There are a few everyday foods I don’t buy anymore because I’ve found easy recipes for tastier versions. On the flip side, there are several so-called convenience foods I can’t do without. I asked a few of my foodie friends about the foods they absolutely must make from scratch (and for the recipes!), as well as their “processed food” picks that get healthy meals on the table fast. Here are my choices, and theirs.
Cranberry sauce is a must-have homemade food for me because it tastes so much better than canned. You can alter this simple recipe to your liking: Combine a 12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries, 1/2 cup granulated sugar (less if you desire), 1 cup water, 1 cup orange juice, and 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves in a medium saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes, stirring every so often. The mixture will thicken up as it cools. Cool completely before serving.
Homemade cranberry sauce pairs well with poultry, but it also tastes great stirred into plain Greek yogurt or warm oatmeal, and in smoothies.
Easy Cranberry-Orange Sauce
My favorite convenience food right now is Amy’s Lentil Soup (not a client, by the way). I eat it for a quick meatless lunch along with a piece of whole grain toast topped with cottage cheese. I know, I know. It’s easy to make a big batch of lentil soup from scratch, but I just never get around to doing it, and Amy’s does it so well!
Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN, Nutritioulicious
Must-have homemade food: Peanut sauce
Why: “Most packaged peanut sauces are really high in sodium and sugar, so I’d rather make my own using natural, unsweetened peanut butter and adding my own amount of sweetener. I also add other flavor boosters like freshly grated ginger and sriracha, which packaged peanut sauces don’t have. Give it a whirl in the blender or food processor and it’s easy as can be!”
Favorite convenience food: Canned beans
Why: “I love adding beans to salads, pasta dishes, sauces, and grain side dishes, but I would not use them as frequently as I do if I had to soak and cook them on my own. Time is of the essence when I’m trying to get dinner on the table in my house! A lot of people are hesitant to buy canned beans because of the sodium content, so I recommend buying the no-salt-added canned beans if you can find them and always drain and rinse the beans before adding to a dish.”
Janice Newell Bissex, MS, RDN, JaniceCooks
Must-have homemade food: Sweet and Hearty Beef Stew
Why: “It tastes better than the canned kind, and it’s better for you. My beef stew has half the sodium, twice the protein, and four times the fiber and vitamin A as the canned variety. It takes just minutes to toss the ingredients into the slow cooker and a hearty, tasty dinner is ready to serve a few hours later.”
Favorite convenience food: Canned pumpkin.
Why: “I tried cooking and mashing fresh pumpkin once and decided that it would be the last time. Canned pure pumpkin is so convenient and nutritious that I stock up every fall to be sure I can use it year round. I use it in muffins, pancakes, smoothies, even chili and enchiladas! ”
Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, Nutrition Starring You
Must-have homemade food: Vegan ice cream
Why: “I don’t like the taste of store-bought vegan ice cream. It’s always high in added sugar and not nearly as high in protein as my version.”
Favorite convenience food: Bagged salad.
Why: “I couldn’t live without pre-washed greens, especially the cabbage blends because they are super filling and don’t get soggy so you can enjoy them for several meals. (Close second: rotisserie chicken for fast, easy lunches and dinners.)”
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, Real Mom Nutrition
Must-have homemade food: Salad dressing
Why: “Once I started making my own salad dressing, it was impossible to go back to the gloppy bottled kind–especially the ones with preservatives and artificial dyes.”
(Need more salad dressing ideas? Here’s 50 of them.)
Favorite convenience food: Jarred pasta sauce
Why: “You can’t beat the convenience of it, and jarred sauce plus frozen ravioli is a last resort meal that saves us from ordering pizza or getting other take-out food. Pair that combination with prewashed greens and dinner is ready in 15 minutes!”
Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, Amy Gorin Nutrition
Must-have homemade food: Almond Pistachio Cocoa Bites
Why: “Unlike a lot of store-bought versions of energy bites, balls, and bars, my recipe contains no added sugar. Plus, they’re delicious!”
Favorite convenience food: Frozen fruit
Why: “Unsweetened frozen fruit is great for when I don’t have fresh in the house. It’s also sometimes preferable. When I use it in smoothies, I don’t need to add ice. And when I heat it up and use it as a topping for a bowl of oatmeal or French toast, it creates a nice liquid that can replace other toppings like syrup or brown sugar.”
Elizabeth Shaw, MS, RD, Shaw’s Simple Swaps
Must-have homemade food: Jam
Why: “I love to make homemade jam not only because I can control the added sugar content, but also because I load it with wholesome, nutrient-rich ingredients, like omega-3 chia seeds, fiber-filled figs and other seasonal fresh fruit. The possibilities are endless!”
Favorite convenience food: Whole grain bread
Why: “I can’t live without whole grain bread! Sure, I can make my own, but there’s nothing like a nice, fresh loaf of 100% whole grain bread with seeds from the store that you can simply take out of the bag and place in the toaster for a quick avocado toast lunch!”
Katie Sullivan Morford, MS, RD, Mom’s Kitchen Handbook
Must-have homemade food: Chocolate syrup
Why: “This beautifully glossy chocolate syrup is a tasty alternative to what you’ll find in the supermarket, products that often have artificial flavors, high fructose corn syrup, and mystery ingredients.”
Favorite convenience food: Frozen fruits and vegetables (among so many others!).
Why: “A bag of frozen spinach within reach is a quick way to up the health benefits of everything from stews to smoothies, and frozen spinach is great in smoothies along with frozen fruit. The nutrient values of frozen fruits and vegetables stay largely intact when produce is put under the deep freeze.”
Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RDN
Must-have homemade food: Granola
Why: “Most store-bought granola is loaded with added sugar and fat. My version has sugar and fat, too, but the fat is the heart-healthy unsaturated kind from nuts, and I add just enough pure maple syrup for a touch of sweetness. Allspice or Chinese five spice powder provides added sweetness without sugar. For variety, I add 1/4 cup dried wild blueberries or unsweetened coconut during the last few minutes of baking. Add whatever you like to make it your own recipe.”
3 ½ cups old fashioned oats
2 cups finely chopped nuts of your choice (I love to mix pistachios, almonds, walnuts and pecans)
¼ cup sunflower seeds
½ cup pure maple syrup
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice Powder
Preheat oven to 325˚F. In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients, stirring well to combine.
Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Transfer the granola to the pan and spread evenly. Bake for 30-40 minutes, turning once, or until golden brown. Higher heat burns the nuts.
Favorite convenience food: Canned petite diced tomatoes.
Why: “These little gems are the perfect addition to so many recipes. They add color, flavor, texture, fiber, and other nutrients. I put them in egg dishes, soups, sauces, stews, guacamole, chili, salsa, spaghetti sauce and anything with a red sauce. You can purchase them fire-roasted, with herbs and spices, and with no added salt.”