I like to cook my own foods from scratch. I’m a firm believer that cooking from scratch is really the only way to know the quality of what I’m eating. But, while we have a goal to eat healthy, we just can’t do it all.
It’s virtually impossible for us to make every single thing we want to eat. Sure we can put together a marinade for our grass fed beef and pair it with some fresh vegetables for dinner. We can throw together a salad with homemade dressing or have a breakfast sandwich made from a fried egg atop a freshly baked biscuit.
But let’s dig a little deeper, shall we? When was the last time you brewed soy sauce because you needed a sprinkle or two in a stir-fry? Cooked up a batch of catsup so you could have a squirt to dip your french fries? Or made your own mayo because you were dying for an egg salad sandwich? Me, neither.
And, let’s face it, sometimes life gets in the way. We’re busy. We get tired. Unmotivated. Did your spouse really forget to tell you that he’s invited the Smiths to dinner? Or perhaps your son shows up with half the football team and wants to know what there is to eat.
Now, if we wanted to, we could surely go ahead and plan for all these contingencies. We could cook, bake, mix and ferment then dehydrate, can, and freeze it all. The problem with that is that aforementioned life to which we must attend. That and the fact that our storage spaces and freezers are only so big.
So here are some thoughts on how to stock your pantry – with 17 foods to include and 7 foods to avoid.
What Are Processed Foods?
Before we tackle the problems that we face every day, I’d like to do a quick review on what, exactly, are processed foods.
Processed foods are any foods that have been modified from its original state. This means, of course, that the moment you pick a tomato off the vine, you have altered or “processed” that food. I only bring this up because I want you to realize that the simple act of a food being processed is not an evil concept.
Foods have been processed since the beginning of mankind. This was usually done on a community or family level with food being hunted, raised or foraged while it’s abundant and then using various means of preserving it for use at a later date. When we cook fresh food in our own kitchen and freeze it for future use, we are also processing food.
It’s highly (or ultra) processed foods that we need to be on the lookout for. These are highly manipulated foods that contain many added ingredients and sometimes don’t contain any of the food it claims to be. Are you aware that some brands of coffee “creamers” are made from water, sugar and oil? Not a drop of dairy related anything.
The Bad Guys: Ultra Processed Foods
First let’s get to the bad guys: those highly (ultra) processed foods. While the food industry works hard to convince us that fruit flavored loopy things are good for us, one quick glance at the label tells us that it’s certainly nothing even a toucan would eat.
The secret to choosing healthier processed foods is no secret at all! A look at the label and ingredient list will tell you everything you need to know. Here are a few things to look for (and steer away from):
Low fat, low sugar and/or sugar free. Foods naturally contain fat and/or sugar to varying degrees and this is what makes them taste good. It’s important to remember that neither fat nor sugar is a bad thing when enjoyed in moderation. As a matter of fact, a certain amount of both is necessary for your body to function properly.
When foods are manipulated to remove naturally occurring fat or sugar, these are usually replaced by the opposite thing (fat for sugar and sugar for fat) or for artificial sweeteners such as Aspartame.
Artificially flavored or imitation. Translation: Chemical.
Any ingredient you don’t have in your kitchen. Or can’t pronounce. Or wouldn’t even know where to get.
Vegetarian fed chickens (or eggs). Chickens are not vegetarians and need the amino acid that are found in meat sources. Since chickens love bugs, a vegetarian chicken is surely not a free-range chicken. It’s a chicken that has been kept inside (away from bugs) and most likely fed a diet supplemented with a synthetic version of the amino acid methionine.
Healthy or Natural. These words could mean anything. Often it means that whatever the manufacturer started out with was healthy and/or natural (which most food is…when you start out) but it doesn’t mean it stayed that way.
Kid friendly. When was the last time your kid picked the healthiest option on the table? While there are exceptions, most kids, when left to their own devices, will pick the sugariest, most artificially brightly colored option they see. Especially if it’s being presented by a cartoon character.
Fortified or enriched. This means that something has been unnaturally added to the product. It’s a label typically plastered on an ultra processed food to make it seem healthier.
The Better Guys: Minimally Processed Foods
There are some products on the grocery shelves that are less processed and can be a good addition to your pantry for when life comes a’calling. The secret is, again, the label and ingredient list. Keywords to look for might be simply, organic, grass fed or free-range but the real test is to read the ingredient label. Make sure that whatever’s in the package are things you would add if you were making it yourself.
Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:
- Canned beans
- Frozen fruits and vegetables
- Canned pineapple
- Canned tomatoes
- Jarred spaghetti sauce
- Canned tuna
- Peanut butter (or other nut/seed butters)
- Canned pumpkin
- Frozen seafood
- Packaged cheese
- Unflavored nuts
- Boxed pasta
- Plain Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese
- Bread (organic or from a local bakery)
- Dark Chocolate
When You’re On The Go: Surviving Road Trips
Consider these options before you grab a hot dog from that street vendor:
Pack drinks and snacks. Even if you plan to stop somewhere for lunch, having a snack under your belt will ensure that you’re not starving when you make the decision on where to eat. Try some trail mix, fresh fruit and a water bottle.
Convenience store. More and more convenience stores are making an effort to accommodate those of us who want to maintain a healthy diet. Many offer single serving sizes of cheese, nuts, hard-boiled eggs and fresh fruits and salads. Remember to check the ingredient labels to make sure you’re not getting more than you bargained for!
Grocery store. When was the last time you thought to stop at the grocery store for a quick snack? There’s no shortage of healthy snacks to be found here!
Skip the chain restaurants. Look for smaller “Mom and Pop” restaurants that are more likely to make their goods from scratch. If you’re traveling to an unfamiliar territory, take the time to research restaurants in the area online. There are no shortage of apps that review local places and let you know the best option.
One Last Thought
We have certainly been spoiled with accessibility of a wide variety of foods that have become available to us over the last century . We can’t go back nor would we want to (and I have no intention of giving up catsup).
What we can do is strive to consume foods in their natural state, as much as possible, and adjust the amounts and combinations to most suit the needs of your own body.
The most important thing is to be kind to yourself. This is a learning journey and none of us is an expert. We can only do the best that we can each day and remember that life is meant to be enjoyed.
All my best,