Real talk, I now eat packaged and processed foods. I know, gasp! I'm almost as shocked as you are. As a chef and dietitian, this topic has been near and dear to my heart but the way I see processed foods has recently changed in a really surprising way.
I've had my ups and downs with processed foods, from total reliance in high school, to becoming a dirty word after culinary school. I recently circled back around and found a nice little place on my plate for processed, packaged, and convenience foods and (not trying to be dramatic, but) it's been life changing! Let me explain...
My Processed & Convenience Foods Evolution
- High School -
In high school, when I first became interested in nutrition, I thought 'eating healthy' was buying Amy's organic frozen meals and single serving oatmeal loaded with trendy 'superfoods'. I didn't know how to 'eat healthy' so I let the health food industry tell me what I should buy. As I'm sure you can guess, their clever marketing led me to a lot of pricy packaged foods. I don't blame the health food industry, I was a willing participant! I was actually overjoyed that I found such an easy and convenient way to 'eat healthy', almost like I was gaming the system with my processed 'superfood' snacks.
- College -
In college, my narrow view of food and nutrition was cracked wide open. Majoring in Dietetics and learning about all aspects of health made me realize that nutrition was so much more than eating trendy snacks! For me, healthy eating became more about fresh foods, balanced macronutrients, and reading nutrition labels. I quickly realized my previous 'healthy' processed diet was high in carbohydrates and sodium, and low in fresh fruits and veggies - not ideal!
All through college, I also lived in the dorms, which conveniently had a cafeteria buffet downstairs. I had rotating fresh prepared items at my fingertips, so by default my packaged and processed food consumption plummeted. I was really embracing the whole food approach and processed and packaged foods just didn't fit into my life.
- Culinary School -
After moving into my first apartment, I immediately enrolled in culinary school, which turned my food world upside down! I learned how to make anything and everything, and started to view cooking as a daily art project. I didn't realize cooking could be so easy and it became a major pillar in my life. When I'd go to the store, my shopping cart was only filled with fresh ingredients, like brown rice, spinach, and chicken. I was freezing hand-made pasta and pizza dough, making my own yogurt, and dehydrating beef to make jerky. Yes, I was crazy but at the time, my life let me prioritize cooking and it brought me so much joy!
After finishing culinary school, processed foods became a really dirty word to me. I would think, "Why buy something packaged and processed when I can just make it myself?" If I was craving hummus, I would just whip up some chickpeas, garlic cloves, and olive oil. Leftover veggies in the fridge? Throw them in a homemade soup and freeze for later! It was time consuming but I viewed it as a challenge and learning experience rather than a burden.
Embracing Processed & Convenience Foods.. Again
So, what changed? How did I go from the extreme of having zero processed and packaged foods after culinary school to present day immersion? The simple answer is time and the longer, more complicated answer is sanity.
When you cook for a living, sometimes the last place you want be in your 'off time' is the kitchen. By the time I'd finished my 5th round of cranberry sauce recipe testing and all the dishes were washed and put away, making dinner felt like a burden.. especially when I still insisted on making everything from scratch. I realized I couldn't recipe test all day and make every meal from scratch, so I had find a solution and think outside the box I put myself in.
My 'gateway' packaged food item was a toss-and-go salad kit. Enjoying a salad without chopping or needing to make my own dressing saved me so much time and mid-day dishes. I know it sounds so silly but having a quick meal on hand changed my whole day. Knowing lunch was already prepared, I was able to focus more on my work instead of prepping and cleaning, which made me so much more productive! From that moment on, I knew packaged and convenience foods had a permanent place in my kitchen.
Letting Go of the Guilt
As Mark and I added more packaged and ready-to-eat items to our pantry, the guiltier I felt. Yes, those convenience foods made my life so much easier but it felt so wrong! Packaged foods that don't expire for years at a time went against everything I learned in college and culinary school but I couldn't deny the convenience.
After about 6 months of an emotional tug of war, I let go of the guilt. What helped me get over the feeling of hesitation is that I realized my life has changed since culinary school. When I'm not cooking for my blog, I just simply don't have the time to make everything from scratch. And that's ok.
Letting go of the guilt also helped me fall in love with cooking again! Now, when I cook for fun, it's because I want to, not because I feel like I have to.
Lately, my meals look a lot like the photo above - store bought hummus along with some crackers and freshly chopped veggies for dipping. Some days I cook dinner 3-4 nights in a row, other days I microwave a frozen mushroom breakfast frittata and grab a Cliff bar while running out the door.
Embracing packaged convenience items allow me to enjoy stress-free/guilt-free foods that fit my evolving lifestyle. I now focus more on balance and cooking for excitement, not necessity.
My Nutritional Standards for Processed Food Items
Embracing packaged and processed foods doesn't exactly mean I'm eating chips, candy, and frozen dinners - I haven't totally gone off the rails! While most packaged food items I buy are on a case-by-case basis here are some of my parameters:
LOW IN: Sodium, fat, sugar, and somewhat short ingredients list.
HIGH IN: Fiber and protein.
Below, I have added Amazon affiliate links. If you buy any items through my Amazon affiliate links, I get a small commission on the sale.*
PACKAGED FOODS I'M LOVING: Simple Mills Almond Crackers, Sabra Roasted Pepper Hummus, Mama Chia, Veggies Made Great, Peanut Butter Filled Cliff Bars, Hippeas, Skinny Pop, Don Lee Farms Veggie Bowl, Banza Mac and Cheese, and Thai Kitchen Soups.
Adding Processed Foods to Your Diet
If there's a nagging voice telling you to feel bad about eating that packaged snack or to feel guilty for not making a home cooked meal when you're exhausted, tell that voice you need a break. If you are on the healthy cooking hamster wheel like I was, I want you to give yourself permission to let go a little bit. If you step back and give yourself food flexibility, you might also start cooking for enjoyment again and not out of necessity.