As I wrote last week, there’s a clear benefit to limiting our intake of ultra-processed foods, and cooking from scratch at home works only for some. So what about the rest of the people the rest of the time?
The good news is there are ways to bridge the gap between ultra-processed foods and unprocessed or minimally processed foods while keeping time, energy and budget constraints in mind. As long as you have a functional kitchen and some sort of food budget — if you don’t, ultra-processed foods may be the difference between eating and not eating — these tips can help you aim for better eating:
Don’t be beholden to fresh. Fresh fruits and veggies have a reputation for being “the best,” but at the end of the day, what’s most important is eating enough of them. That’s hard to do if you run out or are afraid to open the crisper drawer because you know the contents haven’t been crisp for weeks. Nutritionally, there’s little difference between fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables, and when it comes to cost and shelf life, sometimes fresh isn’t your best bet.
Batch-prep ingredients. If batch-cooking entire meals isn’t your thing, batch-prepping ingredients can still save time and money. Make a batch of brown rice or another whole grain and freeze the extra in single-serving or family-size portions. Chop and slice enough raw vegetables to use in salads and stir-fries (served on top some of that reheated brown rice).
Make one-dish meals. Chilis, soups, stews and casseroles can all be tasty vehicles for your protein of choice, whole grains and lots of veggies. Leftovers are easy to pack for lunch, reheat for dinner, or freeze for later. Which brings me to …
Learn to love leftovers. Whether it’s part of last night’s restaurant entree or a serving of a pot of soup I made on Sunday, I view leftovers as a gift — something nourishing and delicious (or at least acceptably tasty) that I only have to heat up and plate up. That said, I know people who swear they don’t like leftovers.
If this is you, investigate why. Scarred by a childhood of soggy leftovers? Crave daily variety? Your leftovers don’t have to resemble your mother’s leftovers, and leftover cooked protein, grains and vegetables can be repurposed to quickly throw together totally different meals. That leftover grilled chicken could go in tacos, an entree salad, a grain bowl or a stir-fry.
Take small steps. Food processing exists on a continuum, from ultra-processed to unprocessed. Can you take one step toward unprocessed? For example, muesli instead of cold cereal, a Mexican brown rice bowl instead of a quesadilla, whole-wheat pastry flour instead of all-purpose white flour (I’ve been doing this for years, with absolute success).
Mind your food environment. All foods can have a place in your diet (unless you’re allergic or intolerant to them), but if you’re trying to eat more unprocessed and minimally processed foods, they have to be as convenient to grab when you’re hungry, and maybe tired on top of it, as takeout or a frozen pizza.
If you would be perfectly happy to snack on an apple and a handful of almonds, but always tend to grab the bag of cheddar popcorn because it’s right there, consider filling your fridge and pantry with less-processed foods that you also enjoy. And put them front and center!