When you’re hungry and in search of a wholesome meal ASAP, there’s nothing better than the prepared foods section at Whole Foods. Your to-go box is a blank canvas, just waiting to be filled with your singular vision for lunch or dinner. Metal tongs are your paintbrush as you create your masterpiece, be it composed of just one dish or an eclectic variety of meats, noodles, salads, and slaws.

While there’s really no wrong way to assemble your meal from the trays upon trays of options, I thought it might be interesting to seek the insight of experts. So I visited five different Whole Foods stores and chatted with thirteen employees about their favorite prepared foods.

It should be noted that the salad and hot bars are constantly evolving due to ingredient availability. While you may not always be able to find the items highlighted below, my sources tell me that this first one is usually available in one form or another . . .

1. Mac and cheese

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““I hear the macaroni and cheese is really good.”

“Everyone loves the mac and cheese.”

“It’s pretty killer.”

Out of the thirteen employees that I spoke with, eight mentioned the mac and cheese. One gentleman told me that the special guest ingredients have run the gamut from bacon to bleu cheese. But during most of my visits, the featured mac and cheese was baked with charred tomatoes and jalapeños. Despite the peppers, one of the cashiers assured me, “It’s not hot—just real fresh and good.”

Another cashier loves the mac and cheese but has one gripe about it: “It’s expensive. Do you know it’s like $7.99 a pound?! It’s delicious, but I keep away from that.”

I told her that my strategy to keep my grand total under $10 was to fill my to-go container with a lot of leaves. To that, she said, “I refuse. I mean it’s good for you. But I am not a goat when I’m hungry.” Amen.

2. Yucca fries

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A man purveying samples of protein bars had good things to say about the yucca fries, an opinion that would later be seconded by the cashier at this same location. Not having experienced a yucca fry before, I had to try this one for myself. My verdict? Looks like a mozzarella stick, tastes like a steak fry. Will 100% eat again.

3. Tofu nuggets

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When I asked a man working at the growler station about his favorite dish, he answered, “To be honest . . . I like the vegan tofu nuggets. For some reason—I don’t know.” He went on to tell me that while he’s not vegan and in fact eats a lot of meat, he enjoys the flavor and texture of the nuggets. Further recon taught me that there were actually a couple different tofu nuggets for sale that day, seasoned with either za’atar or sweet chili.

4. Chicken wings

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While the thought of Whole Foods doesn’t conjure visions of chicken wings in my head, it turns out that you can always find a variety of wings in the hot bar at any given time. Across my five store visits, three different flavors were recommended to me: buffalo, Mandarin sweet and sour, and sweet chili.

5. Chicken fingers

Two employees at different stores told me that the chicken fingers top their go-to lists. In fact, one cashier told me they were the only prepared food item she liked. “There’s not too much flavor; that’s why I like it. I don’t like a lot of seasoning.”

6. Even more chicken!

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But if you like your chicken on the spicier side, the options abound. Some poultry-centric recommendations included BBQ chicken, grilled Caesar chicken, jerk chicken, and tequila lime chicken, which I was assured wasn’t prepared with an excess of alcohol and wouldn’t send me back to work tipsy.

7. Fish in Ginger Sauce

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When I asked a cashier on Houston Street about her favorite hot bar item, she named this dish without delay. While she wasn’t sure exactly what type of fish it was, she described it as “some kind of light fillet.”

8.  Mochi

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Don’t forget dessert! Starting earlier this year, Whole Foods has been introducing this Japanese sweet to their stores, sold at $2 per unit. “They’re pretty good,” one employee told me. “The texture is kind of like a marshmallow and then in the middle is ice cream.” While her favorite flavors are strawberry and cookies and cream, other flavors range from vanilla to mango to matcha green tea.

9. Honorable mentions

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In my opinion, some of the Whole Foods salads and slaws make eating your veggies about as zesty as possible. But when I asked employees about their favorite foods, the greens just didn’t rise to the top of their lists on a consistent basis. However, there were a few veggies that were mentioned at least once, and I’d like to acknowledge them at this time. To spinach, broccoli, kale Caesar salad, curried cauliflower, and summer corn risotto—thank you for playing, and keep up the good fight. You may not be as drool-worthy as mac and cheese, but you do weigh less, and thus, cost less. And if only for that reason, you’ll always have a place in my to-go box.

— Head photo: Flickr.

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