Choose convenience foods wisely
With so many of us leading busy lives, there are more and more convenience foods popping up on our supermarket shelves. These may have gotten a bad reputation in recent years as being high in calories, fat, salt, sugar and unwanted additives. But the recent demand for healthy foods means that nowadays, there are lots of healthier convenience foods available too – if you just know what to look for. So next time you’re looking for a quick, healthy meal at the supermarket, keep an eye out for things like:
- microwaveable pouches of grains like brown rice and quinoa
- tinned pulses like lentils or chickpeas
- ready-made salads
- chopped and ready-to-cook vegetables (both fresh and frozen varieties)
- bake in the bag or tinned fish
- vegetable soups (look for low-salt varieties and avoid cream-based ones)
Get to know your labels
If you’re buying pre-made and packaged convenience foods, then it’s important to learn how to read the ingredients and nutritional labels on the packet. That way you can make an informed decision on what to buy. Here are a few things to remember when checking the labels on packaged food:
- Use the traffic light labels on the front of packets to get an overview of the nutritional value of the product. These list how much calories, fat, salt and sugar is in that food and places them into either green, amber or red categories. Choose foods with more green categories than red wherever possible.
- Ingredients are listed in order of how much is in the product. So for example if sugar is the first ingredient named, that means the food contains mostly sugar and might not be the healthiest option.
- Remember that there can sometimes be lots of other names for some common nutrients. For example sugar may be listed as dextrose, maltose, molasses, fructose, glucose and invert sugar.
- Use apps to figure out if the product is a good choice, or if you could pick a better brand. For example, the FoodSwitch app allows you to scan the barcode of a food using your phone and lets you know if it’s high in fat, sugar or salt. It may also suggest a similar product which is healthier for you to buy instead.
If in doubt, try to remember that:
Low salt: ≤ 0.3g per 100 grams
Low fat: ≤ 3g per 100 grams
Low sugar: ≤ 5g per 100 grams
Most snacks don’t require any cooking at all. So if your stomach begins to growl between meals, try not to reach for processed or sugary foods like chocolate or crisps. Instead, choose wholesome and healthy snacks like:
- fresh fruit
- chopped vegetable sticks and dip
- a small handful of unsalted nuts and dried fruit
- low-sugar cereal bars
- low-fat and low-sugar yoghurts
Create your own smoothies
Smoothies are a great way to get lots of vitamins, minerals and fibre into your diet without having to cook. There are lots of pre-made varieties available to buy. But they’re also quick and easy to make yourself with a huge range of recipes to choose from. Simply throw your choice of fruit, vegetables, yoghurt, milk, nuts and seeds into a blender. Add avocado or nut butter to give it a creamy texture, or throw in a tablespoon of flaxseeds or chia seeds for a dose of heart healthy omega-3. You could try making your own smoothie in the evening so it’s ready to grab and go the next day for a nutritious breakfast or snack.
Remember that one small glass (150ml) of smoothie counts as maximum one portion of your 5-a-day, even if it contains more than one different type of fruit or vegetables.
Make cooking as easy as possible
If you do decide to get in the kitchen, making a healthy, home cooked meal doesn’t have to mean spending hours over the stove. There are lots of recipe books, websites and apps filled with quick and easy ‘five-minute meal’ ideas for you to experiment with. So start easy and look up a simple new recipe to get you inspired. You could also try investing in some easy-to-use cooking equipment, such as a slow cooker or a soup maker that does most of the hard work for you. Use these to make healthy one-pot meals and hearty vegetable soups. Use frozen or pre- chopped vegetables to make it even easier.
Cook in bulk
Make the most of any time you do spend cooking by making big batches so there’s always some leftover for another meal. For example, if you’re making a jacket potato, cook two or three so you have some ready for the week ahead. Or if you’re roasting seasonal vegetables on the weekend, make a large tray full so you’ve got plenty to eat during the week. For recipes like soups, stews and chillis, put whatever you don’t eat into individual portions and into the freezer ready for another day.
Make healthy choices when eating out
Of course, the easiest way of eating without cooking is to eat out. Not only can you catch up with friends but you’ll also skip on the washing up. But if you’re eating out a lot, try making healthy and informed choices where you can. The following might help.
- Think about where you’re eating and pick a healthier cuisine such as Japanese or vegetarian over fast food outlets and all you can eat buffets.
- Swap add-ons like fries or garlic bread for a healthy side of mixed salad or steamed vegetables.
- Choose sugar-free and low-calorie soft drinks or water over fizzy or alcoholic drinks.
- Choose grilled, baked or steamed dishes instead of deep fried, creamed, buttered or battered options.
- Enjoy fish, seafood or chicken rather than red meat dishes.
- Don’t arrive too hungry. You might be more likely to order a large, unhealthy meal and lots of sides. It might also help to have a look at the menu online beforehand and decide what to order before you go.
- Wait a little while before ordering dessert to allow your main meal to reach your stomach and register that you’re satisfied. If you still fancy a sweet treat, opt for a sorbet or fruit salad or share one with a friend.
Quick and easy meal ideas
If you feel inspired to dust off your apron and release your inner Nigella, here are a few of my favourite healthy meals that take just a few minutes to prepare to help you get started.
- Mashed avocado on wholemeal toast with lemon juice and cracked pepper.
- Poached egg on wholemeal toast.
- Microwaveable or ’just add water’ porridge oats (choose low-sugar sachets).
- Wholegrain, low-sugar cereal such as wheat biscuits with low fat milk and fruit.
- A fruit smoothie.
- Jacket potato or sweet potato topped with a tin of tuna or baked beans.
- Chicken and salad wholemeal wrap.
- A no-cook mezze board of olives, vegetable sticks, falafel, tabbouleh, wholemeal pitta and hummus.
- Sushi or ramen.
- Vegetable and noodle stir fry.
- Baked fish with oven roasted vegetables and microwaveable brown rice.
- Grilled chicken breast with mixed salad and tinned pulses like chickpeas.
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