No matter how healthy you try to eat, there are probably days you just can’t help but turn to a box of instant mac and cheese for dinner—or cereal when you forget to prep overnight oats for breakfast.
But life happens. Instead of dwelling on the downsides, we turned to nutritionists and top chefs for their tips on turning packaged foods into a healthy meal.
You may think that you have to l’eggo these frozen breakfast pastries. And yes, they aren’t a great start to the day.
“Frozen waffles are almost always made with white (refined) flour and often include ingredients like chocolate chips and brown sugar that increase the amount of refined carbohydrates in the dish,” says Diana K. Rice, RD, author of The Baby Steps Dietitian. “On top of that, it’s so easy to top them with lots of maple syrup and butter, which adds additional sugar and empty calories to the dish.”
Try this: Executive chef Chris Coleman of Charlotte’s Stoke recommends topping a waffle with nut butter and sliced stone fruit (peaches, plums, nectarines), apples or berries. But his top pick? “I love cashew butter with blackberries, strawberries, and blueberries, toasted cashews for crunch, a drizzle of raw honey and a little sea salt.”
Breakfast is the most important part of the day, so what you eat can set the tone for the day. (Here are the 5 best types of breakfast for weight loss.) Instant oatmeal is more refined than a steel-cut version, but taking a few precautions can improve the health of your meal.
Stephanie Middleberg, RD, founder of Middleberg Nutrition and author of The Big Book Of Organic Baby Food, says you should look first at the ingredient label, at the sugar and the fiber.
“Many flavored instant packets could have as much sugar as baked goods like muffins, and aim for brands that have 3 grams [of fiber] or higher,” Middleberg says. “Breakfast needs to contain some forms of protein and fat. This helps keep blood sugar levels stable throughout the day and controls your hunger hormone, ghrelin.”
Try this: Andy Bennett, executive chef at New York’s Michelin-starred health conscious Rouge Tomate, tops his with blueberry, chia, almond butter and a teaspoon of grated ginger. “You can buy grated ginger that comes in jars and keeps really well in the fridge.” If you find yourself leaning on instant oatmeal packets several times a week, try starting steel-cut oats in the slow cooker the night before—they’ll be ready to eat when you roll out of bed.
In an aisle dominated by Tony the Tiger and Count Chocula, finding a cereal that falls anywhere in the healthy-ish realm can be a challenge. First step is avoiding the bright marketing and fiber promises on the boxes.
There are times that a hearty cereal packed with nuts and grains can come in handy, says Nikita Kapur, MS, RDN, and founder of Compass Nutrition. For an intense workout, carbs can give you energy but won’t digest fast.
“The biggest thing to look at is sugar. Is it naturally from fruit or added corn syrup?” says Kapur. “Check the grains. What kind of fiber? Is it oats and wheat or chicory root and brown isolate, a synthetic fiber?”
Try this: Andy Bennett goes beyond simply milk to add to cold cereal’s nutritional profile. “Puree half a banana with the milk and then top with fresh berries.”
Keeping a granola bar in your bag or desk can be an excellent way to stave off the afternoon hangry. Choosing the right one is the difference between a healthy option and something akin to a candy bar. The answer is in the ingredient list.
Try this: Seek out granola bars with no more than seven ingredients, make sure that the first ingredient is whole food (like a nut, nut butter, oat, barley, etc.) verses a form of sugar, Middleberg says. “Don’t buy into the marketing on the front of the label because typically any bar that is super high in protein or fiber will be coming from a fake (processed source) that won’t actually give you the boost you’re looking for but will make you feel worse.”
As adorable as they are, the elves may not be the healthiest bakers putting their wares on the market. But no matter if it’s just a sweet tooth craving or a last-minute bake sake, there are prepackaged cookies on the market that are both healthy and satisfying.
Nikita Kapur says to focus on the ingredient list: Look for the fewest number of ingredients and make sure they’re simple and whole foods. Also see where sugar falls in the list and if it’s natural (cane sugar) or artificial. “If there are whole foods coming together in packaged goods, it’s more filling,” she explains.
Try this: No matter if your cookie is simply dark chocolate, cane sugar, and bananas, be sure to pair it with a whole food. “A piece of cookie and string cheese, natural peanut butter on top, a handful of almonds on the side,” she says.
Yogurt is one of the many fermented foods that can be classified as healthy but can easily swing into “overly sugared” territory, which is when dietary trouble happens. “Look for brands with simple ingredients and full fats,” Nikita Kapur says. “Find brands, like Siggis, that are not sugared. And avoid ‘Fat free’, which usually has more sugar.”
Try this: Skip the “fruit toppings” that often come with single-serve yogurts. Instead, top plain yogurts with fresh fruit and spices: Orange and ginger are good pairings. Instead of granola (which often has added sugars), top your yogurt with toasted oats, nuts and seeds, and cinnamon.
Seasoned packaged rice
Flavored, packaged rices are a healthy-looking convenience food, but it’s better to skip it. “Seasoned packaged rice is typically made with white rice rather than the more nutritious brown and wild versions,” explains Diana K. Rice. “But the real issue is that it can be extremely high in sodium.”
Try this: Pick up unseasoned quick-cooking brown or wild rice and add your own salt and seasonings. Use no more than a quarter teaspoon of salt for every two cups of cooked rice.
For many homes, pizza night is Friday night (and sometimes that falls on Monday and Wednesday and Sunday, too).
“Frozen pizza notoriously relies on processed meat, which is high in sodium and has recently been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers when consumed frequently. Another issue is that frozen pizzas almost always use a lot of white flour in their crusts,” says Diana K. Rice. So, how can you improve the nutrition of the pizza?
Try this: Boost your frozen pizza’s nutritional profile with fresh whole toppings. Pick up a plain, meatless, thin-crust frozen option and toss on your own veggies, such as sliced onions, bell peppers and mushrooms, before baking it. Chef Andy Bennett, recommends beets and ricotta. “Cook the beets first (or buy the ones that are already cooked) use the leaves to either make a pesto that you can put on the pizza or just wilt the leaves with garlic and olive oil and top the pizza with it.”
Boxed mac and cheese
Although many people turn to that blue box for dinner, the cheesy pasta dish isn’t necessarily the healthiest options. Fortunately there are easy improvements
“The issue is that mac and cheese is not in and of itself a complete meal though many people often treat it that way,” says Diana K. Rice. Rice recommends mixing in vegetables or serving them on the side to round out the dish.
Try this: Chef Chris Coleman adds broccoli when he serves his family mac and cheese. “It’s an easy way to get my kids to eat a veggie,” he says. “Plus, it plays on the whole ‘broccoli and cheese’ combo.”
Cut fresh broccoli in small pieces, lightly steam or simmer, and stir in to the finished mac and cheese. For an extra kick, Coleman adds extra “real” cheese like shaved Pecorino and some chili flakes.
This Tokyo street food is now popping up in restaurants across the country, but there’s still something comforting—not to mention easy—about those packaged noodles and their flavor packet.
Stephanie Middleberg points to sodium as the biggest red flag in these convenience foods: the average ramen flavoring package contains up to half of the FDA’s daily recommendation. “Packaged ramen is also very low in protein and lacks vegetables,” she notes.
Try this: Dial back your ramen’s sodium levels by using just half of the packet, and try adding a hard-boiled egg or fresh or frozen vegetables.
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