When it comes to eating a well-rounded, comforting, and healthy meal on a busy night, you can't beat the Whole Foods hot bar. That said, braving a foot traffic jam with your to-go box full of hot food in tow isn't exactly a relaxing way to end the day. And when all you want to do is to get in and out quickly, you run the risk of impulsively choosing odd combinations of food, or worse, overfilling your plate, and thus, overspending (which we all know is far too easy to do at Whole Foods).
If you know which dishes to look out for and how to fill your plate to save money instead of wasting it, the hot food bar is totally worth it. To simplify and ease your grocery store errand, as well as your dining experience, we made a comprehensive list of the most delicious Whole Foods prepared foods, as well as the tricks to make sure you stay within budget while also feeling satisfied with your dinner.
Stretch Your Dollar
First things first, remember that the hot bar costs $8.99 a pound, so make sure you don't live up the "whole paycheck" joke about Whole Foods while loading up your plate. Most importantly, the box sizes are deceiving. Even if you're feeling super hungry, the smaller box is the way to go if you want to avoid overspending. If you choose the bigger one, you'll likely load it up way more than necessary.
Also, be careful about what you choose, as some dishes are a lot heavier than others and can add up really quickly. For example, even if you only get a few potatoes, you can end up paying into double digits when all is said and done so proceed with caution.
How to Choose Your Foods
When you're filling your box, think about it as a cohesive meal rather than looking at each food item on its own. Often, the various dishes are in sync with each other, so if there's a chicken tiki masala, there will be some curried cauliflower and an Indian-inspired dip. The flavor combinations can get a little iffy when you're mixing your chicken tiki masala with the mac and cheese and the tuna salad.
If you want to pick up enough to feed you for more than one meal, make sure you know the shelf life of each thing you choose since they can vary. Cooked poultry and meat, pizza, casseroles, and fried chicken will last generally three to four days refrigerated. Egg salad, tuna salad, pasta salad, potato salad, and bean salad will last three to five days. Gravies last for one to two days.
If you plan on bringing your food on the go or have some errands between the market and heading home, plan to refrigerate your food within two hours of purchasing.
The Best Hot Foods
Vegetarian Mains: Out of all the vegetarian options, the sweet chili tofu is arguably the best. Even if you do typically eat meat, these tofu cubes are worth trying. Aside from the flavorful sweet chili sauce, they also weigh less than most of the meat options. The eggplant parmesan is also a yummy and popular dish, though it's a lot heavier. The vegetarian marsala is another great option.
Grains: Depending on which location you go to, there are usually a few rice options. Between the veggie fried rice or simple steamed rice (sometimes you'll get lucky and go on a day when there is coconut rice), we'd recommend the latter unless you're only loading up on plain vegetables from the salad bar. The quinoa salad in the cold bar section is also delicious and tends to weigh less.
Pasta: Hands down, the mac and cheese is the best comfort food in the hot food bar lineup, and it's available pretty much every day at most of the locations. If you're looking for something with a protein, we suggest trying the grilled chicken alfredo or the fettuccine with roasted tomatoes for a meat-free option.
Meat-Based Mains: When it comes to the fish options, we'd pick the salmon filet in ginger sauce any day. It hits the spot without being overpowering, and it's a lot healthier than some of the other proteins. But speaking of less healthy proteins, the crispy carnitas are worth it. In terms of what to avoid, we usually steer clear of the beef meatloaf with mushrooms.
Sides: For something filling to round out a simple chicken dinner, the roasted rosemary potatoes are always a good call (just be careful not to pick really large and heavy ones). The sesame peanut noodles are also delicious and taste good with pretty much every veggie dish.