Many processed foods earn high marks for convenience but poor marks for health. But the truth is, the term “processed” spans a wide range of foods, from healthful pre-washed salad greens (some form of processing occurs to wash and bag the greens) to less healthful processed meats. When it comes to processed foods, the magic is in the minimal — minimally processed, that is. Minimally processed foods can simplify prepping and cooking so you can enjoy nourishing and filling meals without spending too time in the kitchen. It’s still a good idea to limit the overly processed stuff, but in the name of convenience, I rounded up the 19 processed foods nutritionists can’t live without. Here are the items that deserve a spot in your kitchen.
Frozen brown rice
Your goal, should you choose to accept it, is to select healthful, minimally processed foods that save time and enable you to eat well. Whole grain brown rice is a stellar example. “It can take up to 45 minutes to make brown rice on the stovetop, but the pre-cooked, frozen brown rice is ready in just 3-4 minutes,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, author of "The Superfood Swap". She recommends adding it to burrito bowls and stir fries.
If you’re cooking dried beans from scratch, the Instant Pot shaves some time. But the canned variety saves even more! “I love the convenience of canned black beans versus cooking them from scratch,” says Keri Gans, RDN, author of "The Small Change Diet" and creator of The Keri Report. “They’re a good source of fiber and plant-based protein and they make a healthy addition to my pasta ‘Bolognese’ sauce, baked potato, or a bowl of sautéed veggies and barley.”
When you’re using canned beans, be sure to buy no- or low-sodium varieties and if they contain any sodium, give them a good rinse under running water, which reduces the salt count considerably.
Roasted garbanzo beans
While we’re on the subject of beans, here’s another healthy processed food to add to your cart. “Roasted garbanzo beans are loaded with plant-protein and fiber so they’re an incredibly satisfying snack,” says Jackson Blatner. “You can make your own in the oven, but it takes about 30 minutes (and truthfully I can never get them the perfect texture). The pre-made ones come in lots of delish sweet and savory flavors. I love traveling with these in my purse and they also taste great on salads.”
Lentil or chickpea pasta
A typical bowl of pasta is high in carbs and low in fiber and protein. Since these two substances make meals filling, you may find yourself downing multiple portions to satisfy your appetite. You can balance out your pasta and boost the fiber and protein by tossing in foods like veggies and shrimp, but you could also swap it with some bean-based pasta to get a head start. “When I don't have anything prepared for dinner and I’m short on time, lentil or chickpea pasta is my go-to,” says Angie Asche, RD, of Eleat Sports Nutrition. She points out that they're much higher in protein and fiber than traditional wheat pasta. “One serving typically provides at least 20 grams of protein and the only ingredient in the product I use is organic chickpea flour or green lentil flour.” Since pasta is always dressed up in sauce, it’s a nutritious upgrade that’s hardly noticeable.
Vegetarians swear by this plant-based protein so whether you’re a meat-eater or not, take note. “As a vegetarian, I always have a block of tempeh in my fridge to add quick protein to my meals. Technically, tempeh is considered a processed form of soy because it’s made by fermenting cooked soybeans and then molding them into a dense block with some grains (typically rice). With that, it has a dense and chewy texture that I really like, as well as a nutty flavor,” explains NYC-based registered dietitian, Natalie Rizzo.
For all you protein seekers, Rizzo also notes that a half block of tempeh has about 20 grams of protein and just 240 calories. Another bonus: “The fermentation process creates beneficial probiotics,” she says. If you aren’t sure how to make it, Rizzo offers this pro tip that doesn’t require any skill: “Just throw it in a pan with a marinade for a few minutes and add to a rice bowl.”
Frozen fruits and vegetables
Stocking up on frozen produce makes a ton of sense! A recent study found that people who eat these frozen gems consume more produce than people who don’t keep their freezers stocked. The frozen fruit and veggie eaters also had higher intakes of fiber, potassium, calcium, and vitamin D — nutrients that many Americans fall short on.
“I’m a big smoothie lover, so my freezer is always stocked with frozen fruits and veggies. And what I love about frozen produce is that it’s flash frozen at the peak of freshness, locking in great taste and nutrients, so you can eat it out of season,” says Rizzo. Not only can you enjoy fresh fruit and veggies year-round, but buying frozen also makes organic produce more affordable.
It’s a common misconception that canned fruit is loaded with added sugar and while it can be canned in heavy syrup, it’s often canned in juice. “While I love fresh pineapple chunks, it’s challenging to get a sweet, affordable, fresh pineapple in the dead of winter in New England. That’s why I head to the canned fruit aisle for the canned variety packed in juice. A cup of canned chunks provides about 100 calories, over 2 grams of fiber, and almost 30 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin C for the bargain price of about a buck,” says Joan Salge Blake, RD, a nutrition professor at Boston University and the host of the hit nutrition and wellness podcast, "SpotOn!".
Canned pineapple chunks are a great way to sweeten stir fries without added sugar or you can try serving the drained chunks with some lower-sugar granola, chopped nuts, and a spoonful of creamy Greek yogurt for a delicious snack or dessert.
Notice a theme here? “When fresh tomatoes are no longer in season, I rely heavily on canned tomato products, like canned diced tomatoes and tomato puree,” says Jackie Newgent, RDN, culinary nutritionist, author of "The Clean & Simple Diabetes Cookbook", and advisor to Lunch Unpacked. In other words, when you want the best out-of-season produce, frozen or canned may be the way to go. “Nutritional speaking, tomatoes are canned at their peak of ripeness, nutritional value, flavor and color,” says Newgent who also shares that they pack a nutritional advantage. “They’re loaded with lycopene, a health-promoting plant nutrient, which is actually enhanced by the processing.”
Here’s a fresh, pre-prepped veggie mix that will instantly boost the healthfulness of your next Taco Tuesday. Jackson Blatner points out that cabbage is a superfood that’s in the same veggie family as kale and broccoli. “Getting it pre-shredded is a major time saver. Plus, to make it from scratch, you need two heads of cabbage (green and red) which is waaaay too much to eat before it goes bad,” she explains. The packed mix will minimize food waste. In addition to tacos, Jackson Blatner says she loves it in lunch bowls and stir fries.
Jarred marinara sauce
Need something to go with that chickpea or lentil pasta? Jarred marinara sauce to the rescue! “I have 3 kids and one of them doesn’t eat meat, so we eat a fair amount of regular and chickpea pasta. While I love the idea of making marinara from scratch, it’s time-consuming and I usually only have 20-30 minutes to get dinner on the table," says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, author of "Eating in Color" and creator of the FLR VIP program. She recommends choosing a marina sauce with no added sugars and a reasonable amount of sodium to make this convenience item a very healthy option. “Jarred marinara sauce also offers the antioxidant lycopene, which has been linked to improving eye, skin and bone health and may help reduce the risk of prostate and breast cancer,” she says.
Herbs and seasonings are one way to boost the flavor of wholesome foods, but hot sauce is another. “When creating healthful cuisine, I love ‘sneaking’ in ingredients to assure flavors are as good or better than not-so-healthful options. I find that adding a few drops of hot sauce to select dishes, especially soups and stews, provides that bonus oomph to create extra enjoyment,” says Newgent. “Hot sauces are vegetable-based — usually with peppers — making them versatile in cooking.” Newgent recommends using one without sodium bisulfite or other preservatives.
Broth and stocks
Kudos to anyone who’s making broth from scratch, but if you’ve got better things to do with your time (like binge watching two seasons of Killing Eve), there’s no shame in taking this shortcut. “While I'd love to make my own homemade broth from scratch, it's just not realistic with my work schedule. I always have a few containers of organic vegetable broth in my pantry to use in several last-minute dishes, soups, curries, or even just to boil quinoa and rice for additional flavor,” says Asche.
Most Americans aren’t hitting the recommended two servings of seafood per week, yet it’s a simple (and tasty) habit that can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. To help you hit your goal, consider canned seafood. “Hands down, one of the easiest ways to get more omega-3 packed fish into your diet is with canned tuna,” says Largeman-Roth. “You can find it in easy to open cans, pouches and more these days,” she explains. Largeman-Roth says that three ounces of chunk light tuna packs 16 grams of protein and about 140 milligrams of DHA and EPA omega 3s per each 70-calorie serving. “It’s a great choice whether you’re trying to boost your omega-3 intake or just looking for a lean source of protein,” she says.
Maya Feller, RD, author of "The Southern Comfort Food Diabetes Cookbook" is another fan of canned and pouched seafood. “There are times when we don't have access to wild or sustainably sourced salmon and wild salmon in a pouch is an economical as well as a convenient way to get your recommended two servings per week,” she says. Sardines are also tops on her list of healthy processed foods. “They’re a delicious small fish, rich in protein, heart-healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D. There’s some compelling research around brain health and fatty fish consumption,” says Feller.
Yes, you can make your own pesto (like you can make your own broth and stock), but you don’t have to go the extra mile. “Making pesto can take time that many people don't have,” says Feller. “Pesto in a jar is generally extra virgin olive oil, known for its anti-inflammatory properties, basil, which is rich in phytonutrients, garlic, which has been researched in relation to blood pressure regulation, and pine nuts, which are a good source of heart-healthy fats,” she explains. According to Feller, the combination makes for a nourishing topping that can be used in a number of meals, such as a seasoning for baked fish or a dressing (when thinned with extra EVOO or warm water) for greens. Amy Gorin, RDN, says it’s also a great base for pizza if you’re looking for something other than traditional tomato sauce.
Nut and seed butters
Nut and seed butters check a lot of boxes: They’re super healthy, really delicious, and offer a lot of versatility. “Almond butter is a great source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and the antioxidant vitamin E, which may help protect our body from damage caused by free radicals, explains Gans. “It’s a go-to for me in my morning bowl of oatmeal or on a slice of 100 percent whole grain bread for added protein and fiber to start my day.”
Largeman-Roth uses peanut butter for after school snacks and for adding a quick and delicious hit of plant-protein (7 grams per 2 tablespoons) at breakfast. “We schmear it on frozen waffles (another great convenience item!), apple slices, muffins and more. Besides being totally delicious, I love that it’s economical and also shelf-stable,” she says.
For those who are allergic to nuts (or those who want to branch out), sunflower seed butter is a great alternative. “It’s become a huge mainstay in my family's kitchen,” says Lindsey Janeiro, RDN of Nutrition to Fit. “I've had lifelong severe tree nut allergies, but my baby was recently diagnosed with peanut allergies, too.” That’s why she uses sunflower seed butter in place of peanut butter and other nut butters. “It’s full of healthy fats and also contains fiber and protein, making it a great addition to homemade sauces and baked goods. It can also be added to a basic apple or crackers for a more macronutrient balanced snack,” she adds.
Though it’s a fan favorite in the fall, pumpkin puree is a processed food RDs love year-round. “The puree adds a boost of immune-boosting beta-carotene to breakfast staples like pancakes, smoothies and waffles,” says Largeman-Roth. “You can certainly make your own pumpkin puree, especially at this time of year, but the fact that all the strings have been removed makes the canned variety so much easier!” she says. I think we can all agree on that.
Canned fish scores high on the convenience meter, but don’t rule out frozen seafood, which has the same good-for you omega-3 fish fats, DHA and EPA. Much of the fish you buy has been pre-frozen so buying it already frozen is almost like buying it at the fish counter. “To make a quick, easy meal for either dinner or even lunch when I’m working from home, I keep ready-to-cook salmon filets in the freezer. All I have to do is stick them in the oven!” says Gorin.
Gorin suggests using the mercury wallet card from the Natural Resources Defense Council as a guide to choosing fish with less mercury and FishWatch.gov to see which choices are most sustainable. Spotting the MSC blue fish label is another way to identify sustainable seafood.
Plain yogurt and cottage cheese both fall in the camp of healthier processed foods. “This often overlooked gem is one of my daily staples. Not only is it fabulous with fruit, on whole grain toast, waffles, oatmeal or salads, but the super high protein content helps to keep you full in between meals,” Lauren Harris-Pincus, RDN, author of "The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club". "There are so many culinary uses for cottage cheese! It’s the secret to creamy smoothies as it’s much less tangy than Greek yogurt. Mix it into eggs before scrambling for a cheesy, creamy texture, or use as a protein boost in pancake batter. Mix with goat cheese for a tasty base for a flatbread. The possibilities are endless, and you will benefit from about 13 grams of satisfying protein per 1/2 cup serving,” she says.
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