There's no shortage of advice about what to eat: home-cooked food, less — much less — processed food. But with work or soccer practice or whatever it is that cuts into our time, it's not always easy figuring out what the family should consume.
Many recommendations seem unrealistic and make for plenty of guilt and not much good food. So we asked nutritionists Elizabeth Lee, a registered dietitian in Orange County and co-founder of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, and Andy Bellatti, a registered dietitian based in Las Vegas who often writes about food marketing, to look around the supermarket for some conveniences that won't break the health bank.
Steel-cut oats (They can be started the night before: Boil water, add oats, turn off the heat and leave until morning; then cook for about five minutes.) and quick-cooking oats. If they are too time consuming, Bellatti recommends a cold cereal called Uncle Sam, because it's low in sugar, high in fiber and has flax seeds. Eat it with fresh fruit.
Lunch or dinner
Dr. McDougall's soups. Bellatti says they are low in sodium with healthy doses of fiber and protein. Some versions are bean- or whole grain-based. And the spices come in a packet that lets the diner decide how much to use. "There are so many soups on the market that are sodium bombs," he explains.
Frozen fruit and vegetables. Look for brands and packages with nothing added, Lee says. They're an easy way to add produce to the diet. As an example, she suggests layering fruit and yogurt or adding vegetables to pasta sauce. In a similar vein, she gives a thumbs up to those trays of cut-up carrots and celery, as well as cooked and packaged beets or peeled chunks of winter squash.
Fantastic World Foods. The brand includes vegan, falafel and veggie burger mixes; a tofu scrambler; and taco mix. Bellatti says that, while not everyone is familiar with falafel, it's easy to make. Just add water to the mix and cook the bean-based patties in a skillet or the oven. The patties are often fried but don't need to be.
San Gennaro polenta. It comes in a tube and is easy to slice and heat in a pan or oven for a gluten-free meal with whole-grain corn, Bellatti says. If you want to add a jarred tomato sauce, he suggests Muir Glen.
Artisan Bistro frozen meals. Bellatti notes that Artisan Bistro sells such healthful fare as kale sun-dried tomato-pesto chicken (230 calories), grass-fed beef with mushroom sauce (350 calories) and wild Alaska salmon (280 calories).
Ezekiel bread. A hearty sprouted-grain sandwich bread, often sold refrigerated. Bellatti and Lee also suggest natural peanut butter, which generally is made with just peanuts and salt. Look for jars with the layer of oil on top. "People often think that means something is wrong, but it doesn't," Lee says.
Other easy grains include Uncle Ben's brown basmati Ready Rice and Seeds of Change brand quinoa and brown rice with garlic. Both take 90 seconds in the microwave.
Popcorn. It's one of those foods with a "health aura," Lee says. In bagged popcorn, look for plain and low-salt varieties. For a kids' party, she suggests putting out plain popped corn and letting kids flavor it with nuts, herbs and grated Parmesan cheese.
Diana's Bananas. Dark chocolate-covered frozen bananas. They're great for people who want something sweet without much of a splurge after dinner, Bellatti says.
Nuts and seeds. They're easy to pack or keep in a desk at work. They also can be added to salads, pastas or rice, and used for pestos. Look for those without flavoring and, for economy, buy them from bulk bins.
Hummus and salsa. Lee says they can be used as dips, but hummus works also in place of mayonnaise in salads and on sandwiches, diluted with a little lemon juice or water for an appealing consistency. And salsa goes well in omelets or on vegetables, she says. Buy chunkier, fresh versions, she adds.
Wholly Guacamole. It's sold refrigerated in full-size and mini containers, and unlike some brands, Bellatti says, this one has no sour cream added. Another plus: the fat in avocados is heart-healthy.
Be armed with reality when checking food labels
A couple of general shopping tips:
Don't just check calories. Fifty avocado calories are not the same as 50 Cheetos calories, registered dietitian Elizabeth Lee says. And if the calorie count seems low and the dish sounds lush, like fettucine Alfredo, Lee advises asking yourself, "How do you think they did that?"
Don't be fooled by packaging such as farm scenes on bags or labels on package fronts that suggest health benefits. Lee called out the Jolly Time "Healthy Pop Butter" microwave package, which touts an endorsement from Weight Watchers and says it's 94% fat free. It says 0 grams of trans fats on the package front and on the nutrition facts panel. But the ingredients include "partially hydrogenated soybean oil (adds a dietarily insignificant amount of trans fat per serving)." Oils that are partially hydrogenated create artificial trans fats, which are not healthful, even in small amounts, registered dietitian Andy Bellatti says. Federal rules allow companies to say they have 0 grams per serving if the total is less than 0.5 grams. And, of course, experts note that many people eat more than one serving.
There's also no butter listed, though "natural flavors" are.
Bellatti notes that some microwave popcorns are more healthful than others, "but popcorn is so easy to make" and very inexpensive. Microwave poppers that require no oil are available for $10 to $20.