More and more people are becoming aware of the numerous health benefits associated with homemade food. Nutritional experts encourage us to get the most out of our food by personally preparing it with only the necessary ingredients. This bypasses the harmful preservatives, additives and dyes present in most processed food. While it is true that many foods available at your local grocery store are less nutritious than their homemade counterparts, the term ‘pre-packaged’ isn’t necessarily synonymous with ‘unhealthy.’ Here are some options that you can stock in your kitchen with a clear conscience.
The urge to snack comes to us all, so it is just as well to have healthy options available. Nuts are good for your heart and are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, although you should reach for the almonds, walnuts and pistachios for the greatest health benefits. A variety of dried fruit or fruit leather is also handy to have on hand and is good for you as long as it does not contain artificial sweeteners. Granola and protein bars that are high in fiber and contain less than 5gms of sugar are another healthy option for when you are on the go. Greek yogurt is a good substitute for regular yogurt, which often contains added sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Add honey or fruit and you have a creamy, protein rich treat.
Tip – Snack food is famous for having a number of unhealthy ingredients. Avoid snacks with food labels high in sodium, sugar, trans-fat, saturated fat or cholesterol. The best options have high fiber or protein.
When fresh fruits and vegetables are not in season, the frozen variety is delicious and provides the same amount of health benefits. Berries can be added to smoothies or used as dessert or breakfast toppings. When prepared correctly, vegetables make a hearty side dish or healthy snack. For instance, edamame is often sold in single portion packs and can offer you up to ten grams of protein per serving.
Tip – Check the ingredient label before you purchase any frozen produce. Frozen fruit sometimes contains added sugar or syrup and vegetables may be coated in vegetable oil or sauce. Look for options where the only ingredient is the contents of the package.
Cereal is one of the most common ways for people to start the day, but not all brands are created equal. Some cereal contains as much sugar per serving as a candy bar. Stocking up on options that are rich in fiber will keep you full until lunch and may also decrease the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Whole grains, such as quinoa, brown rice and couscous are also pre-packaged foods that are a valuable addition to a well-stocked pantry.
Tip – You should look for cereal brands that have no more than 150 calories per cup, a minimum of 3 grams of fiber and no more than 10 grams of sugar per serving. It is best to purchase your rice or other grains as single ingredients and add herbs and spices during the cooking process. The pre-seasoned option may be high in sodium or additives.
Canned and bottled food options are great basics to keep in the pantry because their shelf life makes them ideal to stock up on. Canned beans (black, white, kidney, pinto, red and navy) are protein and fiber rich and eliminate the soaking and cooking time you have with dried beans. Canned tomato options and chicken, beef and vegetable broth are also good to have on hand, as long as they have no added salt. Jam with no artificial sweetener and natural peanut butter both have a minimal and nutritious list of ingredients as well.
Tip – Some canned food contains hidden sweeteners, high sodium and coloring or firming agents. When possible, select the option that is identified as ‘low sodium’ or ‘no salt added.’ The ingredient list on any canned or bottled item should be very short and virtually free of extra additives and preservatives.
How Can I Tell If An Option Is Healthy?
Food companies know that the way to reach the average American is to appeal to their desire to eat healthy. Sometimes, this leads to them making their products look more nutritious than they are and reading labels can be tricky and confusing. While a short and recognizable list of five or fewer ingredients is often most indicative of a healthy, prepackaged food, familiarizing yourself with the other elements can also keep you ahead of the game.
- Note the serving size. Many seemingly single portions are actually broken up into two or more in order to ‘lower’ nutritional facts. Multiply accordingly in order to get a clear picture.
- Fat isn’t always the enemy. An avocado is considered high in fat, but it is beneficial to your health as opposed to the kind you consume in potato chips. Stay away from foods that list trans fats on the nutritional label.
- The recommended daily intake of sodium is 2,300 mg per day for the average person. Note the amount of sodium on the ingredient list of a potential food and factor it into one serving of the product..
- Carbohydrates – With recent ‘carb-free’ diet crazes sweeping the nation, carbs are often seen as bad. Complex carbohydrates are in natural, fibrous food like fruits and vegetables and are an essential part of health. Simple carbs are basically sugar and should be avoided.
- Fiber is one of the best things you can find on an ingredient label. The American Diabetic Association recommends that women get at least 25 g of dietary fiber daily and that men get 38 g.
- If you are purchasing a sweetened product, look for healthier sweetener options, such as brown rice sweetener, honey or molasses. Avoid high fructose corn syrup.
- Sugar by any other name is still as unhealthy. Familiarize yourself with the different names for unhealthy sweeteners, such as dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose, corn sweetener, beet sugar, sorbitol and xylitol.
- Don’t settle for any grain based product that does not actually say “whole grain” or “whole wheat.” Some brands list their product as containing enriched or unbleached flour. Both options have still stripped the grain of fiber and are essentially white, or processed, flour.
The bottom line is that you should know what ingredients are in your food, whether it is something you bring home from the store or something you prepare at home. Being informed can help you make the best choices for your health.