We’re constantly bombarded with advertising for the latest food gimmicks. Clever marketers appeal to everyone’s occasional need for a quick alternative to preparing a meal. We are promised convenience foods that are healthy because they’ve been fortified with vitamins and minerals, are low-fat, or claim to be all natural.
But do we really need frozen pizza with extra vitamins and minerals? Why not just have a salad instead of that pizza? Does the promise of “whole grain” in an ice-cream flavored box of cereal really make it good for you? And are we really so busy that we can’t cut an avocado in half or peel our own hardboiled eggs?
“Convenience foods” expose us to unnatural flavorings, artificial coloring, and preservatives, while generating an enormous amount of extra trash in the form of packaging. A lot of that packaging is plastic, which is not only bad for the environment but also imparts harmful chemicals into our food, especially if you microwave the food in its plastic package.
How can we avoid unnecessary foods and their harmful ingredients, while still bringing health and convenience to our hectic lives?
To get the nutrients we need requires eating whole foods from all food groups — whole grains, loads of vegetables, some fruit, three servings a day of low-fat dairy, some vegetarian or animal protein, and healthy fats, said Libby Mills, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and nutrition and cooking coach in the Philadelphia, Pa., area.
“It sounds simple, but with all of these cues from products that are premade . . . and having them so overly accessible, in our face everywhere we go, it’s challenging for folks,” she said.
Some foods have no nutritional value and should just be avoided. You can tell whether to stay away from a product by reading its label and ingredients list. Look at how many calories are in a serving and where those calories come from. If the calories are very high, or if they’re coming almost entirely from sugar or fat, don’t eat it!
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is in the final stages of updating food labeling requirements. The new Nutrition Facts label will make it easier to read and understand whether a given food is good for you. Serving sizes will represent actual amounts most people are likely to eat, and you’ll see a new line on the label for “added sugars,” among other changes.
Less easy to interpret are foods’ ingredient lists. Ingredients are listed in order by weight. The primary ingredients are listed first, so make sure the first few items are wholesome, and pay attention to the other ingredients. You may not recognize some because often they’re chemical names for salt, sugar, fat, and preservatives.
Mills uses the example of cheesy puff curls you can find in the chip isle of your supermarket. Some varieties are baked, which may make them seem like a semi-healthy choice, but the flavoring is a problem. Sodium chloride, sodium phosphate, and monosodium glutamate are all types of sodium, which has been linked to high blood pressure and headaches, among other health problems. She recommends avoiding any foods with flavored coatings — that goes for salt and sugar.
“I think were in an exciting time because there’s a definite fundamental shift in what people are looking for in their food. And they’re looking for ingredients that they recognize. They want to be able to pronounce the ingredients in their food and visualize how the recipe kind of came together. When they run across colorings, flavorings, preservatives . . . there really is a movement away from those types of ingredients towards more recognizable ingredients,” she said.
You can minimize temptation by focusing your shopping around the perimeter of your grocery store. This is where most of the fresh foods are — produce, meat and seafood, and dairy foods, for example. Help yourself by avoiding the candy, soda, and chip isles.
Mills added there are some internal isles you do want to shop. Regularly visit the isles where you find beans, lentils, and legumes whether they’re canned or dried. These foods are good for you and come at a good price.
Mills suggests keeping a well-stocked freezer and pantry so you can quickly put together a healthful meal and avoid the temptation of fast food. Pre-chopped vegetables are “convenience items worth buying.” Onions, celery, carrots, bell peppers, broccoli, and cauliflower, fresh or frozen, are versatile and can be added to a variety of foods like soups and stir fries. Frozen vegetables basically come off the farm, are blanched, and then frozen.
“The nutrients that are preserved in that broccoli are sometimes superior to the fresh broccoli you’ll find in the produce section,” Mills said. Frozen fruit is also good to have on hand, although it can be a bit pricey. Watch your store ads and shop for frozen items when they’re on sale.
Keep your pantry stocked with low-sodium vegetable, chicken, or beef broth; a variety of spices; beans, dried or canned; lentils or split peas; brown rice; whole-grain pasta; canned tomatoes, tomato sauce and paste; and canned tuna packed in water.
We’ve all faced the challenge of coming home late after a long day to a hungry family. It’s tempting to stop for a bucket of chicken or a pizza, or you might rely on a boxed meal helper to get dinner together quickly. The problem with these solutions and other shortcuts is that they aren’t complete meals.
When you put together a healthy, complete meal, your plate should be half filled with vegetables, a quarter devoted to a healthy starch, and a quarter taken up by a protein. You can also include a low-fat dairy product and a fruit.
“One of the most important things to realize about these helpers is you still have to do some of the work. You have to brown the meat, you have to boil the pasta,” she said. “So here’s how you can make a helper all by yourself. It will be your own version of this helper, but it’ll actually be a healthier helper.”
Choose a protein like lean ground turkey or beef. While you’re cooking it, throw in some of your frozen chopped vegetables so they get browned and flavorful in the same skillet.
Cook your whole-grain pasta and, in the last minutes of cooking, throw in some frozen broccoli or cauliflower. Drain the pasta and vegetables and mix it with your meat and vegetables.
Finish with a scoop of tomato paste or salsa and add spices to taste, for example basil, oregano, garlic powder, cumin, or an Italian herb blend.
“Truly in about the same amount of time, you’ve got the same thing as your helper-in-a-box, but with a ton more flavor, a ton more nutrition, and a lot more variety because you can change it up,” Mills said.
May 14, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN