We’ve probably all read at least one article about eating healthy at some point in our lives. The main take-aways are pretty consistent: Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, make half your grains whole-grain and reduce added fats and sugars. Well, the same key points hold true when you are eating with limited resources. Just because we may not have access to fresh produce, choice cut meats or wholesome baked goods does not mean we can’t do our best to maintain a healthy diet, rich in nutrients and supportive to a healthy immune system.
Having a wholesome pantry starts with some prep work and shopping skills, but there are plenty of ways to make what you have on hand work for you. The main goal when buying and consuming non-perishable and frozen items is limiting added salt, fat and sugar. Let’s review some tips to help us do just that.
- Rinse canned vegetables and fruits. Rinsing foods that have been packed with extra salt or added sweeteners (like fruit canned in syrup) can reduce the amount of sodium or sugar you consume. You can also rinse away some excess fat from any protein packed in oils.
- Balance your sodium (salt) for the day. Since a lot of these products may be high sodium (20% Daily Value (DV) or more per serving) plan for low-sodium meals elsewhere in the day to balance things out. For reference, products with 5% DV for sodium per serving are considered low sodium.
- Aim for food group variety in your meals. Do you have a protein, a veggie and a starch? Often the vegetable group is limited when it comes to grab-and-go foods. Consider adding frozen vegetables to a pre-made TV dinner or boxed noodle meal to make it more balanced, like an extra handful of broccoli in that chicken broccoli alfredo meal. Or try a modification of this easy stovetop Tuna Casserole that incorporates boxed mac and cheese, canned tuna and frozen veggies.
- Manage your portions to manage your calories. Trail mixes, granola/power bars and nuts/nut butters are great pantry staples, but they can also be high calorie per serving. Avoid snacking on these types of foods all day long while stuck in the house. Be mindful of real hunger cues versus boredom or thirst.
- Watch out for high-calorie, low-nutrition food items. Common snack and convenience foods such as fried-freezer snacks (like pizza rolls or mozzarella sticks), toaster pastries, fruit snacks and chips are super tasty, but not the best for you in large amounts. Be mindful of how much and how often you have these types of foods to avoid loading up on extra calories that can turn into extra pounds.
Fortunately, there are more health-conscious food items on the shelf now than ever before. At the next opportunity when grocery shopping, think how you can set yourself up with a healthy pantry. Consider buying whole-grain or veggie-made pastas and brown rice or quinoa instead of white rice. Grab an extra loaf of 100% whole-grain bread to keep in the freezer. Choose canned fruits packed in 100% fruit juice or labeled “without added sugar.” Choose canned vegetables or meats without added salt or labeled “low sodium.” Avoid canned meats and fish packed in oils. When buying frozen foods, look for those without added salt or sauces and check the nutrition facts label on pre-made dinners for sodium content. While it will be tough to find, try to buy pre-made dinners and snacks with less than 20% daily value (% DV) of sodium per serving.
On a high note, the nutrient content of canned and frozen foods can be the same, if not better, than some of their fresh counterparts (other than the salt, fat and sugar we just talked about). Frozen and canned produce is packaged and preserved at peak freshness. Without any exposure to light or air, they can retain most of their nutrient quality. This means the vitamin and mineral content in these fruits and vegetables is retained until the point in which we eat and prepare them! Keep in mind that foods that are considered non-perishable may have an extended expiration date, but it doesn’t mean they last forever. Make sure you’re practicing proper food storage safety and follow the first-in-first-out rule, meaning the items that were purchased a while ago should be eaten before items purchased more recently.
Eating well out of your freezer and pantry may be a little more difficult than your normal routine, but it’s not impossible. With a little information and preparation, you can still maintain a balanced, healthy diet that’s accessible to you whenever you need it. And be creative, thinking outside the box. Mix and match the items you have on hand to make a balanced meal or check out this article for some ideas to get you started!
- Reduce salt and sugar from canned foods by rinsing them before use.
- Add frozen vegetables to TV dinners and boxed noodle meals to make them more balanced.
- Manage your portions and watch out for high-calorie low-nutrition food items like common snack/convenience foods.
- Buy shelf-stable and freezer-friendly foods without added sugar, fat or salt.
- Practice proper food storage safety.
Charlotte Mapes is a Registered Dietitian and a Wellness Strategy Manager with Vitality. She received her BS in nutrition at Michigan State University and received her master’s at the University of Alabama. Food is one of her favorite things and in her free time, loves adventure travel with her husband and senior dog.