Eating healthy requires commitment, discipline, and planning. Even when you have the best intentions and do well in all three areas, sometimes you find yourself unexpectedly needing to eat on the go. Maybe you're running out the door and realize you forgot to prep lunch, or you're on a road trip and have limited options at the convenience store.
Fortunately, not all ready-made, processed foods are unhealthy. In fact, several options actually have impressive nutritional facts — and many are even ready-to-eat.
Veggie burgers are quick, convenient, and healthy. In many cases, they come pre-cooked and just need to be heated through, meaning they can cook in the microwave if necessary. They're a wonderful option for lunches at work and for traveling.
Look for options that are gluten- and soy-free, as versions that include these ingredients tend to be loaded with a lot of less-than-healthy fillers. Pair veggie burger patties with a salad or other fresh (or frozen) veggies for a healthy balanced meal.
There's no denying that granola bars are the ultimate in convenient and portable foods. They come in a wide variety of flavors, they're affordable, and you can find them anywhere.
However, these chewy, ingredient-packed treats are certainly not created equal. Many have tons of added sugar (in some cases, more than a candy bar!). To find the healthiest granola bars, look for those with no or very little added sugar, as well as a good balance of protein, fiber, and healthy fats. Avoid chocolate, dried fruit, and "dipped" bars, which are typically loaded with added sugar.
Yogurt gets a bad reputation for being high in sugar and fat. However, Greek yogurt is healthier than others. The liquid whey gets strained out, which makes this option lower in lactose. It also has substantially more protein, as well as calcium, potassium, and probiotics.
In order to find the healthiest Greek yogurts available, look for plain instead of those with sweetener, fruit, granola, or any other additives. Add your own fresh fruit to make it a truly healthy sweet treat. If you settled for the plain granola bars, Greek yogurt is an excellent dipping option!
Canned beans are often overlooked as processed food, with most people relegating them to pantry staples used occasionally in recipes. They actually work well as the star of any dish, though, and they're surprisingly healthy.
Beans are loaded with fiber, protein, and important minerals including zinc, folate, and iron. Rinse and drain canned beans to eliminate about half their sodium content, then pair them with fresh greens to make a salad. You can also experiment with seasonings and have them on their own if you're extra rushed.
Pre-packaged fish, particularly salmon, tuna, and sardines, is an extremely healthy processed food option. These types are rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids, and the usual can size often makes them literally grab and go — some even have a pull tab on the top.
Pair packaged fish with multi-grain crackers, cucumber slices, or other vegetables for a quick, filling snack or light meal. You can also mix the fish with a small mayo packet, salt, and pepper, for a simple "salad" to eat on its own.
Hummus is believed to have been around for centuries, and North Americans have recently scooped it up as a favored stable. That's a great thing, as hummus is one of the healthiest processed foods, and today, it's easy to find anywhere.
Typically made of chickpeas, hummus is most often used as a spread or dip. You'll also find other variations, including hummus made from beets, cauliflower, and cashews. The dip is high in fiber and healthy fats, making it a perfect choice for eating on the go and at home.
Dried fruit can be an excellent, nutrient-dense snack that's also loaded with fiber and antioxidants. The process of dehydrating fruit condenses the nutrients, giving it a supernatural boost.
Unfortunately, processed dried fruit also often contains loads of added sugar — and remember that fruit contains quite a bit of natural sugar, too. Be sure to read nutrition labels before purchasing, and keep in mind that popping a dried apricot is the equivalent of eating a whole fruit; don't over-snack or you might find yourself hyped up on natural sugars or with tummy troubles due to all the fiber.
Many people consider popcorn "junk food," but the truth is that it largely depends on how it's prepared. Corn is a whole grain with high fiber content. In fact, according to the American Heart Association, popcorn has "more fiber per serving than whole-wheat bread."
To ensure you choose healthier popcorn, avoid varieties that include "butter" in the name, as well as any with candy or sugar coatings. That rules out kettle and caramel corn, but "light" varieties with canola or olive oil are safe. Low-sodium options should also be fairly easy to find.
Nut butters, particularly peanut, almond, and cashew, have several health benefits — so long as you stick with all-natural varieties.
Avoid flavored nut butters or those with any additions at all, as they're likely sources of hidden sugars. All-natural nut butters are exactly what they sound like: nuts crushed until their natural oils combine to turn them into a creamy paste. The best nut butters are excellent sources of healthy fats, protein, and vitamin E. If you're on the go, look for individual pouches that don't require any utensils.
Frozen fruits and vegetables are incredibly healthy processed foods. In fact, in some cases, they have more nutrients than their canned counterparts or even fresh produce that's been sitting for some time.
"Snap-frozen" or "blast-frozen" veggies and fruit are the most common varieties found in typical grocery stores and markets. They're processed as soon as they're picked from the ground and in such a way that the nutrients are well-preserved. Keep frozen produce on hand for quick side dishes or to add into any stir-fry or pasta dish to boost its health factor and flavor.