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5 Easy and healthy substitutions for packaged foods

Processed foods have an appeal. They come in attention-grabbing branded packages, are (supposedly) more convenient and have extraordinarily long shelf-lives. But many of the products are filled with unrecognizable ingredients and are loaded with additives and preservatives. Here are some ideas of how to swap out packaged food for the “real thing” — minimal effort required.

Woman drinking water and eating air popped popcorn

Out: Snack bars
In: (Real) Peanut butter snacks

It happens to all of us. When you reach that midday slump, those bags of chips and granola bars are mighty tempting. Instead of succumbing to the beckoning call of the vending machine or your coworker’s candy bowl, opt for a fresh apple or celery topped with organic peanut butter. Real peanut butter should contain only two ingredients: peanuts and salt. If it has extra ingredients, especially hydrogenated fats, stay far away. For a fun switch-up, or if you or your little ones are allergic to peanuts, try almond or cashew butter instead.

Out: Bottled salad dressings
In: Simple DIY dressing

Making a salad dressing from scratch is a quick and simple process. All you really need to make a simple dressing is a good oil (like extra virgin olive oil), an acid (like vinegar) and seasoning (like salt and pepper). The rule of thumb is one part acid to three parts oil. Start with one tablespoon of red wine vinegar in a large bowl and whisk in three tablespoons of good olive oil. Season generously with salt and pepper and there you have it — a simple and delicious salad dressing, no preservatives, additives or mystery ingredients. Once you have the basis technique down, you can start experimenting with adding in extra ingredients. I often mince a shallot and let that marinate in the vinegar for a few minutes before whisking in the oil, or I’ll add in some minced herbs or mustard to jazz it up a bit.

Out: Sugary cereals
In: Old fashioned oatmeal

Simmer old fashioned oats in water for five minutes, toss in a handful of dried fruit, nuts, a sprinkle of cinnamon and a squeeze of honey or maple syrup and there you have it — an ultra-nutritious breakfast loaded with fiber and ingredients that you can count on one hand. My favorite winter version: dried cranberries, chopped pecans, cinnamon, a sprinkle of ground ginger and a drizzle of maple syrup. In the summer months, replace the dried fruit with fresh strawberries or blueberries from the farmers market.

Out: Packaged desserts
In: Frozen grapes

Even if they claim to be low-fat, low-carb or low-sugar, those packaged dessert snacks usually contain at least a dozen ingredients, most of which sound nothing like any known food. But if you crave something sweet after you eat, you can get the same satisfaction from these popular (and pop-able!) little fruits. Due to their high water content and naturally bite-size shape, grapes are one of the best fruits to eat frozen. Just place cleaned, dried grapes in a plastic freezer bag and pop in the freezer. Or, divide them into mini bags for easy portion control.

Out: Packaged snack mixes
In: Air-popped popcorn

Who doesn’t like to dig into a bowl of something crunchy and salty while watching your evening television favorites? But most packaged snack mixes are laden with unnecessary calories, sodium and preservatives. Instead, make your family a big bowl of air-popped popcorn that’s easy to make and (surprise!) high in dietary fiber. All you need is a large pot and four commonly used ingredients that you probably already have in your pantry: popcorn kernels, canola oil, butter and salt. Here is my foolproof simple popcorn recipe:

Foolproof air-popped popcorn

The secret to perfect popcorn is to make sure the kernels are added when the oil is at the correct popping temperature, which is why I suggest using a few kernels as testers. When done correctly, almost all of the kernels should pop — without any burning.

2 servings


  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1/3 cup organic popcorn kernels
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Salt to taste


  1. Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add three or four kernels and cover the pot.
  2. Once they’ve popped, you know the oil is at the correct popping temperature. Add in the rest of the kernels, cover and shake occasionally until the popping slows to several seconds between pops.
  3. Toss with melted butter and salt to taste.

More healthy eating tips

Grocery store tips for healthy eating
What are the advantages of organic food?
Is buying local produce healthier or just hip?

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