Pictured Recipe: Sweet Potato, Corn & Black Bean Hash
The momentum behind the movement to eat more whole foods and fewer processed foods is stronger than ever. That's a good thing in most ways, but sometimes you need something quick and convenient. Enter: packaged foods.
Of course, the majority of your diet should still be made up of real, whole foods—think vegetables, fruits, whole grains, proteins. Packaged foods get a bad rap for their long ingredient lists, trans fats and sodium, but not all packaged foods are created equal. More healthful options are available today than just a few years ago, thanks in large part to health-minded consumers who value quality but also need convenience.
Here, your guide to buying packaged foods you can feel good about feeding your family, plus six categories (and product recommendations) that are worthy of your fridge, freezer and pantry space.
Keep Reading: Is Canned Food Healthy?
Pictured Recipe: BLATs (Bacon-Lettuce-Avocado-Tomato Sandwiches)
The bread aisle has come a long way in the last 10 years. More whole-wheat options, which deliver a good dose of fiber (a nutrient most Americans don't get enough of), are available today. However, even some wheat breads have long ingredient lists and hidden sodium and sugar.
Here are two high-fiber breads with ingredients you can pronounce and trust:
Want to bake your own bread? Check out these healthy bread recipes you can easily make at home.
Pictured Recipe: Clean-Eating Bento Box Lunch
The cracker aisle is overwhelming, to say the least, and often, you'll find that the best crackers aren't in the cracker aisle at all, but are instead in the "health-food" aisle.
As with breads, look for crackers high in fiber and protein and low in sugar and sodium. Aim for at least 3 grams of fiber per serving, and check out the serving size, too. Do you need to eat a dozen crackers to get 3 grams of fiber or can you get it with only five? Get more bang for your fiber buck with the smaller serving size.
Here are three brands that will fill you up:
Pictured Recipe: Veggie Burger Hash
Making your own veggie burger is great, but sometimes you need something quick. When you're shopping for frozen veggie burgers, it's really important to look for an option that's made with real food ingredients because some are loaded with fillers to make them less expensive. Start with these options:
Make Your Own: Quinoa Veggie Burger
Pictured Recipe: Slow Cooker Pasta e Fagioli Soup
Move over, wheat pasta. We still love you, but the pasta aisle is booming with non-wheat alternatives made from lentils, black beans and chickpeas. These pastas are a godsend for those who can't tolerate wheat, and for the rest of us, they offer variety when it comes to better-for-you pasta.
Whole-wheat pastas are still a healthful option, but bean-based pastas pack twice the protein (most have at least 14 grams per 2-ounce serving) and about 8 grams of fiber. Start with these brands to find your favorite:
Tolerant Simply Legumes (bean- and lentil-based)
Explore Cuisine (edamame-based)
Try These: Pasta Recipes—and use a pasta alternative.
Pictured Recipe: Chai Peanut Butter
Don't be afraid of the fat in nuts and nut butters. Most of it is polyunsaturated and monounsaturated, which is good for your heart and brain. Steer clear of products with trans fats and added sugars, however. Your best options are those with two ingredients: nuts, salt. Even better, skip the salt. These brands get the thumbs-up:
Whole Foods' grind-your-own nut butters
Try These: Make-Your-Own Nut Butters
Pictured Recipe: Almond-Honey Power Bar
It seems as if there's a new bar on the market every week. No wonder there is so much confusion around which are best. In general, the better-for-you bars are found in the "health-food" aisle, not the breakfast or snack aisles.
Like most foods on this list, the fewer the ingredients the better. Aim to keep fiber and protein high (at least 3 to 5 grams per serving) and sugar and saturated fat low. Be sure to check where the sugar is coming from: While some bars have 15 to 20 grams of sugar, the sugar might be coming from dried fruit so there's also vitamins and fiber. On the other hand, a bar that is very low in sugar could have artificial sweeteners to compensate. Think about making your own bars at home, or choosing a store-bought one made with ingredients you would use at home.
Here are the closest-to-real-food bars:
Try These: Healthy Homemade Granola Recipes
Pictured Recipe: Ancho Chicken Breast with Black Beans, Bell Peppers & Scallions
Canned beans are one of the most affordable, good-for-you packaged foods. Simply rinse them in a colander before cooking or serving, and you'll wash away the extra salt. You can also buy low-sodium beans, but still give them a rinse just to remove unnecessary sodium.
Once you mix canned beans into a dish, you won't be able to tell they were lower in salt to begin with. All beans are packed with protein and fiber, so mix it up. Chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans and navy beans are some of our favorites.
Try These: Healthy Bean Recipes
Pictured Recipe: Chicken & Sun-Dried Tomato Orzo
Frozen fruits and vegetables are a terrific time-saver. They make quick sides, slip easily into stir-fries, and add a boost of vitamins and minerals to smoothies, soups and salads. They're also sometimes more nutritious than the fresh variety that's been languishing in the cooler for days (or weeks), since they are frozen at peak freshness.
The ingredient list for packaged frozen produce should be short, with just the fruit or vegetable. If you see any added salt, sugar, syrups or flavorings, put it back. Pure is best.
Whether it's packaged in a box or a bag makes no difference, but make sure the fruit or vegetables aren't frozen into a lump. That's a sign that it may have thawed and refrozen, and the food may have lost some vital nutrients during that process.
Try These: Easy Recipes for Frozen Fruit and Vegetables
Pictured Recipe: Quick Stovetop Mac & Cheese with Peas
No matter which type of packaged foods you're buying, you should watch out for and avoid certain ingredients or diet-busters. Check these carefully:
Ingredients list: The shorter, the better. Look for ingredients that are real food (e.g., dates, cashews or black beans) and fewer processed ingredients (cane syrup, dehydrated potato flakes and partially defatted peanuts).
Sodium: This one is often hidden in seemingly healthy packaged foods. Look at the percent daily value on the nutrition label. Less than 5 percent is considered low. Greater than 20 percent is considered high. Try to stay under 2,300 milligrams of sodium for the whole day.
Trans fats: Companies have eliminated most trans fats from packaged foods—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration now bans most uses—but, if you want to be extra cautious, make sure there's no "partially hydrogenated oil" in the ingredients list.
Added sugar: Packaged foods can be sneaky sources of added sugar. Check the nutrition label for total sugar and added sugar numbers. Naturally occurring sugar from lactose or fruit isn't the problem. Instead, it's the heaps of sweeteners that may be added to boost flavor. The U.S Dietary Guidelines recommend no more than 10 percent of your daily calories come from added sugar. That's just 37.5 grams for men and 25 grams for women. Ideally, you'd avoid any added sugar, but when that's impossible, stay well below these daily limits.