Many people going gluten-free or on other diets will advise not to eat processed foods and just eat whole foods or dishes prepared from scratch. This is definitely not bad advice. Whole foods are very nutritious and should form the base of any diet. However, processed foods definitely have a place, and some can even be healthy. I know for me personally, they’ve saved me time and my sanity.
Probably the biggest issue I face with my food reactions is “hand contact to mouth ingestion”, described here. Just picking up the tiniest traces from a food package, door knob, or other surface and somehow ingesting those traces will give me noticeable symptoms. That has made cooking and food preparation especially challenging, even in my own kitchen, where none of the foods I bring home contain my allergens. I have to be especially careful handling packages from the store and things I use to open them, like scissors and can openers. I have to be careful and mindful when I pick up these things and wash my hands so residue doesn’t transfer to dishes, utensils, or food. Cooking and food preparation can be very mentally exhausting and time-consuming. Pre-packaged meals like frozen dinners and canned soups require very little handling and back-and-forth between touching things with residue and washing hands. Usually, I just have to open the box, wash my hands, remove the item, cut the plastic wrap with a clean pair of scissors, and microwave. For a can of soup, I can wash it down, use a can opener to open it, empty the contents into a saucepan, and then I’m good to go. Home-cooked meals require handling various packages, dishes, and utensils, and I have to be careful to wash my hands after handling or touching certain things or risk contaminating my food. Cake, cookie, and brownie mixes come in very handy as well. I basically just have to empty the mix into a bowl, add the extra oil/butter and eggs, combine, and empty into a baking dish to bake. Compare that to a “from-scratch” recipe where you’re having to measure out the flour and other ingredients into measuring cups, measuring spoons, etc. There are many more points of failure with a “from-scratch” recipe and much more risk involved. With all the handling of various food containers and packages, measuring implements, utensils, etc., a careless mistake could very easily be made. There can even be risk from the simplest of recipes. I used to make hot chocolate from two parts sugar to one part cocoa powder. On multiple occasions, I managed to contaminate the sugar, the cocoa, or both from the spoon-dipping. I finally just threw in the towel and went back to hot chocolate packets, especially since dairy was no longer a concern. I found a decent Swiss Miss variety with just five ingredients. I just empty the contents of the packet into hot water and stir, no spoon dipping required.
Microwave meals also come in handy when going to someone else’s home or to a facility with a microwave where food will be served. I’ll sometimes just take an old grocery bag and put the items required in it, the microwave meal with something to drink, usually a bottled soda, a dessert item like a wrapped candy bar that can easily be eaten without touching directly with my hands, and utensils/napkin in a zipper bag. I’ll put my bag in the fridge at my destination and when the time comes, heat up my meal, wash down my other items, and sit down to eat when all is ready. Instead of using scissors or a utensil to cut an opening in the wrap of the microwave meal, I’ll just open the wrap on one end by hand to allow for venting. This is something that has worked out well for me so far. I used to prepare a meal (or meals when required) in advance, which I eventually just grew tired of doing. I only do that now when it’s absolutely required or when I have the time or feel inclined. I can still find quick and easy things to pack that can be consumed without heating when required, like Beanee Weenees, yogurt, fruit cups, Boost or Ensure shakes, fruit/nut bars, and bananas.
Since eating out at fast-food restaurants is no longer an option for me, I like being able to go to the grocery store to pick out something quick for a meal, whether it’s a frozen dinner, canned soup, or something along those lines. That way, I can eat something fast and easy along with the others who are going to fast-food places to get their takeout. I’m not stuck cooking while they’re eating. Also, the grocery store where I do my shopping has an eating area with a deli and salad bar. One day, my sister wanted to do lunch. Pizza Hut is really the only restaurant I trust in our area, and I didn’t really want pizza. We decided to go to the grocery store. My sister got something at the deli, and I went to the frozen food section to grab a meal. There was a microwave next to the tea dispensers, and I used that to heat up my lunch. The salad bar had plastic forks inside plastic wrappers, and those worked out great for an eating utensil. My sister and I ate together in the eating area, and it ended up being a great way for us to eat lunch together.
Not all processed and packaged food out there is unhealthy. More and more packaged foods are being made from healthy, whole-food ingredients. Amy’s Kitchen, EVOL, Garden Lites, and Larabar are some of my favorite brands. Hershey’s Dagoba line of chocolate bars are delicious and make for a healthier candy bar treat. Just take a look at the ingredients labels to see what’s in the products that have caught your interest. We all have to do it anyway because we have to check for our reactive foods, but check also for healthy, whole-food ingredients as opposed to ingredients with chemical-sounding names or that sound somehow artificial. Most of the time, products with ingredients that you can pronounce and are simple are safe bets. Also, the shorter the ingredients list, the better. As a rule, I try to find foods that are higher in fiber and/or protein and lower in sugars. I don’t worry about fat as much except for hydrogenated fats/oils, which I try to avoid as much as possible.
I truly believe that one doesn’t have to avoid processed/packaged foods altogether in order to have a healthy diet. As I’ve hopefully illustrated, processed/packaged foods can come in very handy in certain situations. I also don’t believe that they’re as unhealthy as some make them out to be. One just has to examine the ingredients and nutrition facts in order to make good choices. More and more brands are coming out with healthy and nutritious options.
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