Healthy Eating With Shelf Stable Food

In the midst of stay-at-home orders and social distancing we are eating and cooking at home more than usual. Quarantine recommendations state you should plan to stay at home for two weeks at a time. This means a lot fewer trips to the grocery store, and many of us are looking for foods that won’t spoil. Shelf stable foods such as canned, frozen and dry goods are cheaper, and they last longer. Unfortunately some of these foods can be unhealthy. Canned, prepackaged and frozen foods often have high amounts of salt (sodium). They can also have hidden sugars and other additives. Healthy and high nutrient options are available.

Pitfalls of processed foods

The National Institutes of Health found people ate an average of 500 extra calories a day when they ate mostly processed foods, compared with when the same people ate minimally processed foods. What are processed foods? They tend to be shelf-stable foods, lasting a long time, and having undergone some kind of mechanical or chemical operations to change or preserve it. While this can be extensive food engineering, it can also mean curing, freezing, fermenting, milling or pasteurizing. Foods that have had more processing tend to be less healthy, such as soda, chips, packaged baked goods, and boxed or frozen meals. Foods that have had minimal processing, meaning they haven’t been changed as much, tend to be healthier. These foods include canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, dried beans and whole grains. For more information about processed foods see these articles, What’s so bad about processed foods?and Not all processed foods are unhealthy.

Oatmeal is a good example of a food with a variety of processing options. There are several kinds of oatmeal found in the grocery store. Steel cut oats are the least processed. It is the whole grain oat simply cut into pieces, and it takes about 40 minutes to cook. As you look at the other products you will find more processed options. Old fashioned oats have just a bit more processing and take about 20 minutes to prepare. Instant and flavored oatmeal is the most processed version. It takes less time to prepare, five minutes or less, because the whole grain has been broken down to allow for shorter cook times. The flavors in these varieties have added sugar, fat and salt. Using the less processed variety and adding your own flavoring with fruit, spices and nuts is a healthier more nutrient rich alternative.

Read your nutrition labels

It is important to know what is in the foods we eat. There is no better way to figure this out, than to read the nutrition facts label. Avoid high amounts of sodium, fat and sugar. Did you know that frozen vegetables and even fruit can contain added sugar and salt? For more information on how to read a nutrition facts label go to ChooseMyPlate.gov.

Healthy foods for your shopping list

Here are some suggestions for healthy shelf-stable foods;

  • Fruits – frozen, canned (look for no or low-sugar options), dried (these also often have added sugars) and long lasting fresh fruits such as oranges, grapefruits, apples and unripe bananas.
  • Vegetables – frozen, canned (look for no or low-salt options), and dried (beets, carrots and kale are terrific options).
  • Proteins – canned beans (look for no added-salt varieties), dried or roasted beans (great sources of fiber, vitamins and minerals), canned seafood (tuna is common, but salmon and sardines are packed with good nutrients and canned crab, mussels and oysters can be great in pastas and rice dishes), nuts & seeds (can add texture and nutritional value to any dish), hard cheeses (parmesan and some cheddars can last two weeks or longer), eggs (stored in their carton on a shelf can last about three weeks), dried meats like jerky (watch for high fat and salt in salamis and hard sausages), and shelf-stable milks can be found in unrefrigerated packaging.
  • Whole grains – oats, quinoa and brown rice, pasta and breads (if sliced and frozen can last for months and taste just as good with a little toasting), low-fat crackers, nut-based crackers, low-sugar high-fiber cereals (if you are watching your salt be sure to read the label, some cereals have more salt in one portion than an order of French fries), and popcorn (a healthy whole grain, but keep an eye on the added butter and salt).

For more ideas try these links Packaged foods you can feel good about eating, 30 healthy canned foods you should add to your pantry,and Processed Foods: What’s OK and what to avoid.

How to make healthy and flavorful dishes?

Lastly, let’s talk about how make great meals from shelf-stable foods. Soups are a terrific option for using canned, frozen and dried foods. Black bean soup, pumpkin soup, corn chowder and fish stew are good for the novice cook.  Also recipes which start with a tomato base such as soups, stews and sauces. Here’s an easy basic tomato sauce recipe I’ve used, and it’s delicious. Use canned or frozen seafood to make a tasty and easy pasta dish, try Lemon Garlic Penne with Crab.  If you need a little comfort food but still want to eat well, try Easy Pea Risotto. Canned and frozen fruit to add a little sweetness to breakfast, snacks and deserts. One of my favorites is Pineapple Orange Sorbet.

For more recipes, there’s a terrific new cookbook for canned food, Take One Can: 80 Delicious Meals from the Cupboard by Lola Milne.

Lauren Weatherford, MPA, is a health and nutrition expert that helps provide monthly advice for Active Southern West Virginia. Lauren Weatherford has been with the WVU Extension Service for 17 years. She delivers evidence and research-based information to both professional and community level audiences and has specializations in health and wellness, life management skills and relationship education. Prior to her role as a county agent, she served as an Extension Specialist with the WVU Extension Service- Family Nutrition Program. She has co-authored curricula, published numerous educational pieces, and loves working directly with participants to affect positive behavior change. She is also a more than 20-year whitewater river guide, member of national ski patrol, parent of two active teenagers and wife. “Anytime I can get outside and be active is my happy time.”

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