Shop Smart: The Best Packaged Foods for Your Health
Americans eat 31% more packaged food than fresh food.
We buy more food that’s been frozen and processed than produce, beans, grains and other nutritious basics.
Of course, we understand why people buy packaged foods. They’re easy, quick, convenient. Despite all of our best intentions, when we’re in a rush, we sometimes have to supplement our fresh ingredients.
But before investing in freezer/pantry/snackable goods, how do we know which are the best for us?
Because of manufacturing costs, many packaged foods can be rather pricey, especially the ones that claim to be healthy and “natural.” Yet, as we’ve explored before, many food marketers use tricks to make us think our food is healthier than it really is. And we don’t want to waste our money on “heart-healthy” dinners that actually … aren’t.
Before you slap down your hard-earned cash, be the most informed consumer you can be by reading our ultimate guide to packaged foods, which will help you choose the best, healthiest options for your buck.
Want More?Expert Chef: How to Be a Foodie on a Budget
Two Things to Keep in Mind …
Always check portion sizes. It’s easy to eat an entire container of something without realizing it actually consists of two to three portions.
Also, watch your calories: The FDA allows a 20% margin of error on calorie reporting. If you commit to eating 2,000 calories per day and are actually eating 20% more (unwittingly), you could be eating 400 extra calories per day! If your goal is weight loss, err on the side of assuming that the packages you buy are under-declaring their calorie counts.
Finally, to make your next grocery trip easier, here are the best frozen pizza, ice cream, salad dressing, soup, frozen dinner, pasta—and more—for your health.
|If It Says …||Watch Out For||Try This Instead|
|Cans, Bottles, Jars and Packages|
|Soups||Generally high in sodium, but low in calories, fat and sugar; be extra-cautious on portion size, as one can usually contains multiple portions||Campbell’s just announced it’s phasing out BPA, which isn’t regulated in the U.S. and may leach into food, from the packaging of all its canned products|
|Sauces & Gravy||Beware added sugar and salt to tomato sauces; brown gravies tend to be packed with sodium, caramel coloring and MSG||Opt for sauce jars instead of cans because some can linings contain BPA; boxed tomato products like Pomi come in BPA-free boxes and only contain tomatoes|
|Vegetables||Canned vegetables are usually high in sodium and many can linings contain BPA||All canned vegetables from brand Eden Foods are BPA-free|
|Fruits||Many canned fruits have added sugar, so watch out for thick syrups; some cans may contain BPA||Look for fruits that come in 100% fruit juice with no added sugar; these will be packaged in plastic, not canned|
|Dressings||Bottled dressings are expensive and often unhealthy, containing extra sugar and lots of additives||Low-fat Italian dressing is one of the lowest-calorie options, though it’s often high in sodium. Of course, you can always just drizzle a little oil and vinegar!|
|Pasta||One of the healthiest choices, as noodles are relatively low in fat, sodium and sugar; pasta also contains a good amount of protein and fiber||Buy whole wheat pasta: Each portion has 24% of the fiber you need for the day|
|Frozen Snacks and Desserts|
|Pizza||Portion size–even a child would eat double the portion size of many brands; also watch out for “cheese substitute” and partially hydrogenated oil, both of which are synthetic ingredients||Newman’s Own is a great choice for pizza made with natural, wholesome ingredients|
|Fruits & Vegetables||Fruits and veggies are frozen at their peak of ripeness, so that’s a plus; beware offerings with added sugar, salt and sauces||Choose packages with nothing but the produce itself on the ingredient list (read more on freezing fresh produce)|
|Ice Cream, Frozen Yogurt and Sorbet||Low-fat ice cream can mean increased sugar and calories; “carb smart” can mean high fat; fro-yo doesn’t necessarily mean less sugar, fat or calories; sorbet is often very high in sugar||If you care most about sugar, choose fro-yo with low sugar. If you’re looking for “wholesome,” choose ice cream limited to ingredients like milk, eggs and sugar (such as Haagen-Dazs). If you want diet-friendly and don’t mind additives, try a Healthy Choice bar.|
|Traditional frozen dinners||High calories, fat, carbs, sugar and sodium; these may be cheaper than “organic” or “low-calorie” versions, but tend to be high in sodium and fat||Consider spending a little more money for healthier frozen options (we give a few brands we recommend below) or cooking in bulk and freezing your own homemade meals for later.|
|“Low-Calorie” or “Diet Conscious”||High in sugar (despite being low in calories); many contain artificial ingredients and preservatives||Healthy Choice brand tends to be, well, a healthy choice|
|Organic||No additives or genetically modified ingredients, but may be more expensive than traditional options; organic items can still be high in calories and fat!||We like Amy’s Kitchen because, though it tends to be pricier than non-organic, most meals are balanced, healthy and there’s great variety|
|Vegetarian||High carbs (given the lack of meat); non-organic brands can have a lot of artificial ingredients||Dr. Praeger’s is a good option–not too carb-heavy or full of additives|
|Kid-Friendly||Off-the-charts sugar, fat, calories and artificial ingredients!||It’s better to just serve healthy adult food, but Earth’s Best sells wholesome kids’ options … try these tips to make frozen food healthier for kids|
|Gluten-Free||Gluten-free meals can still be high in carbs, contrary to popular belief||Also the winner in the organic section, Amy’s Kitchen offers a number of great gluten-free options|