How To Choose Healthy Packaged Foods

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Shorter Version

Est. Reading Time: 1 Minute

From granola and protein bars to chips and frozen meals, packaged foods are fast, convenient, and also easy to grab for on-the-go and busy lifestyles. These processed foods have been the bad guys for quite some time. But, are all processed foods as bad as we think? Is it possible to find healthy packaged foods?

Choosing Healthy Packaged Foods

As you may know, many of the packaged food items Americans eat are high in fat, sugar, sodium, and calories. This can lead to Type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and risk for certain cancers. But processed foods include more than just your favorite bag of chips and fast food meals.

A “processed” food is one where the manufacturer has changed the food from its original state.

This even includes foods like baby carrots, sliced apples, roasted nuts and seeds, canned vegetables, frozen fruits, and boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

Shopping for healthy packaged foods

Because 80% of Americans are getting their energy from processed and packaged foods, it’s important to know how to shop for healthier options. Continue reading the actionable steps for tips on picking packaged foods that fit your busy lifestyle and can still contribute to better health.

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Actionable Steps


Read the longer version

To learn more, read these articles reviewed by our professionals: Can Packaged Foods Be Healthy? by Kristin Kirkpatrick, lead dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Wellness & Preventive Medicine, Processed Foods: What’s OK and What to Avoid by the American Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, Can Processed Foods Be Part of a Healthy Diet by the American Heart Association.


Read the food label

Know what’s in your food by understanding the food label. Choose items that have no more than 5 ingredients listed and are made with primarily real foods that you would find in your own kitchen. Do you keep MSG, nitrites, or sodium benzoate in your pantry? No, so try not to buy foods that have a laundry list of man-made ingredients. Keep it simple.


Check the sodium, fat, and added sugar

These are the 3 biggest processed food culprits that negatively impact our health. When reading the food label, aim for items with zero trans fat (hydrogenated oils can lead to risk for heart disease), are low in saturated fat, are considered low sodium with less than 140 milligrams of sodium, and are low in sugar with little to no added sugars.


Fill up with fiber

Packaged foods that are made with fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, or whole grains are going to be higher in fiber than their counterparts. Fiber keeps us full and is linked to better intestinal and cardiovascular health. Pick items that are a “good source” with 3 grams of fiber per serving or that are considered “high in fiber” with 5 grams per serving.


Switch from “ultra-processed” to minimally processed foods

Ultra-processed foods have a long list of ingredients including preservatives, fillers, food colorings, and additives to make them flavorful and shelf-stable. Swap these out for minimally processed foods like bagged or pre-cut fresh veggies, shelled nuts (like lightly salted nuts or pistachio hearts), and pasteurized milk.


Keep planning ahead

When you plan your meals and snacks for the week, make time to shop and prep those meals. Then, you’re less likely to grab packaged foods when you’re on-the-run or in a hurry out the door.

Dietitian’s Tip: Try making your own variations of packaged foods like whole-foods based protein bars and batch cooked meals. These can be stored in the freezer to limit how often you need to purchase those processed items.

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About the Author

shannon costello

Shannon Costello

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)

Hi, I’m Shannon! I’m a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Culinary Coach, and Personal Trainer. After dedicating over 8 years to the corporate wellness world, I began my own nutrition practice. Chef Shannon Nutrition focuses on plant-based nutrition and culinary coaching. My passion for culinary nutrition grew when I worked as a cooking instructor for a culinary entertainment company. After several years as an instructor and event coordinator, I moved into the role of Director of Culinary Entertainment where I developed all the recipes, menus, and instructor trainings. My dietetic’s expertise helped the company expand into allergy-friendly and health conscious menus to suit all clients.
Full Bio | LinkedIn | 1:1 Coaching

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