Very few of us have time to make absolutely everything from scratch. Although I mostly cook everything from scratch, I do use a few convenience foods quite regularly. So what are convenience foods? You may think straight away of takeaways and microwave meals when convenience foods are mentioned and you’d be right. But this is actually quite a wide category. For example bread, cereals, crackers and yoghurts are convenience foods. This also includes more ‘healthy’ foods such as hummus, chopped tomatoes and shop-bought veggie burgers.
Is convenience the same as processed? These foods do overlap, yes. Convenience foods are just those that are ready prepared – even if they are healthy or fairly natural. This might include a high quality ready-meal, a pre-prepared salad or shop-bought organic soup. Anything that has been made in advance, ready-peeled, ready chopped or produced en masse is a convenience food. Processed foods are foods that have been changed from their natural state. This might be something made of flour, (like bread, pasta, cakes, biscuits and crackers) or vegan sausages, breakfast cereals, pasta sauce or even chopped tomatoes.
We have to use our common sense in terms of whether these foods are ‘healthy’ (or I prefer the term ‘nutritious’). If a food comes in packaging with quite a few ingredients (particularly those that do not sound like food!), I would question how nourishing it is. But a packet of ready-peeled and chopped carrots will be more nourishing than an organic, gluten-free cereal bar – not having had lots of unnecessary ingredients added to it (or taken away). With convenience foods, the downsides are the fact that they often contain unwanted ingredients like thickeners, fillers, emulsifiers and sweeteners. Not to mention sugar, soy and vegetable oils. Furthermore, the act of processing foods denatures their nutrients. From the moment a fruit or vegetable is peeled or chopped (or picked), it starts to lose its nutrients. Ready-made juices, sauces and meals will likely have been pasteurised to kill harmful bacteria and preserve shelf-life. This has the effect of damaging the nutrients within those foods or drinks. This is one reason why shop bought juices and smoothies are not advisable – they contain very little nutrients and lots of sugar (albeit natural).
So do we have to cook everything from scratch then? How can we manage to prepare nutritious meals for ourselves and our families when we are short of time and energy? Well you can take short cuts. Sometimes. Just make informed choices, be mindful of how much is pre-prepared and be realistic about your lifestyle. I often tell people that with nutrition there’s different levels. At the bottom level there is just the basics – say, adding in an extra portion of veg. Whereas we can go much further up the ladder with diet and make every single thing from scratch from home-grown ingredients. Some of these diet and lifestyle practises will be completely unrealistic and too aspirational for many people.
I wanted to share with you what I sometimes do as a busy working mum who likes to make things from scratch from quality ingredients but who is sometimes short of time or energy! In the picture, I have used a quality shop-bought vegetable soup that also contains chickpeas and rice, and added leftover home-cooked chicken and fresh kale. I have basically up-graded my shop-bought soup by adding in some extra protein and extra leafy greens whilst making it more filling at the same time. Other convenience foods that I might use include ready-chopped butternut squash, frozen berries, ready-cooked quinoa and I buy a good quality hummus and bread for the family. This might look totally different for you and that’s ok. If you’re buying your ready-meal – add in extra veg. If you’re buying your lunch, be mindful of the ingredients. Perhaps add a salad to your sandwich. It has to work for you. A small change might make all the difference.