As a culture that is always on the go, it’s hard to imagine where our lives would be without ready-made processed foods. They save us money, headaches, and make it possible to schlep from work to picking the kids up from school to soccer practice without starving.
They’re called “convenience foods” for a reason. But as convenient as they may be, healthy they are not. Store-bought, processed foods are packed with empty calories, added sugars, sodium, artificial preservatives, and plenty of other ingredients disguised under fancy scientific names. And while the “all-natural” pre-packaged foods you find at natural health retailers often use much healthier, safer ingredients, even they call on preservatives to maintain shelf life and ingredients to woo your taste buds.
Does this mean you should completely give up processed foods? No, that seems unlikely. In fact, you would probably be setting yourself up for failure. But, you can start to limit your consumption of processed foods by making them from scratch.
That might sound unfeasible but read on.
There are a number of commonly consumed processed foods that can easily be whipped up using healthier ingredients in your pantry. Not only will you know exactly what ingredients are in the resulting product, but it’s also a culinary adventure. Imagine the amusement when you tell dinner guests that the ketchup they are pouring over their potatoes is a homemade concoction.
Here are a few processed foods you can make healthier versions of at home.
1. Pasta Sauce
Many canned or jarred pasta sauces are high in sodium and contain added sugar. Skip the processed version and make your own. Chop or purée fresh, organic tomatoes in a food processor or blender and sauté in a pan with minced garlic, olive oil, pepper, sea salt, and whatever other vegetables or herbs tickle your taste buds. You can store any leftover sauce in a glass jar in the refrigerator or put it in a plastic bag or plastic container in the freezer if you plan to use it at a later date.
2. Salad Dressing
During your next journey to the grocery store, make a point to review the label of some of your favorite salad dressings. Maltodextrin, modified food starch, corn syrup solids, autolyzed yeast extract, sodium chloride-these are just a few of the processed ingredients that you will find on the label of dressings marketed as “all-natural” at major grocers. Healthier dressings don’t always fare better. While some ingredients aren’t so bad, you can make a healthier, simple version. Shake up some extra-virgin olive oil (or whichever oil you prefer) and red wine vinegar with ingredients such as minced garlic, honey, shallots, lime or lemon juice, Dijon mustard, and dry herbs. Then put in a glass bottle with a spout. Voilà! There are thousands of recipes on websites and Pinterest!
Kids love to drizzle ketchup on almost anything. While this Americanized condiment isn’t technically high in fat or calories, that bottle of the sweet red stuff is often loaded with artificial sugar and sodium. A homemade version is quick and easy with ingredients such as puréed tomatoes, honey, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, cayenne, garlic, onion, and cider vinegar. Pinterest is again your savior here with plenty of fresh, gourmet ketchup recipes.
4. Tortilla Chips
Chuck the Tostitos! Make crunchy, healthier tortilla chips in less than an hour with just a few ingredients. You can find a slew of recipes for homemade tortilla chip recipe online. A simple reciple just calls for sea salt, grapeseed oil (or oil of choice), limes, and masa harina (fine-ground corn flour available at Mexican grocers). If making tortillas from scratch is a bit too much work, you can also purchase corn tortillas from your local health food grocer.
Breakfast cereals are a dime a dozen. They are also conventionally packed with artificial sugar and dyes, sodium, and partially hydrogenated oils. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHT), an ingredient also found in embalming fluid and antifreeze, is commonly used to preserve freshness. (Yes, the response is: Gross.) You can easily make your own cereal mix with granola, steel-cut oats, millet, or quinoa. Not only will it make tasty breakfast cereal, but you can also use the mix as an on-the-go snack or as a topping on yogurt or ice cream. Get some make-your-own ideas from Naturally Savvy online.
You can find 100-plus processed foods that you can make at home online, but this one deserves special recognition. As proof to its popularity, one jar of Nutella is sold every 2.5 seconds across the world. This smooth, rich, chocolate-hazelnut hybrid seems like a gift born from the heavens, but do you know what’s in it? The top two ingredients on the label are sugar and modified palm oil. Indulge in a much healthier, less processed version with mostly hazelnuts (or hazelnut butter), and some cocoa powder, vanilla extract, coconut oil, sugar, and salt.