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Can Convenience Foods be Healthy?

Almost everyone likes convenience foods - but are they healthy?

Nashville, Ark. – Who doesn’t like convenience foods? Take them out of the freezer or pantry, pop them into the microwave and in short order you have a great tasting meal without all the fuss. But are they healthy?

            Look at the nutrition facts label and you will see many are high fat, sodium and sugar. Let’s look at a few ways you can still enjoy convenience foods, even if your doctor has recommended lowering any of these intakes.

            What makes a food a convenience food? We are all familiar with boxes of prepackaged food and how they save time in food preparation. What about canned food items? Yes, they are also considered convenience foods. Here are some ways to make them healthier.

Many canned vegetables and beans can be high in sodium (salt). To lower their salt content, rinse and drain the vegetables under running water. This technique can lower the sodium content dramatically. Also, look for no salt added or less salt when purchasing vegetables and beans at the grocery store. It doesn’t take long to adjust to lower salt versions. Add herbs when you are heating canned vegetables to increase flavor.

Canned fruits can be high in sugar. Look for fruits packed in natural juice or have the words light on them. They taste more like the natural fruit and you have cut back on sugar.

Look for whole grains when purchasing breads, pastas, rice, tortillas and other grain products. Don’t rely on the brown color. Grain products may have dyes added to them to make them appear as whole grain or wheat. Look for the words whole grain on the label. Whole grain should be listed first in the ingredient list.

Try brown rice as a substitute for white rice. Other whole grain products include oatmeal, quinoa, bulgur and wild rice.

Meal kits are growing in popularity. Words such as “Just Add Meat” make these meals quick to fix. Choose lean ground beef, chicken or turkey and drain the fat before adding to the meal.

To increase the nutrient content, add fresh, frozen, or drained canned vegetables. Try broccoli, carrots, onions, or peas to boost vitamins and minerals.

If the packaged food has a powdered sauce packet, use skim milk and half the butter. This is an easy way to lower fat and calorie intake.

Muffin mixes are also considered convenience foods. Most will use butter or oil. If the package calls for ½ cup oil, substitute with one mashed banana and ½ cup of applesauce. The muffins will be moist without the added fat. Try stirring your favorite dried fruit, grated apple or carrots, and nuts into the batter.

Taco Tuesdays have become family favorites. When making tacos from a kit try substituting two cans of pinto or black beans in place of ground meat. Not only does this lower fat intake, it also helps your pocketbook! Provide plenty of veggies as fillings for the tacos. Try chopped tomatoes, diced peppers, and shredded lettuce. Substitute plain yogurt in place of sour cream to lower fat content.

Packaged foods are great! They save time in the kitchen. Read the nutrition facts label on them. Pay special attention to sodium, fat and sugar listed on the facts label. Try substituting or ways to reduce them for an overall healthy diet.

For more information on preparing healthy meals, contact the Howard County Extension Service at 870-845-7517 or visit our office located on the second floor of the courthouse. The Cooperative Extension Service is part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Recipe of the Week

            This recipe comes from Project D-FEND: Diet, Food, Exercise, and Nutrition during social distancing. A collaboration between the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Center for Human Nutrition and the University of Arkansas Exercise is Medicine Program. Project D-FEND is providing weekly Zoom sessions on topics related to diet and exercise. They also have fact sheets and recipes. Check them out at

Tortilla Lasagna

Cooking Spray

1 package soft tortillas, (try whole wheat)

1 can low-sodium Black or pinto beans, drained

2 cups reduced fat shredded cheddar cheese

1-pound lean ground beef or turkey

1 jar salsa

1 packet low-sodium taco seasoning

            Cook ground meat. Drain. Stir in salsa and taco seasoning. Simmer on low for 7-10 minutes.

Tips: Try substituting a can of low sodium Rotel tomatoes in place of salsa.

            Spray baking dish with cooking spray. Layer bottom of dish with 1/3 cup ground meat. Cover with 2 tortillas. Add another layer of ground meat. Top with 1/3 of the beans and ½ cup of cheese. Repeat layers and top with 2 tortillas and cheese. Cover with foil.

            Bake for 30 minutes at 350⁰F. Remove foil and bake an additional 5 minutes. Yield: 6 servings.

Optional: Add diced onion and tomatoes between layers for added flavor and nutrients. For extra spiciness, select hot salsa or add jalapenos

By Jean Ince
County Extension Agent - Staff Chair
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Media Contact: Jean Ince
County Extension Agent - Staff Chair
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
421 N. Main St, Nashville AR 71852
(870) 845-7517


The Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service is an equal opportunity/equal access/affirmative action institution. If you require a reasonable accommodation to participate or need materials in another format, please contact your County Extension office (or other appropriate office) as soon as possible. Dial 711 for Arkansas Relay.

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.