3 Ways to Limit Processed Foods (& the Ones You Should Keep in Your Diet)

Learn which packaged foods to limit and which can be part of a healthy diet.

Pictured recipe: Superfood Chopped Salad with Salmon & Creamy Garlic Dressing

You've probably heard that you should limit processed foods in your diet, but might be wondering exactly what those foods are—and how to cut back on them. Many packaged foods are full of ingredients you can't pronounce and are loaded with sodium, sugar and questionable ingredients. It's worth trying to avoid them when possible and instead load up on whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, proteins and healthy fats.

3 Ways to Limit Processed Foods (& The Ones You Should Keep In Your Diet)

Here are some simple swaps you can make throughout the day at breakfast, lunch and dinner to cut back on processed foods and eat more real food. And, because not everything that comes in a box or plastic tub is bad for you, learn which packaged foods can actually be part of a healthy diet.

jars of Cinnamon Roll Overnight oats on a countertop with spoons and raspberries

At Breakfast

Pictured recipe: Cinnamon Roll Overnight Oats

Trade cereal for oatmeal. Many cereals on the market are packed with sugar and/or missing out on fiber. Sure, you can pick a healthier breakfast cereal (and there are plenty of healthy choices), but oatmeal is a whole food with only one ingredient—oats. If you stick to plain oats-not the type that come in flavored packets—you'll get 150 calories and 4 grams of fiber per ½-cup serving.

Oatmeal contains soluble fiber, which can help lower your cholesterol, prevent your blood sugar from spiking and keep you feeling full. Add some fruit for natural sweetness and even more fiber, milk or Greek yogurt for calcium and protein and a dash of cinnamon or vanilla for extra flavor—and you have a satisfying and wholesome breakfast.

Spinach-Strawberry Salad with Feta & Walnuts

At Lunch

Pictured recipe: Spinach-Strawberry Salad with Feta & Walnuts

Trade your salad croutons for nuts. A salad can be a very healthy lunch-but you'll want to choose your toppings carefully. We're not suggesting you eat a sad salad that's just lettuceCroutons add a nice crunch, but they also add sodium, and empty calories, meaning there isn't a lot of nutrients in them.

Instead of those processed cubes of toasted bread, add some nuts to the top of your salad. They're full of heart-healthy fats, and also add some protein and fiber. Another way to clean up your salad is to make your own healthy, homemade salad dressing. Bottled salad dressings can have lots of added sugar, sodium and ingredients you can't pronounce; instead, try making your own. To make a super-healthy salad into a filling meal, add a source of protein, such as chicken, beans or fish, and a serving of whole grains, like quinoa or brown rice. Get the one formula you need to make a healthy salad.

Easy Italian Wedding Soup

At Dinner

Pictured recipe:Easy Italian Wedding Soup

Trade canned soup for homemade soup: Canned soups often have long ingredient lists and are full of things you wouldn't add to a homemade pot of soup. Plus, they're notoriously high in sodium. While opening up a can is easier than starting from scratch, you can still have a healthy, homemade soup on the table in 30 minutes (try some of these quick, healthy soup recipes).

If you don't have enough time to prep soup for dinner some nights, cook up a big batch of soup when you have time and freeze it in individual portions—ready to be reheated for a healthy dinner in a flash.

You can cut back on other processed foods by making homemade versions of your other favorite convenience dinners. Think homemade pizza instead of a frozen box, and stir-fries instead of takeout. You can use fresh, healthy ingredients and will know exactly what you're eating because cooking lets you control what you're actually having for dinner. Cooking at home can be just as convenient as using packaged foods—and a lot healthier.

Processed Foods to Keep in Your Diet

Not everything that comes out of a package is unhealthy. Many foods that are served in plastic bags, boxes or cans—like dried beans, bagged salad greens, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables (without added sauces, salt or sugar)—are minimally processed and healthy. Plain yogurt, natural peanut butter and canned wild salmon should make it into your grocery cart too. When you're shopping, look for foods with short ingredient lists with names you recognize and can pronounce before purchasing an item to be sure it doesn't fall in the unhealthy processed-foods category.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles