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.