Convenience Foods – Is All Convenience Created Equal?


In our overworked, overachieving, over-busy culture, we have come to value convenience. Our gas stations offer convenience stores filled with edible packaged products just down the street from a row of drive-through restaurants that promise quick meals we can eat in the car on the way to our next deadline.

When we want a full meal at home, we grab a frozen entrée and pop it in the microwave for five minutes. If we’re worried about health, it’s easy to read the nutritional information on the label for reassurance that we are on the right path. In fact, the label may contain familiar platitudes: Fat-Free; No Added Sugar; No Trans Fats; Low-Carb; High-Fiber. Attractively packaged and ready to consume, processed foods have become a family meal mainstay.

Convenience isn’t a bad thing per se. Incorporating convenient food allows us to move faster, do more, and increase accomplishment. As a culture, we value accomplishment so much that most of us keep adding duties and activities to our family lives so that we have more and more opportunity to achieve it. In the process, we have come to view all convenience as inherently good. We give no thought to the possibility that there is any other way to view it.

As the health of our nation declines, it is time to ask:  Is all convenience created equal?

When I say “convenience food”, what is your first thought? Perhaps it’s a frozen waffle, a protein bar, or your favorite drive-through French fry. Most likely it comes in a brightly colored cellophane package or paperboard box. It is much less likely that you immediately visualize an apple, a banana, a bowlful of fresh cherries, a chunk of Manchego cheese, some raw carrots, or a handful of raw cashews, but are these fresh items any less convenient to consume? Are they any less tasty than their processed counterparts?

It is true that fruit, a chunk of cheese, or a few loose nuts may require a few minutes of time to clean or package for transport to your office. Does such preparation take more time than you would spend in a drive-through line? Does it take more time than you would spend walking to a vending machine? Must a carry home meal on a busy night be from a fast-food drive through? Why do we restrict our view of convenience foods to prepackaged, processed choices?

Advertising supports our belief, although false, that without processed foods we’ll be missing the essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber with which they are “fortified”. Package design entices with words like rich, creamy, crunchy, nutritious, and delicious. Many of our favorite convenience foods are filled with sugar, carbohydrates or high fructose corn syrup that makes us crave more sugar and carbohydrates. Some are filled with salt that can trigger craving as well. Perhaps the reason most significant reason we grab packaged food is habit.

As studies continue to show a direct correlation between our diet and an increasing number of chronic diseases, choosing convenient, fresh, unprocessed food even when we’re in a hurry may be the most important positive health choice we can make. Fresh convenience foods are low in sodium, usually have no added sugar, no trans fats, and are often low-carb and high-fiber. Fresh foods do not require stabilizers like starches and gums, flavor enhancing chemicals to make them taste fresh after a long shelf life, plus they are full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Sometimes the hardest thing to shift is our thinking. We just can’t imagine how we will feed ourselves and our families without our “habit” foods. Perhaps it will help to see what a busy day without prepackaged or typical “fast” food might look like! Let’s take a look at some options!

For breakfast you might choose:

1)Plain Greek yogurt drizzled with honey, 10-12 raw almonds, and 1/4 cup of blueberries, raspberries, strawberries or golden raisins.

2)An apple, half a banana, some cheese and a boiled egg.

3)Left-over steak or grilled chicken, a grapefruit, an orange, or some grapes.

Your morning snack could include:

1)Slices of red bell pepper, yellow squash, or zucchini with store-bought hummus and a pear.

2)Dried dates stuffed with a raw pecan half and a slice of smoked Gouda cheese.

3)Celery sticks filled with all natural sugar-free peanut butter topped with raisins.

Lunch at your desk is a great time for leftovers. If you don’t have any on hand and need to grab something quick, try these options:

1)Fill half an avocado with tuna from a pouch and some cottage cheese. Eat it with baby carrots and tomato slices.

2)Run by your local home-cooking buffet and fill a to go container with grilled chicken breast, broccoli and carrots, or green beans and squash or black-eyed peas and turnip greens.

3)Pick up a container of smoked meat from a barbecue restaurant. Without the sauce, the meat can become part of many entrées. It’s great in a salad over lettuce or maché. Eat it with traditional barbeque sides from the restaurant, or substitute your favorite raw vegetable or fruit.

Instead of processed salad dressing or vegetable dip, mix 2 tbsp sour cream and add Penzey’s Brady Street Cheese Sprinkle to taste for dip. For dressing thin the mixture with 1 tbsp yogurt or 1 tsp of milk.

If you need an afternoon snack, grab some:

1)Trail mix made with raw seeds, nuts, and fruit with no added sugar, salt, or fats.

2)Eat some of the smoke meat you saved from lunch with dried apricots, mango, or cantaloupe. Just make sure there’s no sugar added. Dried fruit is incredibly sweet all on it’s own.

3)Plain yogurt with half a banana and some honey if you like the added sweetness.

Pick up dinner on the way home:

1)30 minutes before you leave the office, order hamburger steaks or grilled chicken breasts, baked potatoes, and salad to pick up on your way home.

2)Go by the grocery and pick up a rotisserie chicken, a bag of frozen green beans or English peas.  If the store has a salad bar, make a salad. If your kids have different topping preferences, put those items in a separate container to add at home. If your store doesn’t have a salad bar, grab a container of cubed fresh pineapple or one that has a mix of melons or berries. At home, mix some plain yogurt or sour cream with a bit of honey and some cinnamon to turn the fruit into a delicious fruit salad.

3)Avoid having to go to anywhere after work by buying additional smoked meat by the pound at lunch and placing it in the refrigerator at the office. If you’re competing for space there, a cooler in the car may be an option. At home, make barbecue salads or serve the meat with whatever frozen vegetables you have on hand. You don’t have to top the meat with barbecue sauce. Its smoky flavor will go with anything.

For those of you who cook on days that aren’t as busy, leftovers can make a crazy day a breeze. Frozen vegetables take only a few minutes to cook. Keeping them on hand is another way to make eating healthier easy when things get hectic. At my house, scrambled eggs are a good fallback when all other plans fail. I always have them. I can throw in some cream cheese and leftover English peas and have a tasty meal in 5 minutes. That’s less time than it takes to pick up a meal on the way home.

You may have noticed the lack of grains, breads, and crackers in these meal possibilities. Why? Because this exercise is about shifting our thinking to open our minds to healthier choices. Most of us need more vegetables, fruit, and protein every day, so recognizing that we can eat satisfying meals without relying on grain carbs can help get us out of the habit of filling ourselves with breads instead of leafy greens, berries, poultry, fish, beef, and pork. That doesn’t mean you should never ever eat gluten-free mac & cheese. It just means that it is more healthy if that’s an occasional occurrence and your habit is to reach for a grilled chicken breast and steamed asparagus.

When it comes to nutritional value, not all convenience is created equal. Next time you grocery shop, take a moment to look around the store. Look for convenient foods with as little processing and packaging as possible. Expand your horizons, eat tasty food, make healthy choices, and still get everything done on time.  You can do it, and your heath depends on it.


Travel Tip #2 – Preview your gluten-free restaurant options.

I don’t know about you, but most of my recent travel has involved unexpected delays. That often means that I arrive at my hotel tired, hungry and ready to relax over dinner with a glass of wine. It also means that I don’t want a huge gap between dropping off my bags and heading for a restaurant. Of course I can usually find a gluten-free option at any restaurant, but when I’m already travel weary I like to minimize the difficulty.

Most of us spend some time searching the web when we’re planning a trip. Even if we choose to book our airline and hotel tickets over the phone, we’re either previewing flights, mapping hotels, or looking at our destination’s community calendar in advance. While we’re searching, it’s easy to add a gluten-free food search to the mix.

Screen Shot
Gluten-Free Search

Once you’ve mapped your hotel or bed & breakfast, map the closest restaurant, bakery or health food store that offers gluten-free options. Print a copy of the map and place it in your carryon or bookmark the map link on your mobile device for easy access. Being prepared will allow you to focus on the often swiftly changing logistical details of your trip with the confidence that you’ll be eating with ease once you arrive.

Of course your search may turn up a plethora of local restaurants you’ll want to sample before your trip is over. Knowing these in advance will allow you to make reservations when required and have an address handy when a colleague wants to know where to meet you.

On one recent trip, my advance search showed me a scrumptious coffee shop around the corner from my friend’s apartment that featured treats from a local gluten-free bakery. With that to look forward to, I finished off my airplane carryon food upon arrival and headed for the bakery the next morning.  I was not disappointed by the fare, and I was thrilled that there was no need to burden my friend with a dietary discussion before we’d even had a cup of coffee.

If you’re staying in a more rural area and an advance search turns up no options other than the local grocery, you’ll know that a refrigerator in your hotel room will be a plus. The ability to store yogurt, cheese, or a leftover piece of steak gives you more possibilities than having to rely on fruit, nuts, or a pouch of tuna if the next restaurant you try doesn’t have suitable options.

Spending a little time preparing in the comfort of my home gives me more resources for enjoyment when I reach my destination. For me, that feels like time well spent. Let me know how it feels for you.

Chatting with a Forward Thinking Pioneer – Dr. Rodney Ford

Dr. Rodney Ford
Dr. Rodney Ford

This week I had the privilege of sitting down for a chat with Dr. Rodney Ford.  Dr. Ford is a paediatrician, gastroenterologist, and allergist who has been in clinical practice for over 35 years. A native of New Zealand, Dr. Ford has published numerous books on food allergy and gluten related health issues.  His new book is entitled, “Gluten ZERO Global”. I’m excited to announce that our interview with Dr. Ford will be available as part of Cooking2Thrive’s interview series.  Watch for more information as we approach the full launch of our website January 2013!

This wasn’t the first time I’d met Dr. Ford, but it was the first time we sat down for a conversation. I came away from our time together feeling a huge sense of appreciation for his courage to listen to the mothers of his patients and give their observations enough credence to begin to explore options that expand the boundaries of current medical protocol.

I was clear that in spite of his love for the edginess of the rock-and-roll music of the band Pink Floyd, his call to revolution regarding the elimination of gluten from everyone’s diet is not motivated by a rebellious nature as much as by true concern for improving the health of his patients. Dr. Ford recognizes that his unique combination of specialties has presented him with an opportunity to see the relationship between several pieces of the gluten puzzle that would not be available to him if he were only a gastroenterologist, only a pediatrician, or only an allergist.

What I find rare is that he recognized the learning opportunity presented by his unique point of view early in his career and had both the courage and fortitude to continually share what he was learning in his practice while being faced with opposition from the larger medical community. No matter how counter to the mainstream it has run, Dr. Ford has remained committed to his message. That is the mark of a true pioneer.

It seems only fitting that scientific studies have begun to show that Dr. Ford’s observations are supported by the data. It must feel like some sort of reward when new voices are continually added to the chorus extolling the dangers of gluten to our brains, nerves, and bellies.

As a patient, I am grateful to Dr. Ford for pushing the envelope and for being dedicated to disseminating the message that a Gluten-ZERO lifestyle is healthy. As a person, I feel inspired by Dr. Ford’s willingness to embrace his opportunity to contribute to the betterment of the world. Thank you Dr. Ford!

Cheri Thriver and Rodney Ford
Interview with Dr. Ford

To learn more, please visit the website:, and make sure to check out our interview with Dr. Ford as soon as it becomes available.