Whether you’re suffering from cooking fatigue or you only have 10 minutes to get supper on the table between your seventh Zoom call and the end of the kids’ school day, product shortcuts are an efficient way to whip up a meal that’s tasty and easy to put together. But not all pre-made options are created nutritionally equal.
Processed products like canned soup, salad dressing and even pasta sauce can be full of sodium, refined sugar and fat to preserve their shelf life and enhance their flavor, adding hidden calories to a meal. On the other hand, they can also be an efficient way to get vitamins and nutrients without the hassle of peeling and chopping and cooking. Brands are responding to consumers’ desire for healthier options, so reading the label can be an essential step when picking one option over another.
Below, nutritionists rate your options and provide healthy suggestions.
#1 (Healthiest) Canned fruit or vegetables
Fiber-rich and vitamin-filled, canned fruits and veggies can boost the nutrient quotient in soups, stews, spreads and more. As registered dietitian nutritionist Karen Ansel pointed out, “Hardly anyone eats enough produce, and canned fruits and vegetables make it easy. The key is to look for those closest to their natural state as possible, with little to no added salt or sugars.”
Canned beans, the dietitians were quick to note, are some of the healthiest foods to pick up at a grocery store, packing a protein punch to whatever dish they’re added to, whether blitzed into a spread or thrown into a salad.
Consider grabbing frozen if your budget or space allows for it, as sugar syrup typically coats canned fruit, and a heavy sodium broth covers canned veggies. Both frozen and canned produce is picked and preserved at the peak of its freshness, ensuring the maximum quantity of antioxidants.
#2 Jarred pasta sauce
Nothing is simpler than opening a jar of pasta sauce and cooking some noodles for a lazy weeknight meal. Marinara sauce stars tomatoes, which are rich in the heart-healthy antioxidant lycopene. Lycopene becomes bioavailable (in other words, able to be absorbed by the body) in the heating process, which means cooked tomatoes are extra good for you. Pre-made pasta sauce can be high in added sugar so registered dietitian nutritionist Vicki Retelny advised you make sure sugar isn’t listed among the first five ingredients.
“Jarred sauce can taste great with no added sugar,” she said. “However, I’d stick with a teaspoon (or less than 4 grams) per serving, whenever possible.”
#3 Prepared pesto
Rich and decadent, with a blend of nuts, Parmesan and olive oil, jarred pesto can be a calorically dense food full of healthy fats. Registered dietitian nutritionist Kimberly Rose-Francis said omega-3 fatty acids found in olive oil can reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol and support heart health, a great choice in moderation. Be mindful of sodium in this shortcut, as it can add up with the addition of Parmesan. Look for a pesto containing less than 500 milligrams of sodium per serving.
#4 Canned soup
Whether it’s the base for a casserole or simply a meal in itself, canned soup can run the gamut of nutrient-dense to sodium-packed. Rose-Francis pointed out that we should opt for broth-based and legume- or veggie-filled soups as these contain beneficial fiber and protein. “Fiber is not only essential for digestion, but improves satiety, alleviates constipation and may even have the potential to lower blood sugar levels and the risk of Type 2 diabetes,” she said.
Canned soup is another convenience item that is now increasingly available in the frozen section, often with less sodium as a preservative. Try not to exceed 380 mg of sodium per serving, Rose-Francis added.
#5 Bottled salad dressing
“Studies show that salad dressing helps us absorb the fat-soluble vitamins in many salad veggies,” Ansel said. “Plus, it helps you eat more veggies overall, so it’s a winner in the overall big picture.”
Be mindful of serving sizes, as many popular, creamy dressings can be higher in fat than the oil-and-vinegar-based kind. Pro tip, toss your greens and veggies well to coat them and you won’t risk over-pouring.
Check out the cold or fresh section of your supermarket for some healthful prepared options. Beneficial ingredients like probiotics (coming from yogurt) or nuts, seeds and fresh herbs can provide a boost of flavor as well as nutrition.
Mostly healthy fat, mayonnaise is not a terrible food in the dietitians’ estimation. According to registered dietitian Barbara Ruhs, “Per a 1 tablespoon serving (of ‘real’ mayonnaise), there are 90 calories and 10 grams of fat, so it’s mostly fat. If you look at the breakdown, it’s 1.5 grams of saturated fat, 6 grams of polyunsaturated fat and 2.5 grams of monounsaturated fat. So out of that 10 total, nearly 8 grams is good fat.”
Fat is essential for absorbing specific vitamins, for the production of hormones and for our organs’ protection. As always, moderation is key. “The problem is if we eat too much fat, the body may store this excess consumption as fat if not utilized for energy,” Rose-Francis said. “Excess consumption of fat can result in unwanted weight gain that may lead to being overweight or obese.”
#7 Barbecue sauce
Barbecue sauce usually contains a lot of sugar, so be aware of ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, molasses and even pineapple concentrate as sweetening agents. As ingredients are listed by quantity on a nutrition label, the first few ingredients make up most of the product.
Looking for a swap? “If you’re looking for a sandwich spread, mustard is a much better choice as it’s super-low in calories, rarely has added sugar and is generally lower in sodium too,” Ansel noted. Barbecue sauces sweetened with natural sources, like dates, can prevent a blood sugar spike with their lower glycemic load.
#8 Pre-made pizza and pastry doughs
Pizza doughs or packaged pastry doughs don’t offer much nutrition; typically, they are a source of refined carbohydrates and fat. The difference between the homemade version and the store-bought kind may be in the addition of extra ingredients, like sugar or oil in pizza doughs or preservatives in both to extend their shelf life. Homemade versions may have a different ratio of ingredients: for example, using less salt. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for these pre-made versions at your table.
“Try adding fresh fruit to your pies, or nuts and seeds that are beneficial to your health. This way, you’re taking the emphasis off the pie crust or dough,” Retelny said. “Adding more fiber, or adding more vegetables, are some ways to boost the nutritional value in those foods and not feel like there is guilt associated with using the pie crust.”
#9 Bouillon cubes
An excellent flavoring agent and pantry staple, bouillon is essentially dehydrated veggies, fat and salt. It’s a super-convenient way to get your soups started, but can be a substantial sodium source.
“The amount of sodium a person is recommended to eat in a day amounts to less than 1 gram or 1,000 mg. That is about 1 teaspoon of salt!” Ruhs said. Half of a standard cube contains 1,200 mg of sodium, with instructions to add 8 ounces of water. Instead, use it for a batch of soup to make 6-8 servings.
#10 (Least healthy) Cornbread and pancake mix
Savoring a slice of cornbread with a meal or a pancake in the morning is ultra-satisfying on an emotional level, but perhaps not the most nutritionally balanced choice. If you want to boost the nutrition, opt for a protein-enriched option, according to Retelny, or add some whole grains.
But otherwise, enjoy whatever your choice is, especially if it’s not something you eat every day. “When I have a pancake, I just want to have a pancake,” Ruhs said. “I’m just going to use buttermilk and Bisquick; I’m not going to split hairs. If you’re not having it on a very regular basis, just have it the way that you like to eat it and focus on the rest of the plate.”