Eating Clean? 6 Processed Foods You Can Avoid & Easily Make at Home
We may never all agree on just what "eating clean" really means, but if cleansing your diet means you think about your food, learn more about where it comes from and consider how healthy it is for you, that's a good thing.
Start by eating wholesome fruits and vegetables, especially those that are in season. Choose whole grains and whole-grain products over refined ones. Try limiting (but not necessarily eliminating) saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars in your cooking and in the prepared foods you choose.
For many of us, the easiest way to eat clean is to cook at home. While we don't all have time to make everything we eat from scratch, it can be fun (and easy!) to try your hand at making a few of the convenient processed foods you'd usually buy.
What are processed foods? They often come in a box or a jar. They can be high in added sugars, low in fiber and whole grains, processed with sodium, high in fat, or include trans fat and lots of saturated fat.
While snack foods, candy, cookies, and crackers are certainly considered processed foods, "healthy" foods can fall into this category too. Here is a list of six common processed foods that you can easily make a healthier homemade version of:
1. Salad Dressing
Next time you grab a bottle of salad dressing off the shelf, read the ingredients. It may alarm you that something so simple has so many ingredients that you've probably never heard of. Some keep the dressing from spoiling on the shelf while others are used to improve texture. While these ingredients may be harmless, it's easy to avoid them if you make your own dressing at home.
A simple dressing takes no more than 10 minutes to make and is as easy as whisking oil into vinegar and throwing in a few seasonings like garlic powder, Dijon mustard, and minced garlic or shallot. Making your own dressing can help you control calories, too. If you find a recipe you like, double it so you can keep some in your refrigerator to use throughout the week.
Featured Recipe: Honey-Mustard Vinaigrette with Lemon
2. Breakfast Cereal
With more than 100 kinds of cereal in many grocery store aisles, choosing a healthy cereal can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. Some cereals are packed with sugar while others are low in nutrients that you actually want from your cereal, such as fiber and whole grains.
Take the stress out of the search by making your own granola or muesli mix at home. You can pick the ingredients and have control over how much fat, fiber, and sugar goes into your first meal of the day. Both cereal mixes are deliciously served with milk or stirred into creamy yogurt.
Homemade granola holds well, so make a batch on Sunday and you'll be set for the rest of the week. Cost-wise you will get more for your money by making a batch than buying a box of cereal.
Featured Recipe: Maple Granola
3. Canned Soup
It's convenient to have canned soup on hand, but it's high in sodium. While you can get lower-sodium versions, that limits your selection.
Instead of forgoing soup altogether, get out of your soup pot and get cooking. Most soups freeze well, so if you like the convenience of portion control, freeze them in individual serving sizes. Don't have the whole afternoon to spend in your kitchen? Many delicious soups can be made in 30 minutes or less.
Featured Recipe: Vegan Butternut Squash Soup
4. Pasta Sauce
While you may not think of pasta sauce as being "sweet," many jarred pasta sauces have sugar listed as an ingredient. Although it's not a lot of sugar, it certainly isn't necessary.
Another problem with jarred pasta sauce? It's high in sodium. You can do much better at home. You can make a simple sauce by just adding garlic powder and fresh basil to canned no-salt-added crushed tomatoes (look for crushed tomatoes in glass or aseptic packaging if you're worried about BPA) and add a pinch of salt to bump up the flavor. You could also sauté fresh chopped tomatoes and minced garlic in olive oil in a sauté pan until they melt into a nice thick sauce. Either way, you have options. If you make a big batch, you can freeze leftovers for later use.
Featured Recipe: Pressure-Cooker Tomato Sauce
5. Flavored Yogurt
Plain yogurt offers plenty of calcium and probiotics that help with digestion, but not everyone wants to eat plain yogurt by itself. You may be tempted to reach for flavored varieties. The problem here is that flavored yogurt can contain artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners. Even the healthy-sounding "fruit-at-the-bottom" stuff is less than ideal since it can come loaded with sugar, making it more like a dessert than a breakfast food.
The solution? Stir fresh or frozen fruit into plain yogurt. One trick to making it taste sweet without adding sugar is adding a splash of vanilla extract for a confectionary flavor.
Featured Recipe: Greek Yogurt with Strawberries
6. Granola and Energy Bars
Granola bars seem healthy, but if you've ever looked at the nutrition label, you may think otherwise. Sure, they may have grains and nuts, but they also tend to be loaded with sugar and aren't always full of whole grains.
There is no reason to cut them out of your life completely, though: you can make them at home cheaply and with less sugar than what you might find in a boxed version. Plus, controlling the ingredients means you get to add plenty of healthy mix-ins like nuts, seeds, and dried fruit.
Featured Recipe: Cranberry-Almond Granola Bars