We've been told for quite some time that the only food worth buying is the food in the perimeter of the store. That's because in most grocery stores, that's where the fresh produce, meats, dairy, and freshly-baked foods reside. (I should point out that in my local Publix, the beer is also on the perimeter of the store, but I digress.)
That logic is sound—if not unclear. Yes, fruits, vegetables, lean meats, dairy, and breads with no preservatives are on the outside of many grocery stores, but that doesn't mean you should avoid the aisles altogether. It's true that's where all the processed neon-colored potato chips and the trans fat-filled pastries reside, but it's also where you'll find nut butters and grains, flour and canned beans—all things you can and should eat in a healthy diet.
To help clear the air on processed foods and strike a balance between sticking to the perimeter and heading into the aisles with one arm tied behind your back for fear of loading up on junk, we asked two registered dietitians—our own Nutrition Editor Sidney Fry and Brooklyn-based healthy lifestyle expert and CL contributor Frances Largeman-Roth—to list for us the processed foods they actually do buy and would recommend you buy, too.
Nut Butter: "If there's time, I'll make my own, but buying one off the shelf is super convenient," Sidney says. Her advice: Keep it simple. Look for nut butters with a 2-ingredient list, just nuts and maybe a little salt. For an easy breakfast, slather a tablespoon or two on a piece of whole-grain toast. Enjoy a tablespoon of almond butter with pear slices for a quick afternoon snack. For a post-dinner sweet treat, spoon some onto a graham cracker.
Frozen Pizza: It's the ultimate timesaver, a ready-made pie that's warm and bubbly in just minutes. It's definitely faster than delivery, and the calorie savings are mighty. Not just any frozen pizza will do for these nutritionists though. "I choose the ones made by FreshDirect (a food delivery service in the NYC area) because I consider them to be fresher than the ones at the supermarket that may have been sitting in the freezer for months." If FreshDirect isn't an option, we like California Pizza Kitchen's Gluten-Free Margherieta. Why gluten-free if you don't have a gluten sensitivity? First, they use brown rice flour, which makes the crust whole grain. Second, it's just really good. The toppings are fresh and bright, and the crust is crispy thin.
Frozen Vegetables and Fruit: If we've said it once, we've said it a million times: frozen fruits and vegetables—as long as they don't have added fruits, oils, salt, or flavoring—are just as nutritious as the fresh variety. That's especially true with out-of-season produce. "Frozen fruit is picked at peak ripeness, so it may even be more nutritious than the stuff at the store, which probably flew across the country and then sat for a couple of days," Frances says.
The options are as simple or as complicated as you want. "Our toddler loves broccoli and corn. In summer, I make corn on the cob, but we like to keep the frozen stuff on hand year around," Frances says. "And for my kids I actually like the smaller frozen broccoli florets better than the larger ones on a fresh stalk—they're just easier to eat."
What's more, frozen vegetables and fruit are a great way for you to add to your daily veggie count through quick additions to mealtime staples. "I also throw them in quiches and soup. We keep some frozen organic fruit on hand for smoothies and sauces," she says.
Canned Beans: How in the world are canned beans considered "processed?" Good thing you asked. "When a food undergoes a deliberate change before it is made available for us to eat (including a method used to preserve that food, such as freezing, drying, or canning), it is defined as processed," Sidney says. That's the case with canned beans. They're cooked and then packaged for long-term shelf storage, but they're an insanely good source of plant-based protein and fiber, and they're extremely versatile. Sidney suggests you look for the organic and unsalted varieties.
Organic Stocks and Broths: We call for these essential cooking agents in so many meals—from mac and cheese to sautéed chicken and pan sauces. But unless you're steeping bones for hours to make rich homemade broth and stock, you're going to need to look elsewhere for supplying your pantry. Be sure to look for low-sodium options.
Whole-Grain Bread: This is another staple in Sidney's pantry—and likely yours, too. But finding a good bread is tough, she says. "Most store-bought breads have lots of stabilizers, preservatives, and additives. Think about it—fresh-baked breads last a few days. Most shelf-stable loaves last weeks," she says. If you can't buy bread every other day from your local baker (and many of us can't), look for brands like Ezekiel or Dave's Killer Bread that come with no additives or things you don't want. You'll find Ezekiel in the freezer. It's also a good idea to store and keep these types of bread in the freezer. Sitting in the kitchen, it's spoiler much faster and have a shorter shelf-life.
Dairy: "I can't start my day without yogurt," Sidney says. "I make sure the ingredient list is clean--just milk, cream (I like 2%!), and active cultures." You can also use yogurt in a variety of delicious ways, in everything from Frozen Breakfast Parfait Pops to potato salad.
Butter, too, Sidney points out is processed, so unless you're churning your own (which would be really awesome), you're going to need to pick some up at the store. "A little butter goes a long way and does wonders for a pan full of veggies, on occasion," she says.
Canned Tuna: We know we need two to three servings of seafood each week, but that can be tricky if you're not purposeful with your food planning. Convenient options are in the aisles. "I keep canned albacore tuna on hand for adding to salads and making sandwiches," Frances says. "There's one from Bumble Bee that I really like because it has added omega-3 fats from tuna oil. Can't get enough of those omega-3s!" We also like Wild Planet's wild albacore tuna in extra-virgin olive oil. Be sure to check the sodium on any can you buy. Try it in Tuna, Olive, and Wheat Berry Salad.
Frozen Fish: While we're talking about the heart-healthy benefits of lean fish, Sidney points out that frozen fish is a great option, too. "Much of the fish you find behind the counter was previously frozen," she says. "Don't hesitate to head to the freezer section and buy frozen, individually-wrapped filets for convenience."
Cheese: You won't catch us avoiding cheese just because it's "processed." Actually, cheese is inherently processed, and we're not talking that imitation cheese product stuff. We're talking milk and cream, enzymes and salt made-in-a-cellar cheese. "Cheese is part of the reason America is more likely to eat their vegetables," Sidney says. "Not the pre-shredded or shelf-stable block. I mean real cheese. Even pre-shredded has additives to keep those shreds separate. Buy the block and shred it at home."
Fermented Foods: This is a wholly new trend but an entirely ancient type of food. "Fermenting is a form of processing that adds nutritional value to a food with the addition of healthy bacteria," Sidney says. "Foods like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, and kefir are all high on my list of fridge staples." Just avoid the brands that have been pasteurized, which kills all the good bacteria. The best place to look: the refrigerated section. The many canned and shelf-stable varieties are likely pasteurized.
Snack Bars: If you've not noticed, the snack bar market is exploding with each passing day. Some are packed with protein powders, fruit fillers, dried superfoods, and other odd things you really just don't want in anything you're eating. Look for straightforward bars with an ingredient list that reads cleanly and clearly.
Frances prefers KIND Bars. "Of course I'm an advocate for snacking on fresh fruit and vegetables, but the reality is that I'm often hopping on the subway right before lunchtime and need a quick pre-meeting or pre-workout snack that provides protein," she says. "KIND Bars are mostly made from nuts and dried fruit and are very low in sugar. My personal fave is the Dark Chocolate, Nuts & Sea Salt."
Frozen Waffles: "Yes, I do own a waffle iron, but when 3 little kids are simultaneously asking for breakfast, time is of the essence," Frances says. "I always have a box of frozen organic waffles in the freezer for the kids, and I also use them sometimes as a post-workout snack for myself. I like that they're fortified with iron, zinc, vitamin B12, and folic acid. Kids can be erratic eaters, so I like the fact that they can get important nutrients in with the waffles." At Cooking Light, we're fans of Van's Totally Original Organic Waffles. Try one as a snack in our Maple-Ricotta Waffle.
Oatmeal: All forms of oatmeal—steel cut and old-fashioned, too—are considered processed, but they're all very healthy and great for your diet. What's maybe not so great? The boxes of flavored instant variety. Most of them are loaded with unnecessary salt, sugar, and artificial ingredients. Go simple with plain oats, and add your own topping. Find inspiration in these Low-Cal Oatmeal Toppings. Try it in Lemon-Blueberry with Mascarpone Oatmeal.
Chicken Sausage: From kebabs to stir-fry meals, chicken sausage is an easy way to add filling protein to vegetable-based dinners. Most sausages are packed with unhealthy sat fat, so opt for chicken sausage when you can. Frances prefers Applegate's Organic Chicken Sausages. "They're tasty, organic, super convenient, and the whole family can eat them," she says. "When I'm pressed for time and don't really have a plan for dinner, these come to my rescue." Try them in Chicken Sausage and Broccoli Rabe Penne.
Juices: Again, this is one of those foods that you certainly could make on your own—like milled flours or homemade nut butters—but when time is of the essence and you really don't want to drag out your juicer, store-bought options are so worth the money. "It's really quite a chore to clean [a juicer], and we don't have much counter space in our Brooklyn kitchen, so I prefer to buy juice," Frances says. "We always have orange juice in the fridge, as well as apple cider and often beet juice."
Whole-Grain Flours: Unless you're milling your own grains into flour (which is really cool if you are, and we'd really love to talk with you about how you do it), store-bought flour is just so much more convenient (not to mention realistic). "I wish I could say I milled my own grains into flour!" Sidney says. "Instead, store-bought whole-grain flours work just fine." We even offer some advice on baking with whole grains to get you started. Try white whole-wheat flour in our Fluffy Buttermilk Drop Biscuits.