We may never all agree on what “eating clean” really means, but if cleansing your diet means you think about your food, learn more about where it comes from and how healthy it is for you, that’s a good thing.
The basics of “eating clean” are actually remarkably simple:
• It means eating wholesome fruits and vegetables, especially those that are in season.
• It means choosing whole grains and whole-grain products over refined ones.
• It means limiting – but not necessarily eliminating – saturated fats, sodium and added sugars in your cooking and in the prepared foods you choose.
For many of us, the easiest way to eat clean is to cook at home. While we don’t all have time to make everything we eat from scratch, it can be fun and easy to try your hand at making a few of the convenient processed foods you’d usually buy.
What are processed foods? They often come in a box or a jar and can be high in added sugars, low in fiber and whole grains, processed with sodium, high in fat or include trans fat and lots of saturated fat.
While snack foods, candy, cookies and crackers are certainly considered processed foods, “healthy” foods can fall into this category, too.
Here’s a list of common processed foods for which you can easily make healthier homemade versions:
1. Salad dressing: The next time you grab a bottle of salad dressing off the shelf, read the ingredients. It may alarm you that something so simple has so many ingredients you’ve probably never heard of. Some keep the dressing from spoiling on the shelf while others are used to improve texture. While some may be harmless, it’s easy to avoid them if you make your own dressing at home.
A simple dressing takes no more than 10 minutes to make and is as easy as whisking oil into vinegar and throwing in a few seasonings like garlic powder, Dijon mustard and minced garlic or shallot. Making your own dressing can help you control calories, too. If you find a recipe you like, double it so you can keep some in your refrigerator to use throughout the week.
2. Breakfast cereal: With more than 100 kinds of cereal in many grocery store aisles, choosing a healthy cereal can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. Some cereals are packed with sugar, while others are low in nutrients that you want to get out of cereal, such as fiber.
Take the stress out of the search by making your own granola or muesli mix at home. You can pick the ingredients and have control over how much fat, fiber and sugar goes into your first meal of the day. Homemade granola holds well, so make a batch on Sunday and you’ll be set for the rest of the week. Cost-wise, you’ll get more for your money by making a batch than buying a box of cereal.
3. Canned soup: It’s certainly convenient to have canned soup on hand, but it’s high in sodium (yes, you can get lower-sodium versions, but that limits your selection). And many cans are lined with the chemical BPA, which has been linked to infertility, heart disease and diabetes. Instead of forgoing soup altogether, get out your soup pot and get cooking. Most soups freeze well, so if you like the convenience of portion control, freeze soup in individual serving sizes.
4. Pasta sauce: We don’t often think of pasta sauce as being “sweet,” but many jarred pasta sauces have sugar listed as an ingredient. Although it’s not a lot of sugar, it certainly isn’t necessary. Another problem with jarred pasta sauce? It’s high in sodium. You can do much better creating your own mixture.
Make a simple sauce by simply adding garlic powder and fresh basil to canned no-salt-added crushed tomatoes (look for crushed tomatoes in glass or aseptic packaging if you’re worried about BPA) and add a pinch of salt to bump up the flavor. Or you could saute fresh chopped tomatoes and minced garlic in olive oil until they blend into a nice thick sauce.
Either way, you have options. If you make a big batch, you can freeze leftovers for later use.
5. Flavored yogurt: Plain, low-fat or nonfat yogurt offers plenty of calcium and probiotics that help with digestion. But no one wants to eat plain yogurt by itself, so we often reach for flavored varieties. The problem here is that flavored yogurt can contain artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners.
Even the healthy-sounding “fruit-at-the-bottom” stuff is less than ideal, since it can come loaded with sugar, making it more like a dessert than a breakfast food. The solution? Stir fresh or frozen fruit into plain yogurt. One trick to making it taste sweet without adding sugar is adding a splash of vanilla extract for flavor.
6. Granola and energy bars: Granola bars seem healthy, but if you’ve ever looked at the nutrition label, you might think otherwise. Sure, they may contain grains and nuts, but they also tend to be loaded with sugar and fat. There’s no reason to cut them out of your life completely, though – you can make them at home cheaply and with much less fat and sugar than what you might find in a boxed version.