16 Packaged Foods You Can Feel Good About Eating
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, we asked registered dietitians (RDs) to share their favorite packaged foods—from mealtime shortcuts to easy snacks—and what to look for to snag the healthiest choices. So go ahead and make your life a little easier!
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:
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:
Frozen Veggie Burgers
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:
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:
In addition to dried pasta, frozen or refrigerated ravioli is another great option. "Ready-made ravioli is a quick, easy way to get restaurant-worthy results with way more control over sodium and calories," says Los Angeles-based dietitian Patricia Bannan, M.S., RDN, author of Eat Right When Time Is Tight. You can also make as much or as little as you'd like depending on how many people you're serving, and ravioli cooks really fast. To make your dinner complete, toss in veggies, such as spinach, zucchini and fresh tomatoes, and top with store-bought marinara or pesto sauce (look for low-sodium options with minimal or no added sugar).
Flavored Nut Butter
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. "When you're looking for something a little indulgent, flavored nut butter can hit the spot with very little added sugar." says Connecticut-based nutritionist Amy Gorin, M.S., RDN. Her favorite is a salted caramel cashew butter, which has just 2 grams of added sugar per serving. (Compare that to Nutella, which packs a whopping 19 grams.) As a bonus, you'll nail 4 grams of protein. Shop for butters with minimal ingredients, such as nuts, cane sugar and sea salt. Spread on apple or pear slices or swirl into oatmeal or Greek yogurt.
Pictured recipe: Chocolate-Peanut Butter Energy Bars
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:
Related: 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. Beans are known for their blood pressure- and cholesterol-lowering effects. And they're an excellent source of fiber (around 9 grams in a 1/2-cup serving) and protein. But only 8% of Americans eat them daily.
Rinse canned beans 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. Or, if you're looking for seasoned beans, try canned chili beans. Cooked, spiced and sauced, these tasty, heat-and-eat legumes are a great side dish that makes getting your bean fix a breeze.
Frozen Fruits & Vegetables
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.
One frozen veggie that's worth keeping in the freezer: frozen french fries. A serving of frozen fries (regular or sweet potato) delivers roughly 10% of your daily potassium—a mineral that helps balance blood pressure. Opt for ones made with heart-friendly unsaturated fats like canola, sunflower or safflower oils, and cook them in the oven or air fryer.
Related: 24 Easy Frozen Vegetable Recipes
Pictured recipe: Raspberry Yogurt Cereal Bowl
"Fortified breakfast cereal is a budget-friendly, no-fuss way to get a lot of important nutrients," says Bannan. People who regularly consume ready-to-eat cereal rack up more fiber, B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc than those who don't have it as often. Choose boxes with at least 3 grams of fiber and no more than 6 grams of added sugar per serving.
Whole-grain Frozen Waffles
Pictured recipe: Waffle with Spinach, Tomato & Feta
No need to save waffles for the weekend! Whole-grain, high-protein varieties can help you stay surprisingly full thanks to a combo of fiber, egg whites and soy, wheat or whey protein. Aim for those with at least 8 grams of protein per serving, says Cara Harbstreet, M.S., RD, owner of Street Smart Nutrition in Kansas City, Missouri. Compare labels and opt for lower-sugar versions to save room for a drizzle of syrup or other toppings.
Pictured recipe: Chocolate-Hazelnut Iced Coffee
Surprised? We were too. But Harbstreet notes that flavored creamer can jazz up coffee and make it feel special—and fully enjoying what you eat can be just as important as the nutrients it contains. "Healthy foods aren't just about nutrition," she says. "Food provides mental and emotional benefits, like recreating the taste of your favorite coffee-shop latte." Look for brands containing only milk, cream, sugar and natural flavors (and lactase if you're lactose intolerant). And stick to a small splash.
With 10 grams of protein and only 80 calories per ounce, beef jerky is a satisfying low-cal snack. "While it's delicious straight from the bag, I also like to add it to savory trail mixes or in place of bacon bits in salad," says Harbstreet. But choose wisely—look for brands with less than 300 mg sodium and no added sugar or nitrates.
Pictured recipe: Bell Pepper, Bok Choy & Pork Stir-Fry
"It can add loads of flavor to veggies without having to take the time to stir together a ton of different ingredients," says Gorin. "Many are high in salt, so I tend to thin them out with low-sodium vegetable broth or water." Or look for reduced-sodium versions. Also good to know: some contain shellfish and gluten, so scrutinize the ingredient list if allergies are a concern or if you're vegan or vegetarian.
Bagged Prepopped Cheddar Popcorn
Bring on the cheesy goodness! Some shopping pointers: Opt for bagged popcorn made with unsaturated sunflower oil and real Cheddar cheese and milk and no artificial colors. Why the prepopped stuff? Because some microwave corns are bathed in palm oil, delivering up to 6 grams of saturated fat per serving (that's almost half the daily maximum recommended by the American Heart Association) and often loads of salt too.
Canned Veggie Soup
Pictured recipe: Hearty Tomato Soup with Beans & Greens
When you can't find the motivation to cook—or haven't had a chance to grocery shop—opening a can or box of veggie-based soup can be an easy way to squeeze in produce. "Go for those with less than 350 milligrams of sodium per serving and at least 4 grams of fiber to keep you satisfied," says Bannan. Top soup picks include low-sodium lentil, butternut squash, black bean and minestrone.
Pictured recipe: Meatball & Creamed Spinach Skillet
Frozen meatballs are a no-brainer way to pump up pasta's protein. Go for varieties seasoned with herbs and spices for great flavor, and skip those containing added caramel color and preservatives like BHA. For a heart-healthier option, pick chicken, turkey or plant-based meatballs over beef and pork, which can contain nearly half your daily allowance of saturated fat.
What to Look for on the Package
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.
Watch: How to Make 25-Minute Tortellini Primavera
Parts of this article originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine, December 2021.