In this new era of “clean eating” and “whole foods,” most of us have come to avoid the grocery aisles that feature dietary demons known as “PROCESSED FOODS.” With good reason, we have been warned away from those foods that I like to say have been… “messed around with.” By that I mean that they have been altered from their original state, heavily modified by processing and additives designed to enhance flavor, convenience and shelf-life, often at the expense of nutritional value. The more ingredients listed on the food label, the more messed with they usually are, especially when many of the ingredients listed are practically unpronounceable.
Not all processed foods are created equal.
But before we steer clear of all processed foods and completely avoid the interior aisles of the supermarket, we need to understand exactly what the term “processed” means, and how to distinguish between harmful and helpful “processing.” Let’s take a package of frozen peas – they were shelled, washed, quick-frozen and bagged. Yes, they were processed, but the nutritional value of the food was not compromised. If you check the food label you won’t find any alien ingredients, just whole food. The benefits of these products come from their flexibility, ease of preparation and the potential reduction of food waste. You can provide nutrient rich foods for your family by using carefully selected, minimally processed foods, without fear of shopping cart shaming. The secret to finding processed foods that are convenient and healthy lies in the artful examination of food labels.
A few food label ingredients to avoid include:
“Gently” processed foods can be a part of a healthy diet.
Now that we have established that not all processed foods are the enemy, here are some examples that can help save time and provide quick, convenient choices for healthy, manageable family meals and snacks.
Canned Beans Fully-cooked canned beans are a convenient, ready-to-eat protein source that can boost the fiber content of your favorite recipes and provide a basis for hearty meatless meals. Serve over brown rice or add to a salad in place of chicken or beef.
Frozen Vegetables and Fruits Frozen foods, like fruits and berries or vegetables, are as nutritious as fresh, and there’s less waste since you can use only what you need and save the rest for other meals or to add to soup at a later date.
Marinara Sauce and Salsa Looking to save time? There are several canned or jarred marinara sauces with minimal ingredients. The same goes for salsa. Keep them on hand with other staples and you can transform them into quick and easy meals.
Nut Butters and Packaged Nuts Keep a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of whole-grain bread on hand and always have a simple meal at your disposal. For snacks, seasoned canned nuts even with added salt are a huge improvement over chips and cookies.
Canned and Frozen Fish Canned tuna and salmon are great sources of protein and thanks to their extended shelf life make excellent staples to have on hand. Frozen fish filets are another hassle-free option for adding more fish to your diet.
Whole-Grain Pasta Looking for a terrific pantry staple? Whole-grain pasta takes less than 20 minutes to prep from start to finish. Top with Italian sauce, toss with garlic, herbs and olive oil for a healthy side or add mayo, fresh veggies and ham or chicken for a quick pasta salad.
Yogurt Sprinkle plain yogurt with granola or add fresh or frozen fruit. If buying yogurt with flavoring or fruit added, check the sugar content and pick varieties that list real fruit ahead of sweeteners. Look for those containing less than 18 grams of sugar per serving.
Bagged Popcorn Many brands of bagged popcorn have just three ingredients: popcorn, oil, and salt. When you’re craving a healthy snack it’s a good alternative to chips and pretzels, but read the label and choose the one with the lowest salt or sodium content.
Hummus If you’re not inclined to make your own hummus, try a commercially available version of this heart-healthy dip. It’s great for dunking vegetables or whole-wheat crackers at snack time and for spreading on sandwiches at lunch.
Individually-Portioned Cheese String cheese, snack-size squares, and mini rounds are perfectly portioned for those who have a hard time sticking to just a few slices. But limit yourself to the recommended serving size on the package.