10 Packaged Food Staples a Dietitian Always Has on Hand
I don’t only eat kale and avocados. These foods help save me some time and keep me eating healthier overall even though they come out of a package.
While I’m a big believer in eating healthy foods, I’m an even bigger believer that all foods can fit in a healthy diet. Packaged foods get a bad reputation, but they also include foods we think of us healthy and whole foods, like peanut butter, canned beans, hummus, yogurt—even pre-washed baby spinach. Not only are plenty of packaged and processed foods nutritious, even the ones we think of us less nutritious can actually make whole foods more enticing (think: a yummy sauce or dressing on vegetables) and encourage a healthier overall eating pattern. Here are 10 foods I always have at my house, in addition to the kale and avocados.
1. Frozen waffles
A waffle maker has been on my kitchen wish list for awhile, but until I actually purchase one—it’s store-bought waffles for us. Many frozen waffles are now made with whole grains and only require a quick trip in your toaster oven for a fast breakfast. My toddler eats these with peanut butter and jelly, and I like to pair mine with eggs. (See our favorite healthy frozen waffles and how to use them here.)
Crackers are great for entertaining—open up some hummus, slice some cheese and add some fruit, vegetables and crackers for the world’s easiest appetizer. But even when we’re not hosting, cheese and crackers make an easy snack to take the edge off for late dinners. I also often enjoy them as part of picnic lunches (just odds and ends on a plate) or served up with a salad. I’m a big Triscuit fan, they’re made with whole grains, and lately have been loving Simple Mills almond flour crackers.
3. Frozen vegetables & fruit
I feel the need to include these because they still get a bad reputation. Frozen fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh, sometimes even more so, because they are picked at peak ripeness. I love frozen peas, corn and broccoli for adding to pastas and stir-frys. Frozen fruit, like blueberries, cherries and mangoes are perfect for smoothies and yogurt bowls. Check labels for added sugar and salt. I do recommend buying plain most of the time so you can add your own flavor but if you’re looking for total convenience, these frozen veggie blends get our stamp of approval and come pre-seasoned. And repeat after me—eating frozen produce is just as good for you as fresh!
4. Marinara sauce
I’ve waxed poetic before about my love for pasta. Adding jarred marinara sauce to a box of pasta—whether it’s whole-wheat, chickpea-based or regular ol’ noodles—is such a quick and easy way to get dinner on the table. I usually add a vegetable, typically a side salad or roasted veggies, and sometimes a protein boost, like cheese, beans or “meatballs.” Jarred tomato sauces do have added sugar and some have pretty high sodium content, so check labels. Rao’s is one of my favorites. (Here’s how to buy healthy pasta sauce.)
Tortilla chips to be exact. Plain tortilla chips are typically made with just three ingredients, so even though chips aren’t the healthiest snack, they’re not that bad either. I skip baked chips, which are actually similar in calories but often higher in carbs and sodium. Blue corn chips also have a slight antioxidant boost. I like to enjoy these with taco salads or use to scoop up salsa or dip. The key for me is to not eat them straight from the package, where you’re more likely to mindlessly munch, and portion some out to enjoy.
6. Mac and cheese
We make macaroni and cheese weekly in my house. My favorite is Annie’s Cheddar Shells but sometimes we have Banza Mac and Cheese, which is made with chickpea pasta. You might be thinking, “Gasp! You’re a dietitian and macaroni and cheese is so bad for you.” Well, I don’t think that. It’s easy. It’s inexpensive. It makes for a stress-free dinner. It’s comforting. I almost always serve vegetables with it. Yes, it is a little bit high in sodium and can be made with white pasta. So on days we have it, I try and make sure I have oatmeal or whole-grain toast for breakfast and eat plenty of produce (what I try to do most days). The pros of this easy dinner easily outweigh the nutritional cons for me.
7. Pancake mix
My dad, who prides himself on his from-scratch pancakes, cringes a little bit when he sees this in my pantry, but pancake mix is the only way we’re having a stack on the weekends. I love Kodiak Cakes Protein Packed Buttermilk Flapjack and Waffle Mix. It’s made with whole grains and you just add water. The added whey protein helps give them a little more staying power too. They’re light and fluffy and delicious with some maple syrup, fruit and peanut butter on top. I usually make a big batch and freeze any leftovers to easily reheat on busy mornings.
8. Salad dressing
I love homemade salad dressing. It’s usually more flavorful than store bought dressings and you control the ingredients. However, there are nights when using a bottled dressing is the only way we’re eating our veggies. I have embraced always having a vinaigrette and a creamy dressing on hand for quick and easy salads. I don’t recommend low-fat dressings since the fat helps you absorb important vitamins (here are some of my other salad dressing tips).
9. Energy bars
I’m a huge fan of making my own energy balls (lately my toddler’s been helping and it’s a fun and easy kitchen project to tackle together). However, nothing beats the convenience of a packaged bar that’s ready to eat and take with you on hikes or errands. I like to have options, depending on what I’m in the mood for, and also look for bars without too much added sugar. Two favorites are Larabars and KIND bars.
10. Ice cream
I am a dessert lover (no shame here) and ice cream is one of my favorites. You may think having it on hand will cause you to overeat it, but I firmly believe the opposite (although it may take a little getting used to). When it’s always in the freezer I can take it or leave it. Some nights I’m in the mood for it and others I’m not. I love KIND frozen bars for a healthier treat and also usually have a pint of regular ice cream (Ben & Jerry’s is a favorite).
Welcome to The Beet. A weekly column where nutrition editor and registered dietitian Lisa Valente tackles buzzy nutrition topics and tells you what you need to know, with science and a little bit of sass.