To Cook Or Not To Cook?

by Molly Hembree, MS, RD, LD

Last Updated: June 8, 2020

While most of the global economy has seen a dark shadow cast on businesses amid the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, the grocery industry is instead hitting record sales, including Kroger’s 30% year-over-year surge in identical-store sales for March. This heavy reliance on grocers for food and essentials has emerged during a time when most are cooking at home more often, but we also have the opportunity to strategize how to eat well once life returns to a busier routine.

Often eating for convenience gets entangled with unhealthy food choices. Many people can’t divorce the notion that if it’s easy and tastes good, it must not be wholesome. Thankfully, there are many offerings to the contrary that meet our need for speed but also our will to eat well.

Unfortunately, a long-time nutrition adversary to convenience foods is sodium. Sodium has been identified as a top public health concern due to its negative impact on blood pressure and association with serious conditions like heart disease and stroke. Most Americans consume greater than 3,400 milligrams sodium per day when the recommendation is to stay under 2,300 milligrams. How can we change this? We can pick out lower-sodium convenient packaged foods and eat fresh foods more frequently. A “very low sodium” product means it has 35 milligrams or less of sodium per serving, while “low sodium” is 140 milligrams of sodium or less per serving, and “reduced sodium” means at least 25% less sodium than a product’s original counterpart. Challenge yourself to highlight flavors with lemon juice, herbs, and spices rather than salt, seek out reduced sodium meat, pizza, and pasta dishes for fresh and frozen selections, and consider grabbing low-sodium snack alternatives at the endcap near checkout for a quick pick when you finalize your purchases.

Well-accepted, nutritionally-dense foods that dietitians hope you gravitate towards year-round include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy/dairy alternatives. It would be prudent to seek out simple fresh cut fruit, chopped fresh vegetables, and fresh meal starters like tomato, lettuce, and onion burger fixings in the produce area of your favorite Kroger store. But not only is the fresh department a hub of these ingredients, but so are the frozen, canned, and packaged food aisles. Healthy options that are also highly accessible include: dried fruit like raisins or dates, canned fruit like pear or pineapple bowls, frozen vegetables like mirepoix or broccoli, packaged whole grains like brown rice pouches or oatmeal cups, lean proteins like hummus or nuts, and low-fat dairy/dairy alternatives like string cheese or single-serve soy milks.

Many of us understand that higher convenience may come with a higher price tag. Keeping these margins in mind, rather than recreating or sourcing innovative healthy food alternatives, try bolstering existing convenience product nutrition by adding produce to the mix. Perhaps a deli sandwich could be enhanced with a side salad, a banana could be a nice complement to a breakfast burrito, pineapple might be a welcome addition to that frozen pizza, or a side of frozen vegetables might work with a ready-to-eat protein.

No need to break out the elaborate kitchen tools nor make up a grocery list with only fancy food replacements in order to create better eating habits in the name of convenience. Oftentimes eating healthier without the extra effort may mean paying extra attention to sodium, stocking up on fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy/dairy alternatives, or just throwing a piece of produce on the plate.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.

Molly Hembree, MS, RDN, LD

Molly Hembree, MS, RDN, LD

Sometimes the answer is easy: Eat more plants. Plant-forward eating is trendy not just for its health benefits, but also its focus on sustainability, fresh flavor, and wholesome ingredients. Molly has relied on plants as her only fuel for the last seven years and can help you rediscover your love affair with veggies, feel confident you’re getting plenty of protein, or figure out what to do with jackfruit. Whether you’re a vegan veteran or curious carnivore, Molly’s expert food ideas will get you excited to feature plants on your plate.