Dinner Planning Tip #12:
Use “Grocery Store Helpers” to your advantage during the busy holiday season and any time of year.
For the final dinner planning tip of 2022, I am bringing you one that definitely makes things easier! Let’s face it, we all can use a bit of help in the kitchen from time to time. Even me. I try to keep a stash of “Grocery Store Helpers” in my pantry and freezer for those times when the day has gotten away from me.
“Grocery Store Helpers” are low- or minimally-processed foods that save us time AND provide good quality nutrition. The great news is that better quality prepared options are becoming more readily available all the time. Items can vary by region and store, so check your local grocery store, farmers’ market, and international food stores to become familiar with what is available to you.
WHAT ARE “PROCESSED” FOODS?
“Processing” food refers to the steps taken by food growers, manufacturers, and those who prepare food to make it edible, safe to consume, transportable, or shelf-stable.
- grains need to be harvested
- nuts tend to be shelled
- excess fruit and vegetables need to be canned or frozen
According to the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, processed foods range on a scale of (1) minimally processed to (5) mostly processed:
- Level 1 – Minimally processed foods — such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables, and roasted nuts — are often simply pre-prepped for convenience.
- Level 2 – Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna.
- Level 3 – Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture (sweeteners, spices, oils, colors, and preservatives) include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt, and cake mixes.
- Level 4 – Ready-to-eat foods — such as crackers, chips, and deli meat — which are more heavily processed.
- Level 5 – The most heavily processed foods often are frozen or pre-made meals, including frozen pizza, microwaveable dinners, and fast food.
Given all of that, not all processed foods should be considered “bad”, and many provide great benefits and convenience to us as home cooks.
With a goal of cooking meals that help us to feel and function at our best – the key is to find minimally processed foods that are either as close to their “whole” state as possible or low-processed foods that do not include high amounts of sugar, sodium, and artificial additives.
READ NUTRITION FACTS LABELS
It’s important to read the Nutrition Facts labels on food products because ingredients vary by brand. I generally look for options that are lower in sodium, have little or no added sugar, and are without all sorts of additives (i.e.- usually words I cannot pronounce and do not understand).
The American Heart Association has information available to help in understanding food nutrition labels. Check it out.
25 EXAMPLES OF GROCERY STORE HELPERS
Here are 25 examples of prepared food items that are quite helpful to have handy – and there are many more! Use this list as a starting point and begin identifying specific brands that are available in your area. Check labels for sodium content, added sugar, and other unwanted additives.
- diced, crinkle-cut, spiralized, shaved, or riced vegetables
- jicama wraps
- jarred, minced ginger
- steamed beets
Deli / Meat / Seafood
- rotisserie chicken
- steamed shrimp and crab
- grilled or roasted vegetables
- steamed lentils
- hard-boiled eggs (cage-free)
- fresh pasta (whole-grain, veggie)
- pickled/fermented veggies
- fresh sauces – salsa, pesto, guacamole, hummus, tzatziki sauce, baba ghanoush
- cooked whole grains and noodles
- whole, diced, spiralized, or sliced vegetables
- whole or cut fruit (without sugar or sauce)
- whole-grain or veggie pizza crusts
- boxed stock or broth
- sauces – marinara, BBQ, simmer sauces
- canned beans and lentils
- canned tuna or salmon (check sodium)
- jarred roasted red peppers
- nut or seed butter
- low-salt or salt-free seasoning blends
- whole-grain artisan bread, buns, pita, flatbreads
26 BRAND RECOMMENDATIONS FOR QUICK MEAL PREP
- Trader Joe’s
- Classico (some varieties)
- Costco’s Kirkland
- Maya Kaimal
- Trader Joe’s
- Whole Foods 365
- Saffron Road
- Chosen Foods
Enchilada Sauce – Red, Green, Tomatillo
- Trader Joe’s
- Bone Suckin’ Sauce
- Date Lady
- Seoul Korean BBQ
- Chosen Foods
- Primal Kitchen
- Whole Foods 365
4 DINNER PLANNING IDEAS
To help with your weekly dinner planning routine, especially during the busy holiday time, here are a few menu ideas using Grocery Store Helpers. Enjoy!
- use prepared, refrigerated ravioli or any type of favorite prepared pasta; cook as directed on the packaging
- top the cooked pasta with a drizzle of good-quality olive oil, a splash of aged balsamic vinegar, and shaved Parmesan cheese
- serve this with a tossed salad prepared with pre-washed greens or a complete salad kit
“Curry in a Hurry” Bowl
- saute onions and bell pepper (cut at home or pre-cut from the produce aisle) in a saute pan with sides and a cover
- Add a jarred curry simmer sauce, and a quick-cooking protein – seafood, pre-cooked or canned beans, lentils, or tofu
- simmer as directed on the sauce jar
Layer in a Bowl
- cooked brown rice or cauliflower rice (cooked at home or from the frozen food aisle)
- chopped fresh greens such as spinach, baby kale or chard (from the produce aisle)
- simmered curry
- top with chopped cashew nuts, cilantro, or parsley
Teriyaki Salmon Sheet Pan Dinner
- use pre-cut vegetables (produce aisle); season with salt and pepper; roast at 425° F for approximately 10 minutes, depending on the veggies
- add pre-portioned salmon fillets (frozen food aisle); brush salmon with bottled teriyaki sauce and roast for an additional 12 – 15 minutes, depending on the size of fillets
- serve over brown rice or noodles (made at home or from the frozen food aisle)
What is your favorite “Grocery Store Helper”? Share it with us in the comments section!