I know. I claim to be a whole food advocate and here I am pushing processed foods. Well, I’m also a lazy cook. The only way I’m going to stick to a healthy diet is if it’s also easy to manage. Since adopting a plant-based lifestyle nearly four years ago, I have come to rely on a select group of processed foods:
1. Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
Frozen fruits and vegetables are a wonderful time saver. They are clean, prepped and ready to go. I use frozen fruit in my Raw Oatmeal Mix, smoothies, desserts and dressings. I use frozen vegetables as pizza toppings and in smoothies, soups, salads, stir fries and more.
My favorite frozen fruits include:
- Wild Blueberries
My favorite frozen vegetables include:
- Broccoli Florets
- Sliced Onions and Peppers
- Cut Leaf Spinach (and other dark leafy greens)
In addition to convenience, it can be argued that some frozen fruits and vegetables contain more nutrients than fresh – especially out of season. They are usually picked at the peak of ripeness and flash frozen – locking in an optimum number of nutrients. Fresh produce on the other hand, is usually picked before it is fully ripe and then additional nutrients are lost during travel and storage.
Hopefully it goes without saying that you should look for plain frozen fruits and vegetables. Avoid added sugar, salt or sauces. For optimum quality, buy organic when you can and look for packages marked with a USDA “U.S. Fancy” shield - which are likely to be the most nutrient-rich.
2. Plant Milk
I buy plant milk instead of making my own for two reasons:
- In spite of having all of the tools necessary to make plant milk (I even bought a nut milk bag!) I haven’t gotten around to giving it a try.
- The plant milk I buy is fortified with calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12 – which I think are important additions in a vegan diet.
There are a number plant milks to choose from. I prefer Wegman's rice milk. This may seem like an odd choice because rice milk is actually one of the least nutrient dense options. However, it is also one of the few plant milks that does not include carrageenan or gellan gum as a thickening agent. The fewer added ingredients the better, in my opinion. Rice milk is also easily digestible and a good choice for folks with food sensitivities. The Ornish Spectrum website offers a simple guide to plant-based milks to help you make the right choice according to your tastes and needs.
3. Canned Beans
I try to cook dry beans as often as possible. However, there are those inevitable occasions when I just don’t have the time or foresight – so I keep my pantry stocked with a selection of canned beans. Canned beans typically have more sodium, but you just can’t beat the convenience.
Look for low sodium canned beans. (Additionally, draining and rinsing the beans will remove about 40 percent of the sodium.) If you are concerned about BPA-free cans, Eden Organic beans are a good– but more expensive choice.
4. Salsa and Canned Tomatoes/Tomato Sauce
Canned tomatoes/tomato sauce and pre-made salsa are a convenience I simply cannot do without. I use Barilla pasta sauce for easy pasta dishes and Chi Chi’s Thick and Chunky mild salsa for quick sandwich wraps. Both items feature a reasonable percentage of calories from fat and the amount of sodium could be worse.
When I make pasta sauce or other recipes that call for cooked tomatoes, I strive to use low fat, low sodium options. The Pomi brand offers some nice choices.
I recently purchased a tortilla press and hope to try it soon. In the meantime, my go-to sandwich wraps are Boghosian Valley Bread Whole Wheat Lavash. Their fat and sodium content is just above the ideal limit, but they tend to roll more easily compared to healthier options such as Food For Life sprouted grain and gluten free tortillas. Thus my interest in making my own tortillas and flat breads – especially gluten free options for my daughter. I’ll be sure to share the results if I’m successful.
We don’t eat as much pasta as we did before we discovered my daughter’s wheat allergy. Prior to her diagnoses it wasn’t unusual for us to have whole-wheat pasta at least once a week. (Yes, I harbor some major mother guilt about this.) After we learned about her allergy we began to explore gluten-free pasta options. To date, we are most satisfied with the Tinkyada and Ancient Harvest brands.
The Bottom Line
You may have noted that not all of the items I have shared would receive an A+ in nutrition. The key is to strike a balance between convenience and healthy options. You are more likely to enjoy (and want to eat) a pliable wrap stuffed with veggies compared to a stiff chewy wrap that cracks when you try to roll it. A quick dinner made with jarred sauce, frozen veggies and pasta is likely to be more nutritious (and less expensive) compared to ordering take-out. Using the right kinds of processed foods really can help you stay on track with your healthy eating plan.