Me + A Bunch of Other Dietitians Share Our Go-To Convenience Foods

Is it just me, or do processed (aka packaged or "convenience") foods get a bad rap? As someone with a goal to make cooking more practical, one of my favorite things to talk about is how to incorporate kitchen shortcuts as a way to make the whole routine faster, more manageable, and more doable. 

I always tell my coaching clients that sure, it's a good idea to make whole foods the foundation of your diet where you can, but the nature of being busy means that convenience foods can make cooking and eating less stressful, faster, and more enjoyable. And I think we can all agree that those are important factors in good health too! Finding a balance that works for your lifestyle is what really matters. 

A piece of well-meaning advice that misses the mark: "shop the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid the aisles".

The problem with this is that there are so many things tucked away in the aisles worthy of being weekly staples in your shopping cart: think canned beans, whole grains (rice, oats, farro, etc.), and flavor bombs like sriracha, fish sauce and canned coconut milk. Basically it's where all the fun stuff is that allows you to prepare fresh food in a delicious and satisfying way. 

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The List

As a testament to some of the things that you might want to consider grabbing from the aisles, today I'm sharing a few of my favorite convenience foods that make feeding myself way easier.  I also put a call out to some of my fellow Colorado-local dietitians for their favorites and I got some great responses (along with the why and how behind each) so read on for more!

"I am a rice cake fanatic"

-Monica Salafia (Mind on Nutrition).

"They're the perfect vehicle for other nutritious food and they're crunchy, light, won't go bad and are easily found at any grocery store". 

Rice cakes are notorious for being boring or flavorless but that's only if you eat them plain (btw who does that?). Take Monica's suggestion to bulk them up with other nutrient-dense foods to make it a satisfying snack. These are a great option for the gluten-free folks out there too and I like that they can be savory or sweet depending on your craving. 

Just Say No to Being Hangry

I recently mentioned these Nugo Bars on Instagram because I love stashing stuff like this in my purse when I need something to hold me over between meals and am out of the house. Bars aren't always the most fun choice when it comes to snacks but that's the compromise that I make to keep myself energized on the go. Just say no to being hangry in the middle of running errands on a Saturday. Your significant other will thank you!

Nugo nutrition bars with egg whites

Cereal (aka breakfast in a hurry) 

Cereal is a favorite "breakfast in a hurry" for me. I use it as a pre-workout snack on my way out the door because it gives me the fuel I need without weighing me down and is quick to assemble (and requires little brain power for those 6am classes). As a bonus, many options are high in fiber and several essential nutrients too. Some are more dessert-like, so just be selective if your goal is sustained energy as the higher sugar/lower fiber choices probably won't meet that need. 

Some of my favorite varieties are honey nut cheerios, peanut butter puffins, and Kashi cinnamon harvest. When I want to make it more substantial, I bulk it up with things like fresh fruit, nuts and seeds, and more milk for protein. This can also be helpful for those of you who feel out of control around cereal (super common). Make it more filling to avoid feeling like you need to keep going back for refills. 

"Bagged Salad Kits"

-Laura Young (@LiveWellByLaura

"One of my favorite new-ish products in the grocery store is the bagged salad mixes.  They're perfect for a quick evening meal - all you have to do is add a protein like beans, edamame, or some chopped deli meat and you have a complete meal in 2 minutes! And I love the variety they offer from sweet to savory to southwest."

While these are usually pricier than buying all of the individual components - you really can't beat how easy it is to cut open the bag, dump it in a bowl and mix it all together. These are a frequent purchase in my house too!

bagged salad kit with beans

"Frozen Vegetables"

-Haley Hughes of RDRX Nutrition 

She especially loves riced cauliflower and zucchini noodles since they are a "quick and easy way to fit in some extra veggies while offering some versatility and fun to any recipe". 

It's a common misconception that frozen fruits and vegetables are inferior to fresh - this is absolutely not the case (in regards to nutrition at least). And if this hack is helping you to include produce more often then it's definitely a win.

"Minute brown rice"

-Jamie Magdic of

Rice is a dinner staple in most households and the whole grain version is a nutrient powerhouse. Unfortunately it takes forever to cook, which can be a huge barrier to including it regularly. Jamie likes to keep Minute brown rice on hand so she can make it in literally one minute. 

"My favorite go-to convenience food meal is Minute brown rice topped with a bag of veggie Steamers - both items that can you can pop in the microwave for 5 minutes and wallah! All you need to do to prepare this meal after microwaving the items is add some olive oil or butter, a little bit of salt and pepper, and/or a sprinkle of your favorite cheese. This is a delicious meal that leaves me super satisfied on those days when I want something quick and easy.  I love to have this meal in my back pocket on those busy days."

"Chicken Sausage"

-Hannah Turnbull of Nourished with Hannah

The protein component of the meal can often be the most time-intensive. Especially if you buy meat frozen and then constantly forget to thaw it out in time for dinner.  

"One of my go-to convenience foods is pre-cooked protein; some examples being chicken sausage and pepperoni." "I love to throw chicken sausage in a skillet to heat it up, then add some some zucchini, cherry tomatoes, onions, garlic, salt and pepper. Plate it up with salad and 90 minute microwavable rice or mac and cheese for a tasty, satisfying meal. Pepperoni goes nicely on a flat bread with tomato sauce, cheese, bell peppers and mushrooms for an easy personal pizza."

Weeknight pizza anyone?

Canned Fish

Last on the list but certainly not least; you will almost always find some sort of canned fish like tuna, sardines and anchovies in my pantry. A friend recently introduced me to smoked oysters and those are fun too - plus a great source of iron. When it comes to protein, small fish are incredibly convenient and versatile. For instance, anchovies (my favorite) can be used to top pizza, tossed with pasta or blended into a sauce for a great salty and umami flavor. Most of us also fall short on meeting the recommendations of eating fish 2-3x per week and keeping some of these options on hand is a great way to help you fill that gap too. 

Do you have favorites that weren't mentioned? Leave us a comment below! 

Tips for Optimizing Your Food Environment

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Something that I always address when I give nutrition presentations is how to optimize the food environment. For one, I enjoy talking about it but also I think it's really helpful. Emotional eating tends to be a common struggle for a lot of people, and the majority of them are unaware that there are some simple changes that can make a huge difference in regards to eating out of boredom, stress, sadness, etc. 

Brian Wansink is a nutrition researcher out of Cornell University who specifically studies this and his findings are fascinating! You might remember hearing about how restaurants use specific lighting, colors and music to encourage people to stay longer and eat more. His study investigators also famously provided free popcorn in different sizes to moviegoers to observe how much each person consumed by the end. Those with the larger size ate significantly more  than those who were given a smaller size, even if the popcorn was stale. This just illustrates how package/container size can often lead to overeating (which of course is fine on occasion, but doesn't feel great when it happens routinely). Here are few tips for optimizing your food environment:

1. Serve yourself dinner in the kitchen instead of at the table.

This reminds you to check-in with your hunger before walking over to the kitchen to get seconds or thirds. I always reiterate the fact that if you are still hungry, by all means honor that. However when serving dishes are in within easy reach, it can be really easy to grab more without thinking twice (especially if you are having great conversation - which hopefully you are!).  

2. If you're a wine drinker, be mindful of different styles of glasses.

Wine glasses range in size from really small (think champagne flutes) to really large and each shape is designed for specific wine varieties. Because of this, a standard serving can look really different based on which one you use. Knowing this can help you gauge your intake better. 

3. Grab a portion of snacks instead of eating straight from the package.

This is a classic but it's effective. Stocking and using some small snack dishes can help you avoid mindless eating. Case in point, the caramel m&ms pictured above that are my current favorite thing (how are these so good?!). 

4. Keep fresh food prepped and easy to grab.

When I get home after work, the last thing I want to do is wash and chop vegetables for a snack and it's way too easy to grab a bag of chips and spoil my appetite before dinner instead. Set yourself up for success by having something fresh ready to go when you want it. My favorites are carrots, celery and red bell pepper strips (for dipping in hummus, nut butter or ranch); pasta/bean salads; and washed/chopped fruit. 

How do you optimize your food environment or what is one thing you can change now to set yourself up to success?