Packaged foods often make life easier, when there’s little time or energy to cook. But while you may be beating the clock with getting food on the table at home (or in your cube for lunch at work), you’re likely side-stepping healthier eating. According to the American Heart Association, almost 70 percent of the typical American diet comes from processed and restaurant foods.
So, is there a way to eat healthier by including more fresh foods on your table, but still turn to some of those convenience foods in a pinch? The answer is yes. Fresh is always best, but some bagged, canned, and frozen fruits and veggies can be affordable, nutritious alternatives, if they’re packed at peak freshness without sky-high salt, sugar, and preservatives.
These tips will help you make healthier choices, while still including some foods of convenience:
Skip the sauces, salt, and sugar. Frozen or pre-made meals (like frozen pizza and microwaveable lunches or dinner) are known for higher salt and sugar content to boost flavor. If you choose pre-made (once in a while only!), choose lighter, low-fat, low- or-reduced sodium (salt) versions. As for canned fruits or veggies, you can rinse the salt away, or choose those packed only in water. Saying no to pre-made sauces or added butter will give you more creative (and caloric!) control over what you might add to enhance the dish at home. And skip bottled salad dressing; why opt for pre-made when you can make your own?
Read (and compare) nutrition labels carefully. Look for the lowest (or no) “bad” fats; saturated fat (1 g or less per standard serving size and just 15 percent calories from saturated fat), and trans fats (less than 0.5 per label serving size and standard serving size). Always check for “added” sugar and salt. Keep track of how much sodium you eat per day. (You should total no more than 2,300 mg of sodium daily, but certain conditions may dictate that you stay under that amount; check with your doctor.) Look for the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark as a guideline.
Be a soup sleuth. Even clear, broth-based canned soups with veggies may look healthy, but many are extremely high in salt! Look for “low-sodium” options. Want more flavor? A pinch of favorite herbs or red pepper flakes might do the trick. Better yet, make soup at home and season it carefully. A hearty pot of soup can do double duty for dinner and lunch the next day. It also freezes well.
Eating out? Dine smart. Pre-check the menu for lighter choices, or ask your server. Opt for clear-not-creamy salad dressings on the side. Ask to substitute a starch for another vegetable. The same goes for swapping out a white flour bun for something whole grain (or trying a lettuce “wrap” in its place!).
Shop the produce sections more (and try to avoid the inner aisles where so many processed foods beckon). You can’t beat fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables for flavor and creative cooking possibilities. But if you do use bagged, bottled, canned, or frozen foods from time to time, just be smart about what you choose and when!
By Lisa Miceli Feliciano