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We’re busier than ever. Between working, studying, exercising and socializing, it can sometimes seem difficult to fit food preparation in as well. More and more frequently, people are falling prey to convenience when making choices about eating. But the cost of convenience is actually higher than most of us realize. And we’re not just talking about the environmental impact of disposable packaging! Regular reliance on pre-made, pre-packaged, and pre-cooked foods can end up weighing heavily on the wallet, the waistline, and on health in general.

The more of your own food that you can prepare, the better. Packaged meals frequently have their nutritional value compromised, as ingredients start to degrade over time. Vegetables lose their vitamins, grains lose their texture, and things generally start to get a bit limp. Salt, sugar, fats and artificial ingredients are frequently added to packaged foods to enhance their taste. For these reasons, home-cooked meals are not only superior in terms of nutritional content- they generally taste better, too. Relying on the freshness and flavor of natural ingredients, including herbs and spices, is definitely more favorable in terms of health. What’s more, making your own meals means that you’ll save money. Ready meals can seem like a fairly economical option, when in fact, quite the opposite is true. You could easily make multiple servings of soup for the same price as some single-serve packages, or delicious salads that cost a fraction of those in self-serve sections at supermarkets.

If you’re a health-conscious individual, there’s a good chance that you do make time to prepare the majority of your own food already. But no matter how hard you try, there’s always one day a week that you run out of time to make lunch, or have to eat dinner in the 10 minutes between work and a function. At these times, it’s useful to know which ready-made products are healthy. You don’t want to grow dependent upon them, but have a couple of safe options when you’re really pressed for time.

With a wide range of vegan convenience meals now available, and fresh to-go salads in many supermarkets, it may appear that that healthy choices are plentiful. But as always, you need to look beyond the front label to find out whether it fits with your eating philosophies. To make things easier, we’ve got some tips for making healthier choices when it comes to pre-made meals.

Look for fresh options. Remember that not all convenience meals are found in the frozen or canned-food aisles. ‘To-Go’ meals like veggie sushi with brown rice, or vegetable-and-grain salads, can often be found in or near the produce section. Most are made daily, giving you fresh and healthy options when you need a meal in a pinch. Of course, the availability of such meals will depend largely on where you live and what you have access to, and remember- they can be pretty expensive! As with other packaged meals, you also need to…

Check for animal ingredients. Some packaged foods may proudly state that they are suitable for vegans, while others just happen to be animal-friendly by default. Never assume that because something sounds vegan- like “Lentil & Vegetable Soup”- that it won’t contain animal ingredients. A quick scan of the label can reveal animal-derived additions such as chicken stock, butter, milk and cream. Always check the label for animal ingredients, and don’t forget about sneaky derivatives like whey, casein, lactose and Worcestershire sauce.

Look for natural ingredients, and avoid artificial additives. A long list of unpronounceable ingredients and E-numbers is generally a good indication that a product that should be avoided. Some packaged meals will contain a lot of ingredients, but they’re all things you’d find in your own kitchen, such as herbs, spices, vinegar, or soy sauce. Before you purchase anything, check that the ingredients are all recognizable as foodstuffs. Artificial preservatives, colors and flavors should always be kept off the menu.

Check the sodium content. Whether it’s a can of soup, a seasoned rice dish, or a store-bought salad, the sodium content of pre-made meals is generally quite high. It’s best to look for low-sodium options, or at least try to find items containing less than 500mg of sodium per portion (a portion being the amount you’re actually going to eat, not necessarily what it says on the label!)

Find out where the fats are coming from. In addition to sodium, high fat content is common in packaged foods. Look for sources of fat on the ingredient list. Is it coming from a little organic virgin oil, or a heavy helping of hydrogenated shortening? The answer may determine whether or not an item is really worth eating. Whatever the product, always seek varieties that are low in saturated fats, and free from trans-fats.

If you’re on the hunt for items that fit the bill, here’s a few we’ve found already!<

Image Source: Tim Sacton/Flickr

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