When you think healthy, you probably think of fresh food. While raw or unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods are great for improving your health or losing weight, they aren’t always when it comes to your wallet. And that’s the last thing we need right now. If you want to save a few pounds (of the Great British variety), then reconsider your view of packaged foods.
While some won’t help you hit your five-a-day (or five-a-week for that matter), there are still plenty of off-the-shelf foods that can support a healthy diet.
In case you didn’t know, Noom uses a unique colour system that classifies foods by caloric density. Green foods have the lowest caloric density, orange foods have the highest, and yellow foods fall in the middle. Your best bet for meeting your health goals is to fill up on green foods and be more mindful of portions of yellow and orange foods throughout the day.
So where do your favourite off-the-shelf foods—things like tinned soup, sandwiches, and ready meals—fall on the colour scale?
Ready to make a lasting change?
A healthier you, wherever you are.
Off-the-shelf green foods
1. Frozen vegetables
Vegetables are usually frozen immediately after they are picked, so they don’t lose the nutritional magic that makes them a healthy choice. Once thawed, they can be spiralised, diced, mashed, or sautéed just like fresh ones.
2. Tinned vegetables
Tinned vegetables can (see what we did there?) be part of a healthy diet, as they contain many of the vitamins and minerals found in fresh produce. The canning process changes the texture and the taste of a lot of vegetables, however, so they’re best used in recipes with bold flavours. Soups and stews are a good place to start.
3. Jarred salsa
Salsa is a great green food alternative to more calorie-dense options like salad dressing and other common kitchen condiments. Salsa adds a kick without piling tons of excess sugar, calories, or fat into your dish.
And there are few acts of culinary creativity more satisfying than making your own. Get started with a simple one made with tinned tomatoes, a pinch of salt, dried coriander, and a jalapeño for some heat! Just don’t forget your sombrero.
4. Tinned tuna
Tinned tuna is a quick and easy protein that works well with a wide variety of meals. Though do bear in mind that some tins contain two servings and can be marinated in unhealthy oils.
And while everyone loves a tuna mayo sarnie, mayonnaise lands squarely in the orange food category so better to enjoy occasionally. If you really can’t live without the lunchtime essential, opt for a light version, or use plain Greek yoghurt or mashed avocado instead, for increased nutritional value and flavour.
5. Frozen fruits
Berries are the divas of the fresh fruit world. Crumple the packaging just a little, let just a drop of water into the box (not including the essential pre-snack rinse of course), or leave them as little as ten minutes beyond their use by date—and boom, they’ve gone off.
Avoid berries’ temperamentality by going for the frozen option. They’re perfect for blending into smoothies, pureeing for desserts or once thawed, enjoyed on their own as a snack.
6. Wholemeal bread and pasta
Most pastas and breads are low in fat, but wholemeal and multigrain varieties are a good source of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals, and healthy fats. Since fresh bread won’t last you long off the shelf, try freezing a portion of your bread products for later. Stock up on wholemeal pasta, which can last up for a couple of days in the fridge once cooked or up to a year when stored dry in an airtight container!
7. Quinoa and other whole grains
Quinoa, while technically a seed and pronounced differently depending on who you ask, is classified as a whole grain and a complete protein that contains all nine essential amino acids (the building blocks of life)—making it a staple in our kitchens. Quinoa cooks faster than many other grains and can be used instead of rice for things like burritos, bowls, stir-frys, salads, and soups.
8. Porridge and Whole Bran Cereals
Porridge and whole bran cereals are timeless breakfast staples that anyone can enjoy! When at the supermarket, try to avoid packaged oats that may be pre-flavoured, as these can contain added sugars and artificial ingredients. Instead, get creative with your flavours and toppings and check out these alternative porridge recipes courtesy of Jamie Oliver.
Off-the-shelf yellow foods
1. Reduced salt, tinned soups
Look for low-salt options, which have real shelf longevity and can act either as a standalone meal, side/starter, or as ingredients in preparing casseroles and stews. The humble tinned soup also gives you a great base for a jazzy dinner: Throw in some extra chopped veg, wholemeal croutons, or beans to increase its nutritional value and have your tastebuds singing.
Legumes, like chickpeas are rich in protein and fibre, both of which support weight loss efforts. Fibre helps keep you fuller for longer, and protein curbs hunger. Legumes are also extremely versatile: blend with tahini, lemon, and garlic for a delicious houmous dip, or toss them in oil and roast for a delicious snack or side.
3. Frozen fish
The frozen stuff might not quite match the fresh kind, but it still gets the job done in terms of taste, nutritional value, convenience, and price. Frozen cod or haddock is a great choice when you’re out of fancy dinner ideas as some can be cooked straight from the freezer or defrost quickly so you can whip up something delicious in no time.
4. Frozen chicken
Frozen chicken (both dark and light meat) serves as a great yellow food staple. Great as a standalone protein, or as a main ingredient in a tray bake, stews, and wraps. If you like breadcrumbed chicken, try making it at home with wholemeal bread so you can manage ingredients and portion size, while still enjoying your favourite food.
Popcorn kernels can be purchased in bulk and last up to two years! Air-pop your own in the microwave and treat yourself to a fun, yet healthy snack, using seasonings like chilli powder, cinnamon, or a pinch of sugar or salt for that extra pizzazz (jazz hands optional).
6. Wholewheat or corn tortillas
Whether you learned your craft working in the local burrito place or just do your best with supermarket ones, wholemeal and corn tortillas are a great yellow substitute for both fresh breads or the classic packaged sandwich that contains lots of additives.
8. Brown rice and pasta
Brown rice and pasta are quintessential off-the-shelf staples. And what doesn’t pair well with them? From lamb and chicken to tofu and vegetables, there are dozens of options to suit all tastes. Prepare a pan of dry pasta or rice on the weekend to use throughout the week for dishes like carbonara, spag bol, or stir-fry.
Off-the-shelf orange foods
1. Ready meals
Let’s be honest. You knew these were going to be here. Ready meals were designed to be a simple, hassle-free answer to one of the most important questions a human can ask: “What’s for dinner?” Thankfully, they’ve improved over the last few years. Some might even say they’ve had a ‘glow-up’, catering to a wider variety of dietary needs and with better nutritional content so they don’t necessarily derail your healthy eating plan (unless you eat one everyday that is).
Due to hidden additives however, they’re just not as good for you as the stuff that’s gone before them in this rundown. Delicious and long-lasting yes, but that’ll be the oodles of salt, sugar, and preservatives so be warned and opt for most veggie-heavy ones you can find.
2. Dried beans
Tinned beans are a great source of protein, dietary fibre, and complex carbs—that last one is what puts them in the orange band.
To prepare, soak in water for one-to-two hours (or, ideally, overnight) before cooking. I Make a large batch each time, then store in the fridge for up to a week and you have an easy, nutritious addition to any meal.
3. Peanut butter
Yes, there are healthy fats in peanut butter and other nut butters, but there are a lot of them, and often considerable quantities of salt too. Many brands also sneak in quite a bit of sugar beyond the 1–2 grams naturally found in peanuts or almonds. One tablespoon typically contains 90–100 calories, so pair it with a green food like an apple or celery for a tasty snack and keep your colour ratios in check.
4. Dried fruits
Dried fruits are the veterans of longevity. Although they offer the same vitamins and minerals as fresh fruit, ones like raisins are much more calorie dense, so be mindful of portion size (and choose ones on the yellow list instead).
Crackers like ryvitas can make a great breakfast base or a snack on their own with houmous, but their salt (and sometimes their added sugar) content puts them in the orange band. Look for whole grain crackers that are high in fibre and reduced salt for a healthier option.
Bagels are typically higher in calories than other breads or wholemeal products, but like with anything, it’s all about moderation. To extend their shelf life, try storing them in the freezer.
It bears repeating—times are tough for people at the minute. The cost-of-living crisis is impacting millions, and one of the places where it hits most sorely is in different households’ weekly food budgets. At the end of the day, your first priority is always making sure your basic physical needs are met—getting enough food and staying hydrated. Then, if you have the privilege to think about food quality and health plans, use this as your guide.
Ready to make a lasting change?
A healthier you, wherever you are.
Beat price hikes by stocking up
A well-stocked kitchen includes three parts: the cupboard, the fridge, and the freezer.
In the cupboard:
- Grains and pasta: whole rolled oats, quinoa, rice, wholewheat pasta
- Tinned produce: chopped tomatoes, sweetcorn, green beans
- Protein: tinned and dried lentils, chickpeas, beans, canned fish
- Fats: extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, toasted sesame oil, nuts, seeds, nut butters, coconut milk
- Dried fruit: cherries, apricots, dates, raisins
- Baking ingredients and seasonings: vinegars, sea salt, black pepper, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, smoked paprika, red pepper flakes, sugar, brown sugar, flour, baking soda, baking powder, active dry yeast
In the freezer:
- Frozen vegetables and fruit: peas, spinach, broccoli, carrots, green beans, squash, cauliflower, berries, mango, pineapple
- Bread and tortilla wraps: wholewheat bread, flour and corn tortilla wraps
- Protein: minced/whole poultry and beef, fish
- A few freezer meals: next time you cook, freeze any leftovers, or make a double batch and freeze the extras!
In the fridge:
- Long-lasting fresh produce: potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, winter squash, cabbage, root veggies, lemons, limes
- Protein: eggs, tofu, tempeh, deli meats
- Dairy: cheeses, Greek yoghurt, eggs
- Flavourful extras: mustard, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, capers, pickled vegetables, soy sauce
You don’t need to keep all these ingredients on hand all the time, of course. But with a mix of a few items from each category, you’ll be on your way to making all sorts of delicious meals!
Reverse Meal Planning (taken from a post in the Goal Specialists Slack channel):
A sample shopping list might include:
- 3–4 proteins including eggs
- 3–5 tinned/frozen veggies
- 3–5 fresh veggies (or more frozen fruit/veggies)
- 2–3 frozen/fresh fruits
- 2–3 rice, oatsl, other grains, dried beans, potatoes, squash
- 2–3 dairy
- Optional: condiments, dried herbs/spices
Living your best (off-the-shelf) life
The secret to a great healthy eating plan is balance. It’s also the most difficult thing to get right consistently over a period of time. You might have limited options to get great fresh food near where you live. Or you might not have the time during one week to brainstorm bundles of innovative healthy meal plans. Life can get in the way when you’re trying to get healthy.
That’s when you need options, and, in the right ratios and combinations, off-the-shelf foods can save the day (as well as a few pennies).