The term ‘convenience food’ conjures images of overly processed foods that are high in fat, concentrated sweeteners and sodium and low in fiber and phytonutrients.  Convenience food often connotes a lack of effort or concern, whether by choice or necessity.  Traditionally, convenience foods have not been the most healthful choices and often have been much costlier than home-cooked fare.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  The key is to replace the traditional concept of convenience foods with healthful foods that are convenient.  One key is to regularly read ingredient lists.  The more wholesome the ingredients, the better the choice.

All of these convenient yet healthful items can help make meals and snack times both quick and nutritious.

Brown Rice: In a bag or frozen, this healthful choice takes only eight to 10 minutes to prepare compared with about 45 minutes the traditional way.

Jarred Pasta Sauce: Just open and heat.  Read nutrition labels and look for a sauce that is low in sodium.  Add pre-chopped vegetables steamed in the microwave.  Pair with whole wheat pasta and dinner is on the table in 15 minutes.

Canned broth: Seek out lower-sodium versions to use for soups, stews, lentils, and beans.

Canned Tomatoes: Reduced-sodium versions are available and can be added to soups, stews, casseroles, and chilis.

Canned Beans: Black, pinto, navy, red, or garbanzo beans (low sodium versions) can be ready in minutes.  No soaking overnight.  Just open, rinse (to remove 30-40% of the sodium), and spice them up or add to dishes.

Oatmeal in packets or cups:  It’s portable and cooks in the microwave in minutes.  Excellent for traveling—most hotel rooms have a coffee maker to heat water—or taking to the office for a midmorning snack.

High-fiber cold cereal:  Not just for breakfast anymore, it works for lunch and as a nutritious snack when time is in short supply.  If individual servings are not available, create your own single servings in plastic bags or small, reusable storage containers.

High-fiber crackers: Look for crackers with only a handful or ingredients, such as whole wheat and salt.  They pair well with hummus, guacamole, natural peanut butter, and vegetarian bean dip.

Canned tuna and salmon:  Open, garnish, and eat.  It’s an easy way to build on the recommendation to consume 12 oz. of fish per week.

Frozen entrées: Plenty of healthful options are available today that contain whole grains and vegetables and have lower levels of fat and sodium than in the past.  And there are a growing number of options for vegetarians and vegans.

Frozen Veggie Pizza: Although even vegetable pizzas vary quite a bit in their nutrition content, some excellent low-sodium, low-fat options are available. 

Pocket or pita bread: Simply open and stuff with lean lunch meat, low-fat cheese, avocados, and leftover vegetables, or spread on natural peanut butter.

Individual cups of peanut butter, hummus, or guacamole: The ultimate in convenience and no waste.

Soy nuts: Available in a wide variety of flavors, they’re rich in high-quality protein and phytonutrients, including isoflavones.

Edamame: Frozen edamame can be toasted or stir-fried or added to any casserole, soup or stew.

Whole Wheat Pasta: Most pasta is ready in about eight minutes.

Frozen Mashed Sweet Potatoes:  In about 8 minutes, clients can have a side dish rich in beta-carotene.

Unsweetened Apple Sauce: Great for packing lunches or as a quick snack. 

Trail Mix: Not all trail mixes are created equal; some are clearly high in fat, sodium and calories.  Choose the most healthful options combined with portion control, and avoid those that contain high fructose corn syrup.  Add to applesauce, yogurt, and low-fat pudding.

Snack Bars:  There are dozens of snack bars to choose from in hundreds of flavors.  It’s a matter of finding ones that are high in fiber and low in fat, concentrated sweeteners and sodium.

Frozen veggie burgers: Premade, pre-shaped and ready to be placed on a whole wheat bun.

String cheese:  Often thought of as a kids’ snack, it’s convenient and nutritious for adults too.

Whole wheat couscous: Ready in just 5 minutes, it offers a serving of whole grains and can be tossed with any steamed vegetable or canned peas or beans. 

Popcorn: For a nutritious, high-fiber snack, choose a low-fat, low-sodium variety. 

Precooked quinoa in a pouch: This convenience food is ready in about eight minutes.  Add garbanzo beans, chopped, or dried fruit.


Healthful Fresh Convenience Foods

Some convenience foods are not processed; they’re merely pre-prepared or simply easy to use.  They’re ‘back-to-basics’ nutritious time-savers.

Eggs: Boil or crack open and scramble or make a quick omelet. The best way to prepare a boiled egg is not to boil it at all.  Put eggs in water, bring them just to a boil, remove from heat, cover and let sit for 15 minutes.  Then quickly cool with iced water.

Fresh Fruit: Peel fruits at home and store in a bag or container to save time and avoid mess.

Carrots and celery strips: Cut when you have time, and store in the refrigerator, taking as needed.

Dried Fruit: Cranberries, cherries, blueberries, and mangoes are great additions to low-fat yogurt, oatmeal, cold cereal, or low-fat pudding.

Single Dried Plums: Each dried plum (prune) is individually wrapped.  High-antioxidant nutrition!

Cherry Tomatoes: Bite-sized and nutritionally loaded.  Eat like grapes!

Bag of baby carrots: They’re already peeled, they’re bite-sized, and they’re ready for quick cooking in the microwave or for snacking with low-fat dressing.

Source: Today’s Dietitian, August, 2011