ramen with egg and vegetales

How to Make Processed Foods Healthier

Ramen, Hamburger Helper, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Suddenly Salad, and Bubba Burgers…

What do all of these have in common? They are processed convenience foods that most Americans have grown up eating at some point in their lives. They are convenient, relatively cheap, and taste good.

But, they get a bad rap for their lack of nutritional quality. And I won’t argue that point – a whole package of Ramen will give you little in terms of fiber, vitamins, and minerals while it packs in sodium at 1600mg per package (that’s a lot).

The good news: You can make theses processed foods better with the addition of some other equally as convenient foods! As I’ve written about before, a balanced meal provides all three macronutrients: carbohydrate, protein, and fat (ideally with a fruit or vegetable mixed in). Carbohydrates give you energy; protein fills you up; and fat keeps you full. See below for some simple ideas to balance out these convenience foods!

Ramen + Egg + Frozen Diced Vegetables

In this example, the Ramen provides the carbohydrates and the egg and vegetables round out the meal. In a perfect world, there would be a higher fiber option, like brown rice noodles instead of the enriched version here. But we’re not going for perfect, we’re going for better, so keep reading…

The egg adds high quality protein and fat. You could also experiment here with some tofu, edamame, or shredded rotisserie chicken. Since we’re going for quick and convenient: did you know you could microwave eggs?

Finally, the frozen diced vegetables add the missing fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Ideally, choose plain frozen vegetables without any added seasoning or sauce (remember: you already have the seasoning packet). You can mix a handful of these in your noodles prior to microwaving or while they are cooking on the stove. They will defrost as the noodles cook.

Hamburger Helper + Lean Protein + Raw Spinach

Hamburger Helper, as packaged, is a good start to a balanced meal. Most people already add a protein to this as instructed. To make it better: look for 93% lean beef or higher, or experiment with ground chicken or ground turkey breast. This cuts down on the saturated fat, which can increase the “bad” cholesterol in sensitive people. You could also swap half of the meat for a can of beans for additional fiber.

Once the Hamburger Helper has been cooked appropriately, mix some raw spinach (or other green of choice) right into the pan and stir. After a few minutes, the greens will have wilted down to almost nothing. Cover the pan to speed up this process. This is an easy way to add some veggies into a one-pot meal.

Macaroni and Cheese + Tuna + Salad

This is another carbohydrate-heavy meal. Like most of these options, it uses enriched macaroni, instead of whole grain. However, I did see that there were some whole-grain varieties available, so try that if you’re up for it!

For some protein, add in a can of drained tuna or salmon. If you don’t like fish, you could try rotisserie chicken, beans, or some precooked chicken sausage. I really like the Al Fresco brand of chicken sausage, since this is lower in sodium compared to some other brands.

Finally, add an easy side salad. Iceberg, romaine, spring mix, spinach, kale… Anything goes! Add your favorite dressing for some fat.

Frozen Burger + Whole Grain Bread Product + Grilled Vegetables

There are a ton of frozen burger options out there, from beef to turkey to plant-based. Choose whichever you like, but if it is meatless, make sure there is at least 15 grams of protein in it. Since the convenient part here is the burger, you are in control of what type of bread you pair with it. Look for a whole-grain product. This can be a hamburger bun, sandwich thin, tortilla, or just two slices of sandwich bread.

For an easy vegetable side that tastes way better than steam-in-bag varieties, go for grilled! Get a grill basket and then you can make any vegetable taste like summer. Just season with your oil of choice, herbs/spices, and grill away. You can even experiment with grilling frozen vegetables if you have a habit of letting your fresh vegetables go bad in the fridge.

Suddenly Salad + White Beans + Diced Vegetables

Pasta salad kits provide you with the noodles and seasoning – just add your own oil and vinegar. For some additional protein, add a can of rinsed cannellini beans or chickpeas. You could also add cheese if you want. Lastly, bulk up the nutrient content by adding your choice of diced vegetables. To make it easier, purchase your vegetables pre-chopped, or mix in frozen diced vegetables. They will defrost as the flavors all marry together in the fridge.

Bottom Line

Are these convenience foods the epitome of health? Probably not. Can they fit in a healthy diet? Absolutely! Mix and match these ideas to fit your preferences and you can have a quick and easy meal put together in no-time.

  1. Have you ever modified a “processed” food? What was the outcome?
  2. Do you have any of these in your pantry currently?

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