In our busy lives, the need for speed and convenience often clashes with our desire for nutritious meals, especially for busy parents. And let’s face it, what parent isn’t busy?! Finding the time to prepare healthy meals from scratch at every mealtime can be a daunting task.

As a food educator, I understand the challenges faced by many families and that’s why I’m sharing my top tips on how to navigate the aisles of prepackaged foods and make healthier choices without sacrificing convenience.

Nicola Burns-Thomson, Cool Food for Kids
  • Read the Labels like a Detective:

    The first step in selecting the healthier prepackaged and convenience foods is to carefully read the labels. Don’t let the claims on the front of the packaging fool you – go to the back and read the ingredients list.

    Avoid food that says it’s “low fat” and anything that is “free from” unless you have a dietary reason to avoid certain allergens.

    Look for products with minimal ingredients, aiming for five or less (although a dish with herbs and spices may add several more and that’s ok) and preferably with names that you recognise and can pronounce.

    Avoid items containing additives, colours, flavours, and added sugars in all their guises. The order of the ingredients starts with the heaviest first so you may think one brand is better than another as it’s lower in sugar but not realise they’ve used three types of sugar which added up make sugars the heaviest ingredient.

    Added sugar can be labelled as a whole host of things – just look at this list… cane sugar, brown sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate/purées, corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, lactose, galactose, maltose, glucose, crystalline sucrose, caramel, maple and agave syrups, dextrose, maltose, molasses, and treacle.

    Artificial sweeteners should be avoided too, such as sorbitol, xylitol, saccharine, aspartame, sucralose etc. These have been added to reformulated recipes so manufacturers can lower the total sugar content in food and drinks, for the sole purpose of avoiding the sugar tax.

    Food colours can cause behavioural issues in children so you may already be avoiding them in sweets without realising they’re being added to other food such as your pesto sauce or ready meal curry.

    “Flavourings” whether natural or not, can mean many different things and if we don’t know exactly what is in the food or drinks, we should be eating it.

  • Choose Frozen Fruits and Vegetables:

    While fresh produce is ideal, frozen fruits and vegetables are a convenient and nutritious alternative. They are often flash-frozen at peak ripeness, preserving their nutritional value. Frozen options are versatile and can be easily incorporated into meals, smoothies and snacks, saving time on preparation without compromising on health benefits. I always have frozen vegetables such as chopped onions, mixed berries and peas in our freezer.

  • Opt for Whole Grain Products:

    When selecting prepackaged grains such as bread, pasta, or rice, opt for whole grain varieties. They’re richer in fibre, vitamins, and minerals, providing sustained energy and promoting digestive health. If you don’t like brown rice you can start with a 50/50 mix of white and wholegrain.

  • Be Mindful of Portion Sizes:

    Prepackaged foods often come in larger portions than necessary, leading to overconsumption of calories and unhealthy nutrients. Pay attention to portion sizes and consider dividing larger packages into smaller servings to prevent overeating.

  • Look for Healthier Snack Options:

    Snacking is unavoidable when you’re on the go, but it doesn’t have to derail your efforts to eat healthily. Whole fruit one of the best snack options – buy the widest variety you can. These are so many different types of apples that taste very different, as well as pears and tomatoes. Stock up on nutritious snack options such as nuts, seeds, dried fruits. Having a jar of mixed seeds and dried berries on the shelf which can added to plain yoghurt with a squeeze of honey makes a simple snack that’s made in minutes.

  • Prepare Homemade Convenience Foods:

    While prepackaged foods offer convenience, homemade alternatives can be equally convenient and much healthier. Double your favourite recipe and freeze on half for another day. A popcorn maker can turn one scoop of corn kernels into a huge bowl in a few minutes. Sieve over one teaspoon of icing sugar and voila, popcorn ready for movie night at home.

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