food is cooked and served at safe temperatures.


3. Keep it healthy. The idea is that prepared food is an alternative to cooking at home, so it should contain the kind of ingredients you cook with, such as fresh vegetables and spices, and it shouldn't have a lot of added salt. If something is smothered in gravy or slick with oil, for example, it’s probably not a healthy choice.

4. Get creative. You can stretch prepared food to save money as well as calories, fat, and sodium. For example, serve a prepared side dish from the deli counter over fresh greens from the produce section.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.