You're stuck at the office, with a very limited amount of time before your next meeting starts. Your stomach growls and panic ensues. You have time to run out, grab something fast, and, more than likely, it's not awesome. But if a grocery store with a hot and prepared foods bar is nearby, you could be closer to a steamy, delicious, and not-so-sad fast food lunch in minutes. We're talking sides, salads, subs, pizza, and proteins. It's a great alternative to fast food or vending machine snacks.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic may have temporarily jeopardized them, the hot and prepared foods bars at many local and regional grocery stores are here to stay, and some of them have really, truly, scrumptious offerings for your lunch, dinner, and in-between needs. Whether they're self-serve, deli-centric, include actual salads, or are just rows of different flavors of hot wings, here are some of our favorites, ranked from best to worst.
Read more: 13 Most Affordable Grocery Stores In 2023
Don't get us wrong, Food Lion isn't necessarily bad, it's just not the best of the best when it comes to hot food items, hence earning the last spot on our list. This grocery store's offerings tend to veer to the budget-friendly and cheap side, and items on the hot bar stay in the realm of basic, at best.
Located predominantly on the East Coast and within the Southeast, Food Lion store setups tend to vary, but many have hot wing and Asian food bars at the least like a newer location just opened in Little River, South Carolina. In contrast, online reviews decry older stores whose setups do not include even a salad bar for quick grab-and-go offerings, so, this may not be the best spot to grab your lunch. Additionally, despite newer revamped spots, many Reddit users cite old, outdated-looking Food Lion locations as a less-than-welcoming atmosphere in which to peruse the hot food offerings. Desperate lunches, though, call for desperate measures.
It may be surprising, but Costco does, indeed, have an albeit limited selection of hot food items, including the absolutely legendary $1.50 hot dog within its food court. Prices are, naturally, low for hot food items here, which is perhaps not a surprise for the grocery in which we can buy pants, tires, and a year's supply of toilet paper along with steak.
The quality of said hot food items is arguably around the same as the cafeteria you frequented in college. Pizza is offered by the slice and is mediocre at best. There's a Chicken Bake, which consists of chicken, bacon, onions, and cheese tightly wrapped in a cocoon of pizza dough -- an unholy Hot Pocket if you will -- for only $3.99. There's also a rotisserie chicken Caesar salad -- arguably the healthiest item here -- for $6.99. It's pretty easy, given all this, the ranking second to last on our list. All of these items are about on the same level as a fast food restaurant; yummy, but maybe not the best quality choice.
Kroger isn't quite as upscale as others on the list, but it is the largest grocer in the United States, making it the preferred store for millions. According to local news reports, Kroger has been actively making moves to up its hot food game by offering more hot food items -- including adding in national chains like Hardee's and Saladworks via a food court concept. Customers can stop in, order from a kiosk, and choose meals from multiple concepts. It has also recently expanded meal kit offerings, not unlike a Blue Apron or HelloFresh, with customizable meals and seasonings on ready-to-cook items for those looking for a healthier option.
But when it comes to the actual hot food line -- the dishes you can pile in a takeout container, weigh, and eat in your car -- Kroger isn't really breaking the mold, hence the ranking on our list. There's brisket, fried chicken, assorted roasted vegetables, and Asian offerings at most stores. The quality is decent, depending on location, but there doesn't seem to be anything extraordinary. Plus, some stores still are not allowing serve-yourself models.
No, we don't mean the Lowe's where your dog is welcome and light fixtures have their own aisle. Started in North Carolina, Lowe's veers to the specialty and gourmet side of grocery shopping, with local stores offering innovative concepts wrapped within the usual grocery sections.
Online reviews for this regional grocery store are overwhelmingly positive, with many comparing the concept to Whole Foods Market. One of the most popular sections seems to be the Chicken Kitchen, which dishes up freshly fried birds with a choice of traditional sides (think potato salad, greens, and even stewed apples).
And while there is a salad bar with the usual assortment, there seems to be a lack of a spot for your typical buildable hot food fare, hence our ranking here. If you aren't into chicken, well, you're a bit out of luck. With the rest of the items in this store seemingly great, and a Beer Den available for walking around with a brewski, we're missing the opportunity to build a hot, delicious meal on our own.
This southeastern grocery store got its start right outside Asheville, North Carolina. Though this grocery store has a lot going for it, it does lack many options for your hot and prepared foods lunch, thus its spot at No. 11 on our list. There's, of course, the old standby rotisserie chicken, a made-to-order deli area, and in some stores, an Asian hot foods area (although you'll be served; this is not a make-you-own station), and not much else.
Hot bar items are extremely basic here but do constitute a decent value at around $6.99 per pound. We found wings in several varieties, a few Italian items like lasagna, baked ziti, and sausage, and fried chicken and fixings like potatoes, green beans, and cornbread. An unexpected standout at Ingles is the olive and antipasto bar, which boasts multiple varieties of briny snacks plus marinated and pickled vegetables, mozzarella salads, and even stuffed grape leaves.
Sprouts Farmers Market
Focused on fresh, organic, and locally sourced produce, Sprouts may have more hot and prepared foods for those of us on the hunt for healthier meals or for those of us adhering to a plant-based lifestyle. Located mainly in the Southern U.S., Sprouts has a similar vibe to Whole Foods Market, and adheres to the farmers market style, with walls of beautiful produce and an absolutely stocked salad bar area.
Here, you'll find a massive assortment of lettuces, vegetables, toppings, proteins, and mix-ins for your grab-and-go meal, with most Sprouts stores offering hot bar and salad bar options for $7.99 to $8.99 per pound. The catch, though, is that while there are hot prepackaged and pre-portioned items like macaroni and cheese or the odd potato dish, most of the bulk and build-it-yourself sides are cold and plant-based, so our ranking really has to do with those of us wanting something a bit meatier for lunch. Several stores also offer freshly-made juice bars and on-the-spot sushi, but if you are craving something like meat and three for lunch, you may be out of luck.
Bristol Farms is probably the fanciest grocer with hot food items on our list, so if money is no object for your hot food lunch, this will be your new favorite spot. But, for most of us, the price tags on Bristol Farms' hot food items are a little tough to swallow -- no pun intended -- hence its mid-level spot on our list.
Frequented by celebrities and based exclusively in California, Bristol Farms bills itself as a gourmet and natural foods grocer; so you can imagine that the hot food offerings are going to be quite good. Poke bowls are available and, as to be expected, pretty delicious. Other out-of-the-ordinary offerings include smoked-on-site brisket and Hatch chili items (when in season), Thanksgiving turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy, and THE COOKIE, described as a large bittersweet chocolate studded confection with walnuts clocking in at only $3.95. Like Kroger, a few Bristol Farms locations also offer a food court with freshly made items, but, again, expect to pay top dollar.
Described by several Reddit users as the Disney World of grocery stores, which, honestly, sounds a little off-putting, Stew Leonard's has a swath of prepared foods and creepy animatronics. So, if you're in the Northeast and looking for a place to either entertain or frighten your kids while grabbing some hot food, look no further than this Connecticut-based grocer.
Kidding aside, although the store feels a little gimmicky (and has a follow-the-path layout), there is a wide variety of hot food items to be had, including freshly made, warm doughnuts. Though not exactly a nutrition powerhouse, there's something to be said for a freshly made doughnut in the morning. It's a very middle-of-the-line hot foods spot in terms of quality, price, and variety, so we've granted it the eighth position in our roundup.
Aside from the bakery, customers love being able to check their local Stew Leonard's buffet and hot food offerings before heading out to the store. Hot food offerings are described as very good quality but do range on the basic side. Wings, calzones, roasted vegetables, and pasta are not in short supply; more vegan and ethnic dishes seem to be lacking. There are a few locations with farm animals outside to pet, though, and that deserves a mention.
Shopping is a pleasure at Publix, and it turns out the hot food bar's eating options are, too. Publix features regional fare like stewed greens and macaroni & cheese alongside more diverse dishes like house fried rice, bourbon chicken, and lo mein. In addition to the hot food bar and buffet, there's pizza and fresh-made subs -- Pub Subs, to be specific -- with somewhat of a cult following thanks to house-baked bread and Boar's Head meats and cheeses. Those, alone, help it gain a spot in seventh on our list.
We simply must mention the chicken tenders of Publix. A quick Google search reveals love letters, poems, and everyday folks waxing poetic about the perfection of these simple breaded and fried handhelds. Available both at the deli to be made into a Pub Sub and on the hot bar for an a la carte meal, the chicken tenders are described as perfectly breaded, crispy on the outside, and juicy on the inside. Last but certainly not least, if you do head to Publix for lunch, keep in mind that the bakery folks will give you a free cookie -- the perfect ending for your hot lunch -- if you ask.
Operating stores from Delaware to as far south as Florida on the East Coast, Harris Teeter hosts a hot food bar nestled in between specialty cheeses and farm-fresh produce. Owned and operated by the Kroger brand since 2014, the mainly Southeast grocer tends to be a bit on the pricier side for fairly unimaginative hot food items; clocking in at about $8 to $9 per pound.
For the price, hot food offerings are a bit limited; no vegan dal or stuffed mushrooms here. Most stores are split into hot bar sections that rotate items daily or weekly: Americanized offerings like sticky sweet ribs, juicy fried chicken, and sautéed greens; pan-Asian items like egg rolls, fried rice, and sesame chicken; and a salad bar with fresh produce and pre-made concoctions. There is freshly made pizza, offered hot and by the slice, too.
Many Tripadvisor reviewers mention specials at local stores, like Prime Rib Night and Taco Tuesdays. So, if you're a picky eater when it comes to hot food and do appreciate the basics, HT is for you; a sound choice for sixth on our list.
The Fresh Market
Smoked in-house barbecue, brick oven pizzas, and more are all available as easy-grab hot food items at this specialty grocer. If you've never visited a Fresh Market -- based up and down the East Coast and founded in Greensboro, North Carolina -- think of it as if Publix and Whole Foods Market had a baby. The grocer has an upscale, specialty feel, wonderful store brand items, and a wide selection of options for hot meals, thus it's ranking as fifth on our list.
On the hot food line, barbecue is a specialty thanks to the grocer's Carolina roots, but the customizable burrito bowls and wraps are a unique find for a grocery store hot lunch. Buildable like those we've come to love a la Chipotle, Qdoba, or Moe's, guests can choose from chicken, carnitas, beef, or veggies complete with beans, rice, freshly made salsas, and other accouterments. In terms of bang for your buck, prices do tend to be a bit higher at The Fresh Market, but weekly deals -- like the Little Big Meals which change weekly -- offer discounts on high-quality heat-and-eat meals.
This Texas-based grocery store boasts more than 380 locations in the Lone Star State and Mexico. So, if you're outside the bubble, you're out of luck. H-E-B, named for Howard E. Butt (yes, really), may have the most rabid fans among our roundup of grocery stores, and it seems to be for good reason.
First, in the hot and prepared foods department, you have freshly made flour tortillas – still warm and ready to be stuffed with whatever your heart desires. You can grab 20 for about $5. Second, the store offers something called the Flaming Bird; a heavily spiced Texas-sized helping of rotisserie chicken, shredded and offered in bowls topped with fresh pico, cheese, and sauce. If that's not a solid hot lunch option, we don't know what is. The addition of these regional specialties and a wide variety of options at a moderate price earn it the fourth spot.
Several locations also boast the addition of food courts, with freshly smoked Texas barbecue and sushi. Pro tip: Ask for samples. You could fill up on those, alone. Everything's bigger in Texas.
A staple of the Northeast, ShopRite stores are located in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, and are perhaps most famous for the Can-Can sale, the jingle that still lives on in long-since dormant areas of our brains. But aside from low prices on tinned pantry items, this grocer features a wide array of hot food fare from wings, fries, and cheesesteaks to Italian standbys like lasagna and stuffed pasta to Asian offerings like lo mein and fried rice.
Stores can vary pretty wildly, but newly renovated versions boast made-to-order hot offerings, like bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches (with options for pork roll if you're a born-and-bred New Jersey native), Kosher and Halal hot food areas, and in-store cafes to sit and enjoy your meal if you're pressed for time.
Interestingly, many ShopRite stores have an on-site dietitian, ready to help guide you through a healthy, filling meal. So, if healthy eating and planning is a goal -- especially during your usual lunch rush -- ShopRite is a solid option. Even though offerings may be a little basic, the ease of shopping here for a variety of eating styles and habits makes it an easy third in our roundup.
Whole Foods Market
Generally hailed as the shining beacon of ready-to-eat foods, Whole Foods Market's hot and prepared foods bar offers everything from chicken tikka masala to steamed greens to fried tofu, rotating daily and offering something for everyone; earning it a spot at No. 2 on our list. Plus, if you're familiar with Whole Foods, you know that the grocer bans more than 260 preservatives, flavors, colors, sweeteners, and other ingredients and is the only certified organic grocery store in the country. So, suffice it to say that you can feel reasonably good about whatever you choose.
Local Whole Foods Markets frequently hosts its own hot food specials. There are Taco Tuesdays, Meatless Mondays, and more, depending on locations. If you become enough of a Whole Foods Market hot bar aficionado, you, too, can pinpoint what days and times your favorite meals are being served.
So what's a not-to-be-missed dish on the Whole Foods Market lineup? The Vegan Spinach Dal is rich, luscious, and beloved by vegans and omnivores alike. Achiote Pork and Barbecue Pork come in second and third, but we'd encourage you to try a variety and pick your favorite.
If you've never been to a Wegman's, consider this your sign to put it on your to-do list. Located mainly in the Northeast -- with a few stores over the Mason-Dixon line -- Wegman's started in 1916 in a pushcart and has quickly become a beloved spot for specialty groceries and prepared foods.
Reigning favorites found within Wegman's Market Cafe include the house-made pizzas and the fresh sushi, but nearly everything is lauded as high quality, delicious, and moderately priced; earning Wegman's the No. 1 spot on our list. A favorite, the Wegman's hot pizzas can be purchased whole or by the slice and run the gamut from basic Margherita to Buffalo chicken to mushroom and truffle, depending on location. Sushi at Wegman's, too, is not only praised for its high quality, but it's also not going to cost you as much as, say, Whole Foods Market.
And one of the best parts of shopping at Wegman's? You can use your lunch break to shop while you dine. Eating and drinking while perusing the store's offerings is allowed and encouraged. No wonder it's rated one of the top places to work.
Read the original article on Tasting Table.