Plate-Wise •  10/19/2020

Sneaking the nutrients in: The key to balancing processed and fresh foods

Written By Bridgette Readel 
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This blog post was developed as part of a paid partnership with Amanda, aka I Am Baker. The mom of five incorporates processed foods in family meals and snacks, but wonders how she can balance these foods with more nutritious choices. Check out the video to see Amanda’s question, and read our response below.


As a child of the ’70s, I grew up in the middle of the processed food movement: boxed macaroni and cheese, canned fruit punch, boxed cake mix and, the holy grail, canned ravioli. This stuff was fast, easy and kid-friendly. My parents farmed, and Mom had an off-farm job as well — making it a priority to keep four kids fed in a fast and economical way.

For many parents, the thought of feeding your family processed food leads to guilt. But just because that store-bought mac and cheese isn’t a nutrition powerhouse doesn’t mean you have to write the entire meal off as being a nutritional failure. This leads us to a greater discussion: How can we choose better processed food options or incorporate fresh foods into meals? As a mom, I’d like to share what works for my family.

How to choose better processed food

  1. Know what’s in the food you’re buying. Get smart about how to identify the health value of different processed foods by reviewing things like the ingredient list and recommended serving sizes and by knowing the different names for sugar that might show up on a nutrition label.
  2. Choose fresh. Bagged salad kits, peeled baby carrots or pre-packaged green beans are excellent side dishes for meals.  
  3. Amp up nutritional value. This includes choosing whole grain breads for toast or sandwiches.
  4. Swap out the sweets. Purchase fruit such as bananas for after-school snacks instead of candy or cookies.

How to balance family meals with fresh food

Current research shows it is important to cut back on foods that include added sugar and fat. While Gen Xers and millennials might have grown up in the era of canned veggies and TV dinners, we also seem to have an increased focus on making better food choices for our families. For example, serve chicken nuggets in limited quantities alongside a glass of pasteurized whole milk and a side of carrots or apples. Choose cereals that are lower in sugar and higher in dietary fiber, and boost the nutritional content with some berries, kiwi or apple slices. These are good food choices and can sneak more nutrients into a quick and easy meal.

As someone who works in the science of producing food, I trust what the science tells us: The most important thing about what we put on our plates is the nutrition that we derive from it. So, while the boxed mac and cheese may not be the first choice of dietitians, the salad we could serve with it, or the finely chopped veggies we sneak in to it, are.

For me, it’s all about balance. As a mom, I continue to look for opportunities to balance a meal and establish good habits for my kids. I can cook fresh pork chops but have a side of that boxed mac and cheese I still love.

If you have questions about your own health or dietary needs, please consult your doctor.

If you want to learn more about Amanda, visit her on Facebook.