Updated April 18, 2019
Jeff Novick, MS, RDN
The most healthful foods are those that come straight out of the garden, are consumed in their natural forms and/or are prepared as simply as possible. These foods – fresh fruits, vegetables, starchy vegetables, intact whole grains and legumes – should be the main focus of any healthful diet.
Packaged and processed foods are usually loaded with fats, free oils, salt, refined sugars/sweeteners and refined carbohydrates/grains. They are also almost always calorie dense. However, there are some packaged and processed foods that can be included as part of a healthful diet. In fact, keeping some of them around and on hand can actually make following a healthful diet, easier. This way, no matter how much time you have, you can always put together a healthful meal very quickly.
Here are my 10 most healthful packaged foods (in no particular order):
Vegetables are one of the most nutrient-dense foods and including them can help improve the nutritional quality of your diet. They are also the lowest foods in calorie density. Unlike many canned vegetables, plain frozen vegetables usually have no other added ingredients. Frozen vegetables require almost no preparation and come already cleaned, trimmed and pre-cut/sliced. They are ready to go with no waste, which means you get 100% yield. Frozen vegetables can be added directly, or easily be thawed, and included as part of a healthful recipe and/or meal.
Caution: Be careful of all the new fancy frozen vegetable mixes as many come with added sauces that can be high in salt, sugar and/or fat. Look for the plain bags of single individual vegetables or vegetable blends.
The same reasoning for frozen vegetables also applies to frozen fruits. Look for the ones that contain just frozen fruit and avoid the ones with added sugars/sweeteners. Frozen berries are one of my favorites to keep on hand. Fresh berries are very seasonal, and they also often mold and rot quickly and easily. Frozen berries do not and are available year-round. In addition, you can often find wild berries, which are often sweeter than conventional varieties.
My favorite kind of rice is basmati brown rice. I love the taste and the aroma, especially when it’s cooking. It smells like popcorn popping. However, I do not always have the 40 minutes to prepare the basmati brown rice from scratch. Nor do I always have some cooked up ahead of time. The solution is any one of the varieties available of quick-cooking brown rice. While I do not usually like to promote a specific brand, one brand that I do prefer is Success quick-cooking brown rice. This brand and variety has to be the simplest and easiest version of quick cooking brown rice ever invented. Many other versions require the measurement of water and rice (which can be troublesome for some). 🙂 With this version, all you do is place a pre-measured bag in a pot of boiling water for 10 minutes and Voilà! —perfect brown rice. For those of you who want to avoid using the plastic bag, just remove the rice from it and cook in boiling water. You can now also get frozen pre-cooked whole-grain brown rice that is quick and simple to prepare.
Next to green leafy veggies and vegetables, beans may be one of the most nutrient-rich foods there are. They are rich in nutrients and fiber, very filling, and relatively low in calorie density. The problem with beans, for many of us, is that most beans can take hours to soak and cook and most canned beans are extremely high in sodium. So, for those in a hurry, the solution is to buy no-salt-added shelf-stable beans. There are many varieties of no-salt added canned beans available including kidney, black, garbanzo, pinto, adzuki, etc. Not only are they available online, and in health food stores, I also find most local grocery stores are now carrying them. Just open a can and add them to your favorite dish, recipe or meal.
Tomatoes make a great base for many dressings, sauces, soups and meals (stews, chilis, etc.). However, good fresh tomatoes are not always available year-round and some of the ones that are available in the off-season are lacking in flavor. In addition, while there are some canned varieties that are salt free, most canned tomato products are extremely high in sodium. However, one brand I prefer is Pomì brand tomato products as they are both salt-free and shelf-stable. While these tomato products could never substitute for a fresh in-season tomato on a salad, they can help make excellent soups, sauces, and meals when fresh tomatoes are out of season or when you are in a pinch. If you can’t find Pomì Tomatoes, look for any brand of no-salt-added canned or jarred tomatoes.
Whole grains that are consumed in their “intact” forms are low in calorie density, high in satiety, nutrient rich and shelf stable. They are easy to cook (just add water) and can be the base of many healthful meals and dishes. They also make great additions to soups and salads. Oatmeal, buckwheat, and barley all make a great breakfast and a great way to start the day. Brown rice, cracked wheat, quinoa, and/or millet mixed with vegetables makes a great meal, side dish and or salad. My favorites are the ones that I can cook from start to end in about 10 minutes. These include oats, buckwheat, quinoa and millet.
The problem with many whole-grain processed products (such as bread, dry cereals, bagels, tortillas and crackers) is that, even though they are whole grain, they are still calorie dense. One of the few exceptions is whole-grain pasta. The reason is that when you cook whole grain pasta, it absorbs some of the water it’s cooked in, back into the structure of the pasta, lowering its calorie density. Foods with high water content are lower in calorie density and generally higher in satiety.
So, unlike most processed whole grains, which have a calorie density of 1200-1800 calories per pound, the calorie density of most cooked whole-grain pasta is the same as most intact whole grains and starchy vegetables, which is around 500-600 calories per pound. It is also very quick and easy to cook and can be ready in around 10-12 minutes. Mix in some fresh or frozen vegetables, some Pomì no-salt-added tomatoes, some no-salt-added canned beans, and some fresh spices, and you have a healthful, nutritious and filling meal.
Dried fruit is nature’s candy. Unlike fresh fruit, it is shelf stable and will not spoil easily. Adding small amounts of dried fruit to dishes can add both nutrition and sweetness. A few raisins or dates can really sweeten up a bowl of whole grain cereal such as oatmeal or a simple dessert such as baked apples. In addition, they make great additions, by adding a little sweetness, to a vegetable salad or some cooked dishes such as stews and rice.
Caution: Due to the high calorie density of dried fruits, go easy on them and think of them more as condiments. Dried fruit is around 1200 calorie per pound whereas most fresh fruit is around 200-300 calories per pound.
The Impact of Calorie Density
Grapes 300 cal./lb.
Raisins 1357 cal/lb
Plums 200 cal/lb
Prunes 1100 cal./lb.
Raw nuts and seeds and the “butters” made from them can be healthful additions to ones diet. A few of them, such as walnuts and flax seeds, are also excellent sources of the omega-3 essential fat. They can add creaminess and texture to some homemade dressings, dips, spreads, and/or soups. I sometimes make a salad dressing that is made from a little tahini (sesame seed butter) mixed with lemon and water. I also sometimes add a very small amount of tahini to blended garbanzo beans to add some texture to my homemade hummus.
Caution: Due to their extremely high calorie density, go very easy on these, especially if weight is an issue for you. If and when you do use them, make sure you mix them with something very low in calorie density, such as vegetables or fruits to keep your overall calorie density low.
As you decrease the amount of salt, sugar and oil in your diet, you will begin to appreciate the wonderful natural flavors of food. However, you may still like to add a little “spice” to your life. Fortunately, there are many salt-free spices, seasonings and blends available. Probably the most popular one is Mrs. Dash, which has many varieties available. In addition, for those of you who are not chefs and not familiar with the different flavor combinations of spices, you can now buy many salt-free blends that can help. There are pre-mixed blends of salt-free Italian, Mexican, Indian, Southwest and many other blends available.
My favorite 10 packaged staple foods that are not only good for you, but keeping some of them around and on hand, can actually make following a healthful diet, easier.