In today’s fast-paced world, convenience is everything. With busy schedules and limited time, many people turn to convenience foods as a quick and easy solution. While these foods save time and effort, some may be high in unhealthy fats, sugar, and sodium. However, convenience foods can still fit into a healthy eating plan if you make wise choices.
In this article, we’ll explore what convenience foods are, how they may impact your health, and how to incorporate them into a healthy diet.
- What are convenience foods?
- Advantages of convenience foods
- What make a convenience food healthy?
- Limit ultra-processed foods
- Tips for adding convenience foods to a healthy diet
- Healthy convenient meals and snacks: 25 ideas
I want to preface this by saying that the definition of healthy eating differs from person to person based on several factors. These factors include individual nutritional needs, personal preferences, and health conditions.
What may be considered healthy for one person may not be suitable for another. As such, it’s important to personalize dietary recommendations based on individual circumstances.
Aside from the type of food we consume, the quantity and frequency of consumption are equally crucial for our overall health. To ensure our bodies receive all the necessary nutrients, it’s essential to maintain a balanced and diverse diet.
However, it’s important to remember that we can still have some fun with our food choices.
As I always like to say, a single apple won’t magically make you healthy, just as one chocolate chip cookie won’t instantly make you unhealthy.
The following information about convenience foods and how to fit them into a healthy diet is for general purposes only. Please consult with a registered dietitian for tailored recommendations.
What are Convenience Foods?
Requiring little or no preparation, convenience foods encompass a wide range of foods. This goes beyond what you typically find in the frozen food and the ready-to-eat sections of the grocery store. Other sections of the grocery store offer convenience foods, too, such as canned goods and pre-packaged snacks.
The definition of convenience foods may vary from person to person. For some, convenience foods are anything that is not made from scratch. For others, they may include foods that can be prepared or cooked in five minutes or less. Additionally, some may define convenience foods as anything that requires no preparation whatsoever.
Ultimately, the term convenience food is open to interpretation but generally defined as:
“Convenience foods are defined as types of foods that save time in food acquisition, preparation, and cleanup.”– U.S. Department of Agriculture 
Advantages of Convenience Foods
Here are a few examples of why many people include convenience foods in their diet:
- Busy life: Limited time due to work, commute, and/or caring for family members.
- Cost: Convenience foods can be cheaper than fresh, whole foods, making them a more affordable option for some people.
- Availability: In some areas, fresh, whole foods may not be readily available or easily accessible. Meanwhile convenience foods are widely available.
- Shelf life: Convenience foods often have a longer shelf life than fresh foods. This benefits people who don’t frequently grocery shop or who want to stock up on food for emergencies.
- Skill level: Some people may not have the time or skills needed to prepare fresh, whole foods. Others may not have access to kitchen equipment.
- Cravings and preferences: People may simply enjoy the taste and convenience of certain convenience foods.
- Living alone: For someone who lives alone, the ease of pre-packaged single-serving convenience foods may be more appealing.
- Less waste: Convenience foods, particularly individual portions, help reduce food waste especially if you’re not a fan of eating leftovers.
- Fewer dishes to clean: Often requiring little to no cooking, convenience foods involve fewer dishes to clean up after eating.
What Makes a Convenience Food Healthy?
Convenience foods save you time and effort while minimizing the need for extensive planning and reducing stress levels. However, it’s important to read labels carefully and compare products to ensure that you’re getting the most nutritional value out of your convenience foods.
Some factors that contribute to making convenience food healthier include:
- Nutritional value: A healthy convenience food should contain important nutrients such as protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
- Whole food ingredients: Look for convenience foods made from whole food ingredients. Examples include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.
- Limited additives: Limit convenience foods that contain large amounts of artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, and preservatives.
- Lower in sodium and sugar: Some convenience foods are high in sodium and/or sugar. A diet high in sodium and sugar may contribute to high blood pressure, diabetes, and other health problems. Choose lower sugar and sodium varieties if available.
- Controlled portion sizes: Look for options that come in controlled portion sizes or divide larger portions into smaller ones to avoid overeating.
- Not ultra-processed: Many convenience foods have gone through some degree of processing. Limit highly processed or ultra-processed foods. The next section discusses this topic further.
Limit Ultra-processed Foods
Few people have the time and skill to prepare all their meals from scratch. As such, much of our food supply has gone through some degree of processing to make life easier.
Additionally, processing food such as removing inedible parts, freezing, and pasteurization makes them safe for consumption and storage .
However, ultra-processed foods take processing to another level. Typically, these foods contain high amounts of additives, unhealthy fats, salt, and sugar.
Examples of ultra-processed foods include soda, cookies, and chips. While they may be tasty, these foods generally offer little to no nutrients such as protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Consuming high amounts of ultra-processed foods has been linked to an increased risk of chronic conditions. Examples of these conditions include heart disease and type 2 diabetes [2, 3]. Therefore, it’s important to limit the consumption of these foods and base most of our diet on foods that aren’t as highly processed.
Tips for Adding Convenience Foods to a Healthy Diet
Integrating convenience foods into a healthy diet can be a simple and practical approach to eating well. This section discusses the different groups of convenience foods and strategies for modifying convenience foods.
Food group examples
Below are the different groups and examples of convenience foods in each category.
- Canned fish such as tuna or salmon
- Canned chicken
- Pre-cooked poultry such as rotisserie chicken and fully cooked chicken breasts
- Pre-seasoned ready-to-cook portioned meats, poultry, and fish
- Frozen turkey burgers
- Frozen cooked shrimp or pre-peeled and deveined fresh shrimp
- Pre-seasoned fish fillets
- Lean cuts of fresh deli meats such as turkey, chicken, or roast beef
- Plant-based meat alternatives, such as veggie burgers, tofu, and tempeh
- Pre-packaged hard boiled eggs or egg whites
- Canned beans
- Canned lentils or quick-heat lentils in pouches
- Frozen shelled edamame
- Pre-made salad bowls with a protein
- Protein bars
- Beef or turkey jerky
- Peanut butter, nut butter, or seed butter with minimal to no added ingredients
- Peanuts, nuts, and seeds without sugar and little to no added salt
- Cottage cheese
- String cheese, cheese sticks, or Babybel cheese
- Plain Greek yogurt
In addition to protein, these convenient food options offer a diverse array of other nutrients that help support optimal health.
For instance, canned salmon and tuna, nuts, and seeds are rich sources of heart-healthy unsaturated fats. Beans and lentils, on the other hand, are excellent sources of dietary fiber. Dairy products, including cheese and yogurt, provide calcium, which is crucial for maintaining strong bones and teeth.
- Instant oatmeal
- Pre-cooked rice
- Quinoa cups or pre-cooked quinoa
- Grains labeled quick-cooking (some grains like barley, couscous, and grain blends have quick-cooking varieties)
- Bread or wraps
- Ready-to-eat cereals
- Popcorn (air-popped or microwaveable)
- Rice cakes
- Pasta or quick-cooking pasta
- Whole grain crackers
Although it may not be feasible to consume whole grains at every meal, it’s essential to incorporate them whenever possible as they typically provide more fiber and nutrients.
Whole grains provide a steady source of energy and help prevent blood sugar spikes and crashes, unlike refined grains which may cause a rapid rise and fall in blood sugar levels.
Eating whole grains has also been linked to a lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
- Frozen single vegetables such as spinach, green beans, and okra
- Frozen vegetable blends such as fajita blend and stir fry blend
- Pre-washed salads greens in a bag or clamshell
- Pre-cut fresh vegetables such as broccoli florets, bell peppers, carrot sticks, mushrooms, and sweet potatoes
- Mixed fresh veggie trays (often comes with a dip or dressing)
- Pre-cut fresh fajita vegetables tray
- Slaw mix including classic coleslaw or broccoli slaw
- Fresh vegetable kabobs for grilling
- Corn on the cob (removed from husk)
- Fresh or frozen vegetable spirals
- Fresh or frozen pre-chopped onions
- Peeled garlic cloves
- Minced garlic
- Frozen potatoes such as pre-diced potatoes and seasoned baby potatoes
- Canned vegetables such as tomatoes, corn, peas, and beets
- Pre-cut or pre-washed fruits such as melon chunks, pineapple, and berries
- Frozen fruits such as strawberries, mango, pineapple, and cherries
- Frozen fruit blends such as tropical fruit blend and mixed berries
- Dried fruits such as raisins, apricots, dates, and figs
- Canned fruits with little to no added sugar such as peaches, pears, pineapple, and mandarin oranges
Additionally, some fresh fruits and vegetables only require washing before eating, such as grapes, apples, and cherry tomatoes.
Combination convenience foods
- Frozen combination meals which include protein, starch, and sometimes a vegetable.
- Salad kits or bowls that include pre-washed vegetables and pre-chopped protein such as poultry or hard-boiled eggs.
- Snack packs like hummus and carrot sticks, cheese and whole-grain crackers, and nut butter and apple slices.
- Meal kit services also deserve a mention as they deliver complete meals to your home.
Meal kit services offer pre-portioned ingredients for individuals and families. They deliver ingredients and recipe cards that suit your dietary needs to your door, making it easy to cook a healthy meal at home without the hassle of meal planning and grocery shopping.
Some of these meal delivery services also offer no-prep, ready-to-heat meals. These subscription-based services can also be a great way to learn new cooking skills and try out new recipes.
Modifying convenience foods to increase nutritional value
Modifying convenience foods is an excellent way to increase their nutritional value while still enjoying the convenience they offer.
Follow these three key steps first:
- Read the fine print. Read the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list typically located on the back of food packaging. The labels on the front are typically claims that don’t provide the full picture.
- Strike a balance of macronutrients, namely lean protein, fiber-rich carbs, and healthy fats.
- Include fruits and vegetables not just in meals but snacks, too. Fruits and vegetables are significantly under-consumed in the American diet. Regardless of personal preference for a particular type or preparation method, such as fresh, canned, frozen, raw, or roasted, increasing consumption of these nutritious foods is crucial for improving overall health.
Here are some ways to get started:
- Add more vegetables: Adding more fresh or frozen vegetables to canned soups and frozen meals increases the nutrient content of the dish as well as the flavor. You can also add vegetables to sandwich fillings, wraps, and salads.
- Add more protein: Add a lean source of protein such as chicken, fish, or beans to canned soups, ready-to-eat salad bowls, and frozen meals.
- Add fruits: Adding fresh or frozen fruit to cold or hot cereal boosts the nutrition and flavor. Since fruit offers natural sweetness, this can help reduce your intake of cereals that contain high amounts of added sugars.
- Use spices and herbs: Spices and herbs add flavor and help reduce your reliance on salt. They also offer antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Use these ingredients to punch up the flavor in foods including low-sodium products. Examples include turmeric, garlic, cinnamon, and ginger.
- Choose unsaturated fats: While some convenience foods can be high in unhealthy fats like saturated and trans fats, there are healthier options available. Look for products made with unsaturated fats like olive oil or avocado. You can also add healthy fats like nuts, seeds, or avocado to pre-made salads or bowls and to grains or cereals.
- Reduce ultra-processed snacks: Reduce these foods and increase healthy snacks that include fruits and veggies. See the list below for ideas.
Healthy Convenient Meals and Snacks: 25 Ideas
Eating healthy doesn’t have to be time-consuming or complicated. With the right selection of convenience foods and a little bit of creativity, you can whip up quick and easy meals and snacks that are both delicious and nutritious.
Here are some ideas for healthy meals and snacks that incorporate convenience foods and complementary ingredients, making them perfect for busy days or when you’re short on time.
- Whip up a quick omelet with pre-chopped veggies like washed leafy greens and bell peppers, and top with pre-shredded cheese. Serve with a slice of whole-grain toast.
- Breakfast burrito: Fill a burrito wrap or large tortilla with eggs, cooked southwest frozen veggies, canned beans, and optional pre-shredded cheese. Add pre-made salsa and/or guacamole. You can also do an eggless breakfast burrito.
- Top toast with hummus, peanut butter, mashed beans or peas and a side of fruit
- Top no- to low-sugar added instant oatmeal or cold cereal with fruit and nuts or seeds.
- Proats (protein and rolled oats) cooked in the microwave or stove top in 5 minutes.
- Smoothies that check off all the macronutrients with a milk or non-dairy alternative containing protein, frozen fruit and/or vegetable, and healthy fat such as avocado or chia seeds.
Lunch and dinner
- Veggie stir-fry: Heat up a bag of frozen stir-fry veggies, add a protein source like tofu, shelled edamame, or rotisserie chicken, and season with garlic, ginger, and low-sodium soy sauce. Serve over a bed of quick-cooking brown rice or quinoa or quick-cooking noodles.
- Salad with pre-cut toppings: Start with a bag of pre-washed greens and add pre-chopped veggies like cucumbers and carrots. Top with a protein like canned tuna, shrimp, or ready-to-eat hard-boiled eggs, and a sprinkle of nuts or seeds for crunch. Drizzle with olive or avocado oil, a splash of vinegar, and sprinkle seasonings of your choice.
- Sheet pan dinner: Roast pre-cut veggies like sweet potato and cauliflower with a protein source like pre-marinated chicken or tofu.
- Wrap it up: Use pre-washed lettuce leaves or tortillas as a wrap and fill with canned fish or chicken, hummus, and pre-chopped veggies like bell peppers and pre-diced onions.
- Pasta meal: Incorporate lean protein sources and veggies such as leafy greens or pre-chopped veggies into the pasta and sauce.
- Frozen pizza with added toppings: Add your favorite veggie toppings to a frozen pizza to make it more flavorful and nutritious. For example, add chopped spinach leaves or sliced mushrooms to a frozen cheese pizza. Add a side salad or fresh-cut veggies and dip.
- Hearty canned soup: Add frozen vegetables to canned soup to make it more nutritious and filling. For example, you add frozen peas and carrots to canned chicken noodle soup. You can also add canned beans to tomato soup for extra protein. For vegetable soups, mix in instant rice or grain and a protein for a complete meal.
- Sandwiches and wraps: Take a break from the same old deli meat and try heart-healthy tuna or salmon salad in a wrap or sandwich. Incorporate canned beans in a wrap. Add pre-washed leafy greens or an easy coleslaw like this avocado coleslaw made with 5 ingredients.
- Microwaved potato meal: Microwave a pierced potato (to prevent skin from exploding) at full power for about 10 minutes, flipping over halfway through. Top with a protein like a rotisserie chicken or lentils, pre-shredded cheese, and pre-diced onions or pico de gallo.
- Canned beans and prepared salsa tacos: Make tasty and simple tacos with canned beans and store-bought salsa.
Including nutrient-dense snacks as part of a healthy diet is important for maintaining overall health and well-being and providing essential nutrients.
Not including healthy snacks is a missed opportunity to nourish your body with beneficial nutrients and sustain your energy levels throughout the day.
Moreover, consuming healthy snacks that incorporate protein and fiber between meals can help curb overeating during mealtimes, where feelings of deprivation and “hangry” may take control, leading to unhealthy food choices and excess consumption.
- Plain Greek yogurt topped with fresh or frozen berries and a drizzle of honey.
- Pre-cut vegetables like baby carrots, celery, and bell pepper slices served with hummus or guacamole.
- A handful of unsalted nuts or trail mix containing nuts and dried fruit.
- Fresh fruit slices with peanut butter or nut butter for dipping.
- Whole grain crackers topped with sliced avocado and a squeeze of lemon juice.
- Plain popcorn flavored with olive oil, a sprinkling of sea salt, and your choice of seasoning.
- A fruit and nut bar made with whole, minimally processed ingredients.
- Peanut butter sandwich on whole grain bread.
- Cheese stick or turkey jerky and fruit.
- Top toast or rice cakes with chopped hard-boiled egg, optional avocado or cheese slices, and seasoning.
Incorporating convenient and healthy foods into your diet doesn’t have to be a daunting task. By choosing nutrient-dense options, like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins, you can enjoy quick and easy meals that nourish your body.
Whether you’re short on time or simply looking for ways to simplify your meal prep routine, there are plenty of options available to help you stay on track with your health goals.
Remember to read labels and choose products with minimal added sugars, sodium, and artificial ingredients. By making informed choices, you can enjoy the benefits of convenience foods while also prioritizing your health and wellbeing.