For meals that please your doctor and yourself, it’s nearly always cheaper and healthier to make meals at home, and in our family, my husband depends on me to keep us bright-eyed and happy. Sometimes, though, I’m not inclined to cook. For this final Cheap Eats column, I sampled what local stores have to offer, primarily in ready-to-eat and heat-and-serve dishes, but also in hot meals and ingredients.

I consulted a friend who searches regularly for reasons not to cook but still eat at home. In Ann Arbor, he assured me, the options are ridiculously bountiful. Moreover, he reminded me, the drinking is cheaper–no mark-up on liquor–and no one has to leave a tip for the cook or the server.

I assumed Whole Foods–or Whole Paycheck, as many refer to it–wasn’t going to make this list. Unfortunately, and without going into the sound arguments all around, high quality doesn’t come cheap. But the Cranbrook Whole Foods on Eisenhower features a “diner” (open 11 a.m.-9 p.m.) in the middle of the store, with a $6 daily special Monday through Friday, along with a twenty-first-century canteen essential–a mix-and-match grain bowl (choice of grains and beans, protein, and vegetables) for the same price. Featured the day I visited was a hefty, juicy patty melt that highlighted the healthiness, as well as the blandness, of the generous grain bowl. Cold sandwiches and wraps in a neighboring case go for $5.99-$6.99, and a six-inch quiche is $6.99. Reasonable.

Over on W. Stadium is one of Ann Arbor’s original health food stores–Arbor Farms. This locally owned place has a deli section that serves hot soup and makes hot and cold sandwiches to order ($4.99 “small” or regular; $6.99 “large” or overstuffed) as well as entrees, sides, and salads. Alongside it is an enormous wall cooler of packaged, ready-to-eat or -reheat foods: soups ($3.99-$4.99 a pint), cold sandwiches ($3.99-$4.99), side and entree salads ($6.99-$9.99 a pound), and entrees ($5.49-$8.99). Possibilities include the mundane (lots of pastas) and the less common (curry chickpea tempeh wrap), and everything is marked for every dietary restriction imaginable–gluten- or dairy-free, vegetarian or vegan, nuts or no.

For lunch one day, I enjoyed a small turkey Reuben. The things I took home, though, scored a mixed card. Curried French lentil soup ($3.99 a pound) proved a winner, and the oyster stew ($4.29 a pound) was excellent, though it could’ve used another couple of oysters. But the grilled corn and rice side salad ($6.99 a pound) was only OK and the quinoa tabbouleh ($7.99 a pound) flavorless. Heavy on peanuts and light on noodles, the spicy Thai noodles ($6.99 a pound) finished in the middle. The entrees–apricot-mustard glazed chicken ($4.99 a pound) and arroz con pollo ($6.99 a pound)–were nicely flavored if a bit dry.

Arbor Farms offers a couple of nice perks for the budget shopper–an approximate 30 percent discount on day-old baked goods, including those from Zingerman’s Bakehouse and Avalon Bakery, and a 10 percent discount on all food and beverages except beer for seniors (sixty-five and older) on Tuesdays. Not bad.

Farther north on Maple, Plum Market, which often features extraordinary wine prices, also extends a discount on expired sweets and that day’s breads–50 percent after 8 p.m. This discount has a serious following, with people milling about anxiously until the clock strikes the appointed hour, sometimes displaying less than exemplary behavior. (Accidently stumbling on the markdown a year or so ago, I watched a woman plant herself on the floor in front of the table piled high with cakes, brownies, and breads and minutely consider each item before tossing it in her basket or returning it to the table.) Over by the fish department, the day’s packaged sushi also receives the same treatment. An 8:30 p.m. tour on a recent Saturday netted me only a tray of spicy tuna and California rolls, made with brown rice and quinoa ($5.50, with discount) and a couple of brownies and cookies ($1.49-$1.99, with discount). While the sushi, with those whole grains, tasted righteously healthy, the baked goods tasted exactly as their expired dates would indicate.

Turning south to State St., the Produce Station has seriously expanded its understanding of what a produce market is. Besides plants and pots in the summer and vegetables and fruits year round, the relatively small store stocks wine and beer, assorted groceries, meats, fish, and enough take-out meals to rival any place in town. The standard salad bar ($7.99 a pound) lines one wall, flanked by kettles of soup ($4.99 a pound). Across the way, packages of grilled and sliced chicken and cooked meatballs await your own or purchased sauces, and below those sit assorted nine-inch quiches big enough for four ($12.99). Prepared sandwiches and wraps ($5.99-$8.99) and entree salads ($8.99-$10.99) fill another cooler. The range of items is creative and impressive, with the kitchen clearly given opportunity to experiment.

Faced with unexpected guests? The Produce Station offers tapas to mix and match. Six sherry-and-orange marinated jumbo shrimp ($8.99) were delicious if not inexpensive, and white anchovies on grilled tomato-olive compote ($5.99) would be a nice addition to an antipasto platter. Less nice–tasteless, actually–was grilled, flaked salmon with asparagus ($5.99) and a “salad” of chicken, undercooked butternut squash, and spiced walnuts ($8.99 a pound) that needed to be dressed and finished. Hot and cold sides, too, ranged the gamut, with barley and grilled vegetable salad ($5.99 a pound) screaming for seasoning while sesame noodles ($7.99 a pound) satisfied in its simplicity.

I couldn’t begin to choose among the dozen or more entrees–from brined pork chop with pineapple salsa ($10.99) to General Tso’s chicken ($8.99), not to mention renditions of enchiladas, lasagnas, and other pasta dishes nearly everyone carries. I finally tucked the special of the month in my basket–peppercorn pork loin with Oberon sauce ($9.99). Although everyone packages for microwave reheating, even those of us without a microwave can manage, with care, on the stovetop or in the oven, and the pork dinner, garnished with brown rice pilaf and asparagus, proved tasty and comforting later that night.

Another spot with ample takeout is the People’s Food Co-op on Fourth Ave. Besides the de rigueur salad and hot bars ($8.49 a pound), the co-op offers packaged meals ($6.49-$10.49), nine-inch quiches ($9.99), sides ($4.59-$12.99), cold sandwiches ($5.49-$5.99), and soups ($8.49 a quart), most of them organic, GMO-, antibiotic-, and hormone-free, and at competitive prices. A group of us found the individual chicken potpie ($4.99) really delicious, with a flaky crust, generous filling, and savory gravy. The taste and texture of soba noodles with tofu ($7.49 a pound) brought sponges and shredded paper to mind, but the quinoa tabbouleh ($5.99 a pound) was a vast improvement over Arbor Farms’, though even it could still have used more lemon and seasoning. A wheat berry salad with cranberries ($4.59 a pound) was chewy and satisfying, and a side of curried chicken salad ($10.99 a pound) quite nice.

Hold on, there’s more! Out near the airport, Zingerman’s Bakehouse packs a small cooler inside the door with interesting, reasonably sized and priced cold sandwiches ($4.95-$7.95), soups ($5.50 a pint, $8.25 a quart), and entree salads ($6.95). But the real draw is a Hungarian langos retesek or strudel ($5.99). Still warm, my generous portion, stuffed with cabbage braised in goose fat, was fabulous. Next time, I’ve got my eye on the potato with bacon or curried Indian vegetable.

Sparrow Market in Kerrytown also puts up a few cold wraps and sandwiches ($5), small entree salads ($3.99), and side salads ($1.49-$3.99), and the corner kitchen by the cashiers offers generous hot breakfast and lunch sandwiches ($5-$8) as well as more interesting–duck!–salads ($7-$8). The Kourtni ($6)–a grilled fried egg sandwich loaded with bacon, avocado, goat cheese, tomato, and spinach–is exactly the greasy, sloppy mess anyone needs to combat the hangover from an overly ambitious Friday night happy hour (see April issue).

Mexican, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Asian stores offer varied possibilities for judiciously priced meals. (Remember my gold standard–$1 tamales at Dos Hermanos in Ypsi, and on the weekends takeout barbacoa, carnitas, and more). Galleria Asian Market, on Packard, specializing in Korean foods, packages kimchi soup ($4.99 a quart) that will easily and happily fill two people’s bellies, especially if you splurge on some seaweed salad ($6.99 a pound) or other pickled vegetables to accompany it. They also carry ready-made fixings (marinated and cooked beef, prepped and pickled vegetables) for bi bim bab ($5.99)–just add rice and a fried egg and serve.

Across the way, Aladdin’s Market sells loaded individual (meat or vegetable) flatbreads ($1.99) and giant meat or vegetable samosas ($1.75) that are particularly tasty reheated in your oven. A colleague also suggested I try their shawarma ($4) or falafel ($3) sandwiches, offered–usually–at lunch, but not on the days I visited.

Once a well-stocked grocery, Foods of India at Broadway and Maiden Lane has been reduced to a few shelves dotted with dusty odds and ends and the bare necessities to supply a takeout counter called Kitchen of India. A couple of vinyl couches and battered kitchen tables fill one corner, and two men take orders and money, cook, package meals, and wash dishes. While the food isn’t downright cheap, it’s pretty darn reasonable, and what I tasted was delicious–two spicy vegetarian samosas ($2.49); dal makhani (creamy lentil dal, $8.95); cholle bhatura (chick pea masala with fry bread, $8.49); lamb vindaloo ($13.95); and moist, flavorful tandoori chicken with vegetables ($9.95 for four pieces). I’ll be picking up dinner there again.

Finally, if you do like to cook, here are a few stores you should know about. Over on Packard, ZZ’s Produce is a serious hole in the wall, if a freestanding building can be called that. Unheated, packed to the roof, and bare bones, ZZ’s carries groceries and produce from around the world, and often the only language you don’t hear customers speaking is English. You have to shop carefully; produce is often kept way too long. But where else can you find inexpensive pastas from Mexico, Haiti, and Italy, Haitian coconut-cassava bread, green papayas, real yams (not sweet potatoes), fresh banana flowers, and galangal, along with more standard tortillas, dried chilis, zucchini, bananas, avocados, garlic and mushrooms?

Speaking of mushrooms, Way 1 Supermarket in the Plymouth Mall at Nixon is another incredible source for them. From oyster mushrooms to king trumpet, from button to enoki and shiitake, this store carries them all, and at prices that defy belief. All its extensive produce offerings–mostly Asian, but not exclusively–are competitively priced, and I often stock up on pea shoots, English cukes, and interesting fruits when there.

Finally, all serious cooks and bargain shoppers should know By the Pound, the bulk food store in the South Main Market. While the organic purist might prefer to shop the People’s Food Co-op or Whole Foods, others may be pleased to discover the depth and variety of By the Pound’s offerings, including a wall of spices, Michigan-milled flours, teas, imported chocolate, and a slew of dried beans, grains, nuts, dried fruits, and candies–all at hard-to-beat prices. Moreover, the turnover in these bins is quick, so everything is fresh.

After three months of searching for food bargains and cheap eats, our household budget is back in line. And I’ve made a number of new discoveries and rediscovered some forgotten gems among Ann Arbor and Ypsi’s wide-ranging shops, bars, restaurants, and takeout joints. Living here, we enjoy an abundance of food opportunities. But with spring warming the air, asparagus beginning to push up through the dirt, arugula reemerging from the straw, and herbs greening the beds, I’ll be staying home to cook.