Here are our top ten healthy convenience food products that make dinner a little quicker and no less tasty.
February 08, 2011
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Healthy Convenience Foods
Cooking Light recipes rely on the freshest ingredients possible, but there are some convenience products that make even the freshest cooking easier and faster. Through years of recipe testing, we’ve learned that there are great time-cutting products out there that meet our standards—for nutrition and flavor. When buying any prepared foods, read labels carefully, paying particular attention to sodium. We’ve identified our top 10; comment below and tell us your favorites.
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1. Jarred Pasta Sauce
A good basic bottled marinara sauce can make quick work of so many dinners—from spaghetti and meatballs to lasagna—plus it makes a great quick pizza or dipping sauce. Instead of creamy white sauces, choose tomato-based sauces, which are lower in calories and provide valuable nutrients. In our taste test of store-bought pasta sauces, we selected Rao’s Homemade Tomato and Basil Marinara Sauce as our top all around pick, and our choice for the greatest value was Classico Tomato and Basil Pasta Sauce. Both are available in major supermarket chains.
Rotisserie chickens are a convenient and healthy choice whenever a recipe calls for cooked chicken. Always remove the skin before chopping or shredding the meat. They’re available in a variety of flavors, and all are great options since most of the added sodium will be discarded with the skin. We especially love shredded rotisserie chicken in Chicken and Guacamole Tostadas or Chicken and Glass Noodle Salad.
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3. Bagged Greens
Bagged greens of all types are now widely available, including spinach, arugula, kale, mustard greens, and watercress, just to name a few. It costs a little more, but buying bagged greens saves you the time and trouble of removing stems and removing excessive grit. Bagged greens require little more than a rinse and spin and they’re ready to go. We love them for making quick work of both baby spinach and turnip greens in Winter Greens, Asiago, and Anchovy Pizza or the base for a quick weeknight side salad.
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4. Fresh Pasta
Don’t limit yourself to dried pastas; many grocery stores carry fresh pasta in the refrigerated section. One of the healthiest choices among fresh pasta is the 100% whole-wheat variety. Made with whole-wheat flour, this type counts towards the recommended 3 servings of whole grains you need a day; plus, it provides a healthy dose of fiber. Stuffed pastas that contain cheese, such as this ravioli, have a higher fat and calorie level, but when prepared the right way can be a good option.
For soups, stews, sauces, and more, a quality canned broth can save a cook countless time in the kitchen. Sodium is a clear concern with canned broth, as well as taste, so we put low-sodium stocks and broths through our Taste Test panel to find the best. Our all around favorite chicken broth is Swanson’s Less-Sodium, Fat-Free Chicken Broth. It’s inexpensive, easy to find, and is a stand-by in our test kitchens. The pick for best vegetable broth was also by Swanson’s, with their Certified Organic Vegetarian Vegetable Broth.
Test kitchen tip: Simmer canned stock or broth with a bay leaf, whole spices, or dried crushed herbs that fit your recipe's flavor profile to boost taste.
While it’s often thought that fresh is better than canned, canned vegetables, including tomatoes, in fact stack up well nutritionally against fresh. Canned produce is often processed shortly after it’s harvested, so most of the nutrients are maintained in the canned version. However, sodium can be high in canned products, so look for “no-salt-added” or “less-sodium” options. No-salt-added canned tomatoes save you the time and effort of seeding, chopping, and peeling fresh tomatoes, and they work beautifully in many dishes, including Sausage, Pepper, and Onion Pizza, as toppings for bruschetta, or to make quick homemade salsa.
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7. Canned Beans
Beans are always a good nutrition choice, and canned beans offer loads of convenience. They provide a healthy dose of fiber and are wonderful vegetarian source of protein. But again, there’s no avoiding it: Canned beans contain sodium. Choose “no-salt-added” or “less-sodium” beans to minimize the sodium and be sure to check the labels. You can also reduce the sodium by draining the beans and then rinsing them in a colander before using. This step reduced the sodium by 40%. We love canned beans in Quick Black Bean and Corn Soup or Black-Eyed Pea Patties with Garlic Pepper Salsa.
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8. Boil in a Bag Brown Rice
Brown rice is a clear nutritional winner: It provides fiber, B vitamins, iron, and vitamin E. A ½-cup serving also serves up one-fifth of the daily recommendation for selenium, an antioxidant that helps regulate thyroid function and benefits the immune system. Going the boil-in-bag route makes brown rice one of the quickest ways to get more whole grains in your diet. Watch out for flavored rice mixes, which are very high in sodium and flavor additives. Stick with the basic variety and add your own flavor, like in our Quick Paella or Southeast Asian Fried Rice.
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9. Pre-made Pizza Dough
There are several varieties of prepared pizza doughs out there, and every one of them leads to one thing: homemade pizza where you control the toppings and thus the nutritional breakdown. Fresh pizza dough is available at the bakery of many grocery stores, and most pizzerias will sell their unbaked dough. Check if they have a whole heat variety. There are also many options for premade packaged pizza crusts, many of which come in thin-crust and whole wheat varieties. Try classic Pizza Margherita or Veggie Grilled Pizza using pre-made dough.
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10. Precut Produce
There are times when saving time means more than saving money, and when you’re having one of those days, we recommend precut produce as a fine option. Sure you can chop onions, bell pepper, and tomatoes yourself, but if buying the prechopped mix means you can have Spicy Louisiana Tilapia Fillets with Sautéed Vegetable Relish for dinner, then by all means, go for it.