In an ideal world, we’d all have time to prepare and cook three healthy meals a day from scratch, seven days a week, eating in pure farm-to-table bliss. But in reality, life is busy when you factor in work, family, and training commitments leaving you with little time—and absolutely no energy—to prepare an elaborate meal. In these times, we may call upon so-called convenience foods as a way to press the easy button.
But convenience often means sacrificing something else—sometimes flavor, sometimes nutrition. And convenience often means frozen dinners. The good news is that the supermarket is home to many ready-to-go foods that can help you get a healthy, tasty meal on the table with minimal effort. Just because a food isn’t home-cooked from scratch, doesn’t mean you should knock it down.
To get in and out of the kitchen fast, here are our four favorite healthy convenience foods you should stock up on (and why).
Favorite Healthy Convenience Food #1: Rotisserie Chicken
It’s hard to argue that the ubiquitous supermarket roasted chicken doesn’t feel like a home-cooked meal without being, well, home-cooked. Perfect for kitchen lazoids (c’mon, we’ve all been in this camp after a long day), the bird perched under the heat lamps is a budget-friendly food and delicious protein that can anchor a panoply of healthy, convenient meals.
The nutritional breakdown of rotisserie chicken depends on a few things: which part you eat (white or dark meat), whether or not you eat the skin, and how much sodium was used in preparation. What is guaranteed is you’ll be getting a bounty of high-quality protein—about 20 grams in a 3-ounce serving. Protein plays many important roles in the body, from building and maintaining muscle to regulating hormones and controlling blood sugar. Most research suggests we take in about 30 grams of protein with each of our meals to support muscle growth and maintenance, and always-reliable rotisserie chicken makes this a much easier goal to achieve.
Beyond the fact that it’s brimming with protein, rotisserie chicken also offers a variety of other important nutrients for athletes including vitamin B12, niacin, selenium and, zinc. And you need not fear the dark side. Juicy dark meat such as the chicken thigh contains only a couple more grams of fat than white breast meat. But If you want to slash a bunch of the saturated fat and sodium from your newfound healthy convenience food, discard the skin and focus your eating efforts on the flesh. Words like brined or saline solution on the label are a tip-off the bird will be higher in sodium, which could actually work to your advantage if consuming it after a sweaty workout.
As we’ve said, it’s an incredibly versatile protein and you can use it in almost any recipe that calls for chicken—a sandwich, grain bowl, pasta dish, soup, or burrito. Heck, dump it on a pile of salad greens along with some cooked grains and dressing and call it dinner-in-a-hurry.
Make: Tex-Mex Pita Pizzas
- Brush tops of large, whole-grain pitas with oil and broil in the oven until golden brown, about 2 minutes.
- Spread canned refried beans over pitas and top with jarred salsa, shredded Monterey jack cheese, sliced rotisserie chicken and thawed frozen corn
- Broil 1 minute or until cheese has melted.
- Serve topped with sliced avocado.
Favorite Healthy Convenience Food #2: Frozen Waffles
When was the last time you pulled out the waffle maker? Be honest. We thought so. Subzero boxed waffles can be your answer to lightning-fast breakfast carbs without the need to stir up any batter. Think: a healthy convenience food that packs energy for race days and big training mornings. And they can be a source of whole grains in your diet as long as you choose brands made with 100% whole grains instead of refined white flour—look at the ingredient list and make sure it lists a whole grain such as whole wheat flour as the first item.
A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition found that adults who consumed at least three servings of whole grains every day added fewer inches to their waistline over a period of 18 years than those with lower whole-grain intake and higher consumption of nutrient-poor refined grains. Those with higher whole grain intake also experienced smaller increases in blood pressure and fasting blood glucose levels, compared with those with lower intake. And another study found that skimping on breakfast carbs can negatively impact endurance exercise performance later in the day, even when the calories and carbs missed out at breakfast are made up for at lunch.
Of course, pouring a gallon of maple syrup on your toasted frozen waffles isn’t going to do your diet any favors. To make the waffles more of a healthy complete meal top them off with fresh berries and dollops of Greek yogurt—and maybe a slight drizzle of maple syrup.
Make: Waffle Cheesecake Sandwiches
- Smear 2 tablespoons cream cheese, 1 tablespoon peanut or almond butter and 2 tablespoons fruit jam on a prepared whole-grain frozen waffle.
- Top with another prepared waffle and slice in half.
Favorite Healthy Convenience Food #3: Salmon Pouches
These are the perfect on-the-go protein, no can opener required. Great for road trips, air travel, and sojourns to the beach.
Made with wild pink or sockeye salmon, these pouched swimmers are not only a fantastic source of muscle-friendly protein—about 17 grams in each 3-ounce packet—but also a reliable source of mega-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Researchers have found that higher levels of omega-3 acids in the blood can increase life expectancy by almost five years. Similarly, a study in the journal Nature Communications found that people who had greater levels of omega-3 fatty acids—specifically, the eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid you would get in salmon—had a 13% lower risk for all-cause mortality, as well as a lower risk for death due to cancer and cardiovascular disease, compared with those with lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids. These fats work to lower inflammation in the body and also improve the functioning of our cells. Science also suggests that higher intakes can lower exercise-induced muscle damage in athletes, which may improve training recovery.
To feel a bit primal, you can eat the no-cooking-required flesh straight from the pouch for the ultimate in healthy convenience foods or toss the meat on salads and incorporate into sandwiches.
Make: Recovery Fish Wraps
- Smear some Dijon-style mustard on a whole-grain wrap
- Top with a pouch of salmon, slices of jarred roasted pepper, a couple of handfuls of baby spinach, and some crumbled soft goat cheese.
Favorite Healthy Convenience Food #4: Canned Bean Chili
Sure, chili from the canned food aisle isn’t going to stand up to a slow-simmering home-cooked version, but a good canned chili from the supermarket can offer up quintessential comfort food minus the need to dust off the Crock-pot. This healthy convenience food is a great way to get a hot and hearty meal on the table in a flash.
Vegetarian versions pack in more beans (and less sketchy meat) which will give you a bigger dose of dietary fiber—up to 15 grams in a can. An investigation published in the journal mSystemsfound that it takes about two weeks of following a high-fiber diet to start experiencing positive changes in your gut’s microbiome. This could result in improvements to digestive and immune health, and what athlete does not want that? The nutritional heft of canned beans also includes plenty of plant-based protein as well as a range of must-have nutrients such as magnesium, folate, and potassium. So, yes, you should be eating more bean-based meals, even if it comes in a can. Look for brands that incorporate some veggies, but consider adding in additional ones such as chopped bell peppers and carrots to bulk things up with added nutrition.
Make: Chili Stuffed Potato
- Roast a whole sweet potato in a 400°F oven until easily pierced with a tip of a knife.
- Warm canned chili in a small pot.
- Slice open sweet potato and top with chili.
- Top with sour cream, chopped chives, and pumpkin seeds.
Best Buy: Amy’s Organic Black Bean Chili