Closeup of pesto with spoon

The words “convenience” and “processed” are usually shorthand for foods of less-than-ideal nutritional value. But not all of these packaged foods are highly refined, vitamin-stripped, or loaded with saturated fat, sodium, or added sugars. (For the record, those kinds of foods are technically known as “ultra processed.”) In fact, an elite group of healthy packaged foods takes good-for-you foods and makes them easier to use.

“Particularly as we get older, it’s helpful to have the pantry and freezer stocked with healthy foods that have a longer shelf life than fresh foods and are quicker and easier to prepare,” says Alice Lichtenstein, D.Sc., the Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Doing so helps make cooking for smaller-sized households easier and minimizes waste (due to not using fresh foods fast enough). Plus you’ll have more options on hand for days when bad weather makes it difficult to go shopping.

“If choices are made wisely, the nutritional quality of some ‘processed’ foods can be equal to or may even be greater than the fresh,” Lichtenstein says. That includes frozen foods that let you use only as much as you need and shelf-stable products that minimize the need for constant grocery runs. Here are eight of our favorite healthy packaged foods: All make improving your diet a more attainable goal.

Canned or Boxed Tomatoes

Tomatoes contain lycopene, an antioxidant found to reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers, and possibly strokes. A study of more than 1,000 middle-aged men found that those with the highest blood levels of lycopene were 55 percent less likely to have a stroke than men with the lowest levels.

More on Processed Foods

Slicing a tomato is easy, but you’ll often get more lycopene from tomato products. These are heated during processing, and that concentrates the lycopene and makes it easier for the body to absorb it.

And processed tomatoes can be lower in sodium than jarred tomato sauces. For example, a half-cup of Muir Glen Organic diced tomatoes has 200 mg of sodium; a half-cup of the brand’s tomato basil sauce has 310 mg.

How to use them: Sauté with a crushed clove of garlic in a bit of olive oil, then add leafy greens such as spinach or kale and some beans, or top with an egg.

Canned Salmon

A majority of the salmon you’ll find in cans and pouches is wild-caught. Wild salmon is seasonal, and fisheries harvest more than they’re able to sell fresh. So much of it is funneled into frozen or shelf-stable forms. The benefit: Canned salmon costs less, plus wild salmon is lower in calories and saturated fat than farmed salmon.

How to use it: Mix it with pasta and a handful of greens or prepared frozen veggies along with a dollop of pesto or olive tapenade. Or use it as you would canned tuna

Prepared Pesto

With about 130 calories and 13 grams of fat per 2-tablespoon serving, pesto might not seem like an obvious health food. But most of the fat comes from olive oil and pine nuts, so it’s the healthy unsaturated type. And these star ingredients, along with the basil, cheese, and garlic, pack a lot of rich flavor and disease-fighting power.

Basil, for instance, is an abundant source of bone-building vitamin K. (If you’re taking a blood thinner, too much basil could interfere with its effectiveness, so ask your doctor.)

And for every 10 grams per day (about three-fourths of a tablespoon) that you increase your intake of olive oil, you might lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 9 percent, according to a 2017 review of 33 studies published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes.

How to use it: A small amount of pesto goes a long way in terms of flavor, so it makes for an interesting and different seasoning. Use it as a condiment for chicken, fish, whole grains, or roasted veggies.

Precooked Packaged Grains

Having three servings of whole grains per day (instead of none) may decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke by about 20 and 12 percent, respectively, according to a 2016 study published in the British Medical Journal.

But boiling them from a dry state takes time, and it’s difficult to prepare just the right amount for one person or two without having leftovers, leading to oversized portions or a full garbage can.

Enter precooked grains, such as farro, quinoa, and more, which can be ready in a few minutes. You can find them in shelf-stable microwaveable bowls or pouches, or frozen. It’s best to buy varieties without added salt instead of seasoned ones, because those products can contain a good deal of sodium.

How to use them: Put together your own power bowl: Top grains with some quick stir-fried veggies and cooked chicken. (Also see Consumer Reports' review of frozen grain bowls.) Take some out of the package and microwave in a bowl with some fruit, cinnamon, and milk for a healthy breakfast. Or use grains to bulk up a salad or soup. 

Packaged Hard-Boiled Eggs

Boiling eggs isn’t so time-consuming, but it can be tough to get them just right. You can end up with green-tinged yolks and an unpleasant odor from overcooking them, and peeling them can be messy. Precooked eggs eliminate those problems and still supply protein, and they’re low in saturated fat. They also contain lutein and zeaxanthin, compounds that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and may play a role in reducing age-related macular degeneration. As for the cholesterol in eggs, it’s not likely to have a significant effect on blood cholesterol levels for healthy people.

How to use them: Make egg salad and serve on whole-grain toast, slice and add eggs to salads, or chop and toss them with asparagus. Combine eggs with cooked potatoes, olive oil, and curry as a main or side dish.

Frozen Legumes

Beans are always a healthy option. They’re a top food source of resistant starch, a prebiotic fiber that bacteria in the gut use to produce short-chain fatty acid compounds, which may help prevent colon cancer, among other benefits. Plus the combination of protein, fiber, and vitamins makes legumes nutrient-dense and filling.

Canned beans are convenient, but their sodium count varies. For example, a half-cup of canned chickpeas can have as much as 470 mg of sodium. That’s nearly a quarter of the maximum daily amount recommended in the Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Frozen legumes have the convenience of canned with zero salt added. What’s more, you can take out just as much as you need, heat, and eat—no salt, no waste.

How to use them: Defrost them in the microwave and use in salads and soups or combine with grains or pasta. Serve black beans with chopped tomatoes and onion alongside scrambled eggs. Mash chickpeas with tahini (sesame-seed paste), lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, and spices to use as a spread on hearty whole-grain bread; top with lettuce and tomato. Or for a healthy snack, toss defrosted chickpeas in oil, sprinkle with your favorite spices, and roast until crispy.

Nut Butters

You don’t have to grind your own nuts to ensure you’re getting a wholesome, healthy spread for your sandwich: There are lots of great premade options out there. Just check the ingredients list on your nut spread of choice to make sure that it's mostly nuts. (A pinch of salt is fine, but other additives, especially sugars or oils, should be minimal.)

You’ve also got more choice than ever before in what kind of nuts. Creamy or chunky, these spreads aren’t just for kids any more, and their flavors go way beyond peanut, with varieties like almond and cashew butters joining the old standby on supermarket shelves.

Nut butters run around 160 to 200 calories per two-tablespoon serving, but the health benefits you get from them can make the calorie load worthwhile. Nuts (and nut butters) are packed with healthy unsaturated fat, which helps lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and reduce inflammation, which can help prevent heart disease. They also contain fiber and potassium, both of which boost heart health. Perhaps that’s why a study of almost 120,000 men and women over 30 years showed that those who ate around one ounce of nuts a day were 29 percent less likely to die from heart disease than those who didn’t. And it’s so convenient to have all that healthiness tucked inside a jar—and spreadable! 

How to use them: Of course, you can always spread a spoonful on toast or bread or add a dollop to apple slices. But there are other creative options. Blending a tablespoon or two into your smoothie is also a great way to add protein and flavor (and, if it’s crunchy, texture) to your breakfast drink. And swirling a couple of spoonfuls of peanut or almond butter with warm water and Sriracha makes a great dip for crudités.

Frozen Fruit

From blueberries to bananas, fruit is an important source of vitamins, minerals, and cholesterol-fighting fiber. plus it’s delicious. The good news: Buying frozen fruit lets you stay stocked up with your favorites without worrying that they may spoil before you can finish them, and it's just as healthy as fresh. “In general, fresh and frozen fruits are on par when it comes to nutrition,” says Ellen Klosz M.S., a CR nutritionist. “But frozen is an especially good option when fresh is out of season and likely to be more expensive.”  Check the ingredients list and opt for fruits that are frozen without added sugar. 

How to use it: The obvious way to enjoy frozen fruit is to let it thaw slightly and then blend it into smoothies. But you can also incorporate it into meals. For example, add pineapple or mango to your roasting chicken or cherries to pork loin.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the January 2018 issue of Consumer Reports on Health


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