Think Thin Tuesday: My Top 5 Cheap & Healthy Convenience Foods
Someone was asking me the other day to write some top 5 lists and to share more about healthy things I do/eat. I’ve noticed a real “get healthy” trend this summer amongst friends, coworkers, neighbors…I’m starting to think it’s people in general that are trying to get healthier. This pleases me to no end. It could just be that bathing suit season spurs folk into thinking about trimming the waistline but I’m hoping that there is a real push back happening in American culture. Never has a nation been so well fed and yet so malnourished. The diatribe on how we got here is boring and my soap box is away today so instead let’s just push ahead and figure out where to go from here. No instead I’m gonna give you five awesome products AND a recipe for an easy condiment you can make with common ingredients to compliment some of your purchases.
Getting healthy is hard. It requires a serious commitment of time, money or both. Healthy food is far too expensive in cash and time. A big part of the reason we have gotten so fat is the proliferation of junk convenience food. With two parent households where both work who has time to think about preparing food, getting the right nutrients and maintaining the right caloric balance? Not everyone has time, or can make the time, to cook. Some of you might just want things that you can buy, have on hand and eat pre-made. Sometimes baking your own kale chips for snacking just isn’t practical. Nothing wrong with that. I have a number of packaged, delicious foods I love to buy but a number of them are far from cheap. As a single girl in her 20’s I can afford to spend a little more on healthy items that I want in my diet but I know $4 bottles of fermented vegetable juice aren’t practical for families on budgets. I do want to introduce some of these exotic items to you, my dear reader, but slowly so as not to shock your system. Today I am only focusing on foods that I’m sure you can find at local grocery stores or Costco. Being in California I’m a bit spoiled by a slight cultural bias toward healthy foods. As such I recognize my Costco might stock some items unfamiliar to other regions. So I’m even going to exclude what seem to be specialty or rarer items.
You’ll notice one thing other thing…there’s no meat mentioned here. Why? Basically it comes down to you can’t eat your cake and have it too. Unfortunately at this time there is no way to purchase healthy meat, raised on grass and/or the *correct* grains, free of antibiotics that is also low in cost, pre-cooked and nationally available. I have a ton of great meat sources…but this list is designed to be as accessible as possible. I am not advocating a vegetarian lifestyle I just can’t bring myself to recommend any meat products that aren’t good for you, the environment and the animals themselves. Don’t worry though. If you enjoy this kind of information I’ll do a Top 5 Meat Eaters List of healthy products. Maybe even a top 10 if I’m feeling particularly Carnivorous that day.
Top 5 “Healthful” prepared foods that won’t break the bank.
- Milton’s Multi-Grain Bread – I figured I should start with a household staple and for many families that’s sliced bread. Nothing beats the convenience of a sandwich. PB&J is a classic staple of the American grade school student. Such a shame that the mechanism of delivery, classic white bread, has absolutely no value to your diet. Instead try to amp up the nutrition with whole grain and nut breads. It’s a good way to work in extra protein, fiber and heart healthy fats. Milton’s isn’t the best multi grain seed bread on the market but I do believe it’s the most widely distributed and it has the bonus of tasting damn good. You’ll get important minerals and feel far more satisfied if you use this for any sandwich.
***Honorable Mention: Alpine Valley organic multi grain with Omega-3 only distributed in UT, NV, CA, NM and TX this bread is my top choice from what I’ve seen offered at mega-marts. It’s only about 70-80 calories a slice compared to Milton at 110 and it is dense, sweet and oh so delicious. It will fill you up and leave you so satisfied you won’t believe it’s healthy. The only problem being that it’s not distributed outside a few states and so it’s only an HM rather than my number 1 on the list. I really hope this changes….
- Morningstar Veggie Burgers : since I can’t bring myself to recommend sub-par meat, I’m going to give you the next best thing. Veggie burgers have come a long way over the years and these are actually really delicious. I would eat them just because I enjoy the flavor but thank my healthy stars these are good for me too! These veggie burgers can be bought in bulk and microwaved directly out of the frozen box if you need to. Of course they taste better grilled but hey, sometimes you only have 2 minutes to spare right? The original veggie burger is around 110 calories, with 10 grams of protein, high in fiber and low in fat. The even better part? Morningstar has a huge line of varieties and flavors. They almost all range in the 100-200 calories mark, some going as high as 19 grams of protein and all at a fat reduction of 50-70% than your classic fast food burger. Give it a try and I promise you’ll be surprised.
- Unsweetend Vanilla Almond Milk: Regular ol’ cows milk is delicious but again, if you are pinching pennies, odds are you can’t afford stuff from well fed cows and you really aren’t doing yourself any nutritional favors buying crap from factory farmed Holsteins. Almond milk is a great substitution in your diet. Why? It’s got an equivalent amount of calcium and as a bonus it is high in range of additional vitamins and minerals…stuff you won’t get out of milk from a cow raised on anything other than healthy grasses. It’s low in fat and what fats it does contain are heart healthy fats. On top of all that 1 cup serving is only 35-45 calories (depending on the brand) compared to Skim Milk at 100 calories. While this list is more focused on nutrition than weight loss I didn’t want to neglect that added bonus for those of us looking to reduce a little belly fat in addition to getting healthier. The only downside? Well almond milk is pretty pathetic in the protein department however that’s not an area where most american diets are lacking. Personally I like to use it for the liquid base of an after-workout protein shake so I’m not really all that concerned. Bottom line: if you are getting all your protein from cow’s milk, don’t switch to almond. If like any blue-blooded american you eat protein at breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, dinner…you can make the switch to this otherwise healthier alternative with little fear.
- Bare Naked Baked Apple Chips – Mmmmmmm. I’ve mentioned these before but I couldn’t resist bringing them to my list. As a snack food these are the tops. A serving is at least half the calories as any storebrand potato chip. On the nutrient front? Let’s see: empty carbohydrates from potatoes fried in fat versus fiber, vitamins, gluten free, fat free snackums. Do I really even need to extol their virtues further? Okay how about this. Part of getting healthy means kicking bad habits that keep us unhealthy. Potato chips are so dangerous in part because they are made to keep us eating. The high levels of sodium and low fiber content mean you constantly crave more without feeling full. These apple chips do the exact opposite. While they contain some sugar they also have fiber and zero salt so you wind up feeling full. While it’s easy to keep eating any snack item mindlessly, your body isn’t going to be driven by a feedback loop to continue craving these when you close the bag. Bonus these come in a cinnamon apple flavor that really does taste like crunchy, healthy little apple pie bites but still no added sugars!
- Kashi Chewy Granola Bars – The penultimate convenience food are snack bars and yet they are so often unhealthy. I get frustrated that almost anything I pick up is guaranteed to be either very high in calories or very low in nutrition. Usually the 90 calorie bars are also really un-filling and you wind up needing to eat something else shortly thereafter which hardly makes for a successful snack. The higher calorie bars are meant to be meal replacers but most people don’t treat them that way. Look if you are a marathon runner or skipping lunch today, a Luna/Cliff/Whathaveyou bar is a great inclusion in your diet. If you want something healthy to eat in between your usual three meals a day as a snack, at 210-320 calorie bar “nutrition bar” isn’t doing you any good. Enter the Kashi chewy granola bar. Depending on the flavor you get, the calorie content ranges from 120 to 140…far more in line with a snack food. Kashi has a variety of products but I think the “chewy granola” bar line is the superior snack. They are actually lower in calories than the “goleans” and higher in nutrition. They’ve got fiber from whole grains, long term energy benefits from proteins and good fats in the nuts and just enough sugar to be delicious and add some energy but not enough to feel guilty about. Best of all, I can eat these slowly and get some satisfaction out of it. Most 90 calorie “snack brownies” are inhaled in two seconds and they taste so boring that it’s hardly worth it at all. Costco sells the trail mix variety of these in bulk for me. Bonus: If you eat one of these as a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack, you’ll find that you’re less hungry when meal time rolls around.
If you decide to go out and buy yourself those veggie burgers but don’t know what to put on them, or want to liven up a sandwich on some of that newfangled seed bread I recommended, then look on a little further. I’m not going to conclude this without a recipe! Perish the thought. Here’s a great condiment you can make using cheap ingredients, stuff you probably got as a housewarming gift and never used up, and that you can keep in the fridge for ages.
Spicy Oregano ChimiChurri Sauce
from Bon Apetit Magazine August 2012
- 1/3 cups dried oregano
- 1 1/2 tablespoons (or more) crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 cup warm water
- 1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 4 garlic cloves (or more), minced
- 1/2 teaspoon (or more) kosher salt
- 2/3 cup (or more) olive or sunflower oil
- Red wine vinegar
Combine 1/3 cup dried oregano and 1 1/2 Tbsp. crushed red pepper flakes in a small bowl. Add 1 cup warm water and massage mixture with your hands. Let stand until oregano and pepper flakes are softened and water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Add 1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, 4 minced garlic cloves, and 1/2 tsp. kosher salt. Stir in 2/3 cup (or more) olive or sunflower oil; let stand for at least 1 hour or chill for up to 2 days to let the flavors meld. Season sauce to taste with red wine vinegar and more garlic, salt, or oil, if desired.
Be warned this stuff is HOT HOT HOT. If you don’t like a ton of heat dial down the red pepper to 1/2 Tbsp or 1 Tbsp if you are mildly daring. If you use the unadulterated spicy version you’ll find a single teaspoon serving of the stuff goes a long way on a burger or in a sandwich for a caloric expenditure of only 30 cal/tsp.