Dining Deals

Taste-Testing Cheap Eats at Whole Foods

There's a reason that Whole Foods has earned the nickname "Whole Paycheck" over the years. The grocery store, which emphasizes health foods and organic produce, tends to land squarely on the pricey side of the grocery store spectrum. Even with the introduction of its own line of packaged foods and household items, you're still far more likely to find Muffy and Chaz shopping in your local Whole Foods than the average Joe.

But with the recession now in full suck mode, it appears that the stores have taken additional steps to make their food friendlier on the wallet. You'll notice that your local Whole Foods now has a case in their prepared foods section featuring a wide and very appetizing variety of lunch items for less than $5.

While the foods offered in the case -- mini pizzas, personal-size chicken or veggie pot pies, wraps, sandwiches, salads and even a healthy version of a Lunchable with crackers, cheese, meat and fruit -- look good, we wondered: Do they taste good too?

We tried a random sampling of foods in the case on two separate days. And while Whole Foods still has that obnoxious policy of not allowing photographs inside their stores, we managed to do a little undercover work and get some shots off anyway.

First up was a $4.79 falafel wrap that was extremely heavy and worryingly dense. Despite initial misgivings, the wrap was hearty instead of heavy and had a surprising amount of vegetables tucked inside with the falafel halves. The crunch and spice from red onions and cucumber made for a refreshing lunch. Next up was a tub of black bean salad with onions, bell peppers and cilantro for $3.79 that would have easily fed two people. Perhaps too heavy on the black beans, it was nevertheless a good summer snack.

We also tried a mezze salad for just under $5 that was the best of all the entrees, with generous portions of hummus, tabbouleh, several dolmades and some triangles of pita bread. The only drawback was the moisture inside the plastic box that had gotten to the pita bread, which was sadly soggy.

Sides are also on offer, ranging from mango-cucumber salads and beet-mandarin orange salads to cups of cubed cheese. Far better than grabbing a bag of chips. If you're still hungry, however, you can always grab a dessert for one out of the dessert case located directly -- and cunningly -- next to the $5 case. Our favorite is the plump, pert, fruit-filled $2.99 strawberry shortcake.

While Whole Foods may still be too expensive in other areas, the constantly rotating and always fresh $5 lunch case is giving Subway and its $5 Footlong a serious run for their money.

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Katharine Shilcutt