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Posted on Mar 29, 2012 in Dear Diary, Food | 30 comments

The Pre-Packaged Problem

“Eat real food.”


How many times have you heard this slogan passed from person to person, blogger to blogger? Put real, whole foods in your body and reap the rewards. Heck, I say it all the time! It’s there because it’s true. I feel better, both physically and emotionally, when I’m fueling my body with honest-to-goodness, grown from the earth food. The thing is, even after you take out the fact that sometimes the fake, pre-packaged stuff can be kinda awesome (in the moment, at least), real life is not always conducive to eating real food.

shells and cheese

There isn’t always time to make your own crackers or bake your own bread from scratch. My experience making my own chicken stock taught me this well! So how do you balance out the cost and convenience of pre-packaged items with the knowledge that pumping your body full of preservatives and chemically-altered foodstuffs probably ain’t the best thing?

Because of my tendency to have an all-or-nothing mentality, I generally am either completely on or off the wagon when it comes to eating cleanly. I could be munching on nothing but tupperware containers filled with grapes, strawberries, and celery with natural peanut butter (like I may or may not be doing right now) on any given day, but the following week I might be heating up a Lean Cuisine, eating it with a side of Triscuits, and having a spoonfull of Nutella for dessert.

I think it’s all about balance (could I BE more cliche?), as with all things when it comes to diet and a well-rounded lifestyle. I’m still working on trying to find my own middle-ground. I think it’s safe to say that some brands of pre-packaged what-have-yous are better than others too (though again, cost issues may come into play here). I’m a big fan of Kashi, Cascadian Farms, and the Whole Foods 365 brand products, and try to pour those into my cart more often than Nabisco and Kraft (though obviously, I often fail, haha).

How do you balance eating clean with cost and convenience?


  1. I hear you. I’m doing this 17 day cleanse/diet thing (http://www.thesarahverse.com/2012/03/27/spring-cleaning/) and besides having nightmares about a world wide pizza shortage, I find the hardest part about it is having to prepare everything. This morning I was longingly staring at a box of cereal as I prepped my cottage cheese and fruit breakfast. Luckily my roommate is super energetic about the 17 day thing so I’ve been getting by with leftovers.

    • I’ve heard about the 17-Day Diet. I’ll be interested to read your reports on it after it’s done!

  2. I also struggle with figuring out how to balance the packaged foods with “real” foods. I turn my nose up at some processed things and act really shocked and indignant that anyone would even think of eating such trash but in the next minute will devour something that is equally “bad” and think absolutely nothing of having seconds.

    I try to follow those often repeated guidelines like “no more than 5 ingredients” or “no ingredients I can’t identify or pronounce” but my laziness almost always wins over my desire to eat real food.

    • Oh my gosh, that’s totally me too. I’m such a hypocrite — I give my sister all sorts of crap about her drinking Crystal Light or whatever, and then I’ll turn around and have a fat-free hot dog or something! Hahaha

      • yeah! leave my crystal light alone 😛

  3. Usually it comes down to the energy level for me. I’ll start the day thinking I’m going to make a great dinner, using fresh ingredients from the coop or farmer’s market. But after a full day of work and who knows what else, I’ll often get home feeling beat down with no desire to cook at all, which usually leads to packaged food or ordered pizza : (

  4. Y’know…”real” foods really aren’t that hard to balance. Just cook a lot of it and store it well. Instead of cooking for just one–cook for 3 and save your other 2 portions. I think at the end of the day, it really comes down more to your daily routine. If you take that 45 minutes on Sunday to cook for the first half of the week (and then again on Wednesday for the rest of the week), heating up your home-made leftovers with a bunch of grapes is just as convenient as heating up a lean cuisine and a pile of goldfish crackers 🙂

  5. Sadly I can’t afford to eat fresh fruits and veggies a lot, but I try to balance everything out. Eating super healthy or Super bad makes me sick, so I eat everything, but I’ve been working more on my portions. Everything in Moderation 🙂

    • Hi, Angie! I used to say the same thing, but I’ve learned I was using it as a cop-out. My grocery (and sundries like soaps, toothpaste, toilet paper, etc.) budget is between $40.00 and $50.00 per week (I’ve been unemployed for almost exactly one year), and what I bring home is at least half fresh fruits and veggies. I’m very careful to check my grocery store’s sales flyer ahead of time, snag coupons from coupons.com to help with things like soy/almond/coconut milk, and stick to my pre-made list. 🙂

  6. I hit up the salad bar. A LOT.

  7. @Angie Not sure where you live but if you live anywhere at all close to an Asian/International supermarket, the fruits and veggies there are significantly cheaper. I think many people get brainwashed to believe that only foods from American supermarkets or from Whole Foods/Trader Joe’s are “safe” when the fact of the matter is that there is definitely a cheaper alternative out there.

  8. Since my eating is a whole foods approach, I definitely avoid packaged food as much as possible. There are a few things that still make it into my pantry and freezer for those days where I am short on time and need to put something on the table.

    Chicken stock is definitely something I’d rather buy bouillon or stock in a box though. I have saved bones and frozen them to be used later but it’s not a weekly occurrence.

    It’s frustrating when a lot of coupons in my newspaper are for packaged food that my family just doesn’t eat.

  9. I’m lucky in that I get to work from home, so that helps me avoid a lot of processed and ‘quick’ foods. I’ve also started eating mostly vegan lately and that helps me stick to whole foods. Many processed foods have milk, eggs, or gelatin in them.

  10. I’ve been trying so hard to eat better this year. It was one of my new year’s resolutions. But I’m not very good at staying committed! It’s also really hard because I’m not totally in control of grocery buying since I live at home. So I keep telling myself that I will eat better when I move out…which may never happen. I do one to try being a vegetarian for a month! I’m thinking about May.

  11. I have 3 kids, while I try and make everything from scratch, it’s not all the time. Velveeta shells and cheese still come in to this house, but I try and balance it out, by adding in roasted broccoli and some canned and diced tomatoes.

  12. i am the queen of processed/frozen foods- i tell myself that when i have kids i’ll be better about fresh produce but i also read that at least with frozen veggies- they can be just as good for you as the fresh kind. Sometimes i do just crave a salad and i do try to always have spinach, some sort of bean, corn, beets or what-have-you to throw one together when the craving hits.

  13. Novel comment time. This is a seriously hot button issue with me. Be warned. 🙂

    My husband and I made the decision that good food was going to be our financial priority a few years ago. And that INCLUDES our “junk food” purchases. We almost always buy organic and natural packaged foods and that was just a decision we made.

    So often people say, “I can’t afford it! It’s too expensive!” and that’s a lie. The truth is, most people CAN afford it, they just don’t make it a priority. They have cable, the have Netflix, they go out to the movies, they buy books, they have internet access, they buy the newest clothes, but just because it doesn’t fit into their tiny grocery budget, they say organic and natural food is “too expensive”. As a whole, this country spends half the amount (as a percentage of average salary) on food as other industrialized countries. And guess what? We have double and triple the occurrences of preventable diseases. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

    The truth is, I have no special tricks for saving money on good food (because, yes, organic and natural packaged foods are mega expensive). I think the real change needs to come in our mindset. Sometimes pre-packaged food is the way life is going to go (lord knows I use it) and if you are going to use it, you have to shell out the cash for the good stuff. Because if you don’t, you are literally pumping poison into your body through your mouth. I know that sounds dramatic, but I truly believe it’s the truth.

    Pardon the pun, but as a country, we want our cake and to eat it, too. We want fast food that is cheap, tastes good and is good for us. And the fact is, that just doesn’t happen (well, sometimes it does, but rarely). You’re gonna have to give up something. I just don’t think you can “have it all” when it comes to food. If you are going to go the convenience route and eat prepackaged foods, awesome! You are going to have to shell out some more cash to get the good stuff. If you want to save your bank account, you are going to have to put in some time to prepare the foods from scratch.

    Okay, now I’ll step off my soapbox knowing that I didn’t help you at all. *hangs head in shame*

    • I so agree with you about making good, healthy food a priority. Like you all, my husband and I made eating, fresh, organic whole foods a priority and we’ve never looked back. Actually, I think our food budget is a lot cheaper now too… we rarely eat out, there just aren’t many restaurants that serve food in line with our priorities! : )

    • **applauds wildly** YES!! You’ve got it exactly right, IMHO. 🙂

  14. I find that at our house we eat incredibly clean and have really adjusted our ideas and priorities about food. In general, meals (in particular) dinner have become really simple… always a combination of a large salad and brown rice or a baked potato, or a sweet potato. Also, we add in other things when we feel like actually cooking like different beans, lentils, quinoa, sometimes some organic free range eggs. When we are dying for processed junk food, we try and pick option that are organic and part of the non-GMO project. I do however find that sometimes I rely on processed things like hummus (we eat it so regularly and it is a time consuming process if you start with dried chickpeas). One other thing that ticks me off is that I have a hard time imagining what I want to eat and when… so sometimes if I suddenly want chili for dinner, I find myself reaching for canned tomatoes and canned beans. You win some, you lose some. Gretchen is right on with balance.

  15. I love this post, miss Gretchen. I have done very nearly a 180 with my eating over the past 7 months. I’ve gone from eating mostly processed foods because they were “cheaper”, to eating 95% whole foods, and saving at least $10.00 to $15.00 per week on my grocery bill. There are a few processed foods that make their way into my house, but I’m much more conscious of what they’re processed with, and am careful to choose those things which are more healthy.

  16. What Cassie said- I make healthy food a priority.
    BUT- this has only happened over the last few years. For most of my 20s, I did not give a crap about what I ate, and lived off of 100 calorie packs, “diet” foods, etc.
    I make about 90% of what I eat from scratch, because it’s just something that I’ve put at the top of my list. It is a PAIN IN THE ASS to do this every day, but I know that it just physically makes me feel better. I do have some pre-packed things “for emergency” in case I ever need to grab something in a hurry. But, I just find that it saves a lot of money and calories to make things myself. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself though- you are young, and busy and on the go. I think you make pretty darn good choices- MUCH better than I did at your age.

    And sorry- the thought of Velveeta makes me gag a little (but no judgement! I just have never like that stuff.)

  17. Great post…I totally agree that a happy medium is best. There are some processed foods that I will never give up 100%…like Cheez-Its. I just could not live without them. But there are some other processed things that I used to eat all the time and now I don’t even give them a second glance. It’s always about balance!

  18. My mom got me back into eating veggies more. So if I make a prepared meal (like a single serving mac & cheese, which are so convenient for work) I make sure I also have a portion of frozen veggies. If I get McD’s on the way home b/c I was too famished, I eat some veggies when I get home. Frozen veggies are the single gal’s best friend, b/c I find that I forget I have the fresh stuff and it goes bad.

    Also, having food allergies has made me read the ingredients to EVERYTHING. I eat a lot less processed food just b/c soy (one of the things I’m allergic to) is in EVERYTHING (it seems.) I have lost weight and save $$.

  19. It’s definitely about balance for me. Of course I want to eat all whole, unprocessed foods with lots of fresh fruit and veggies. I even enjoy cooking. However, my number one problem when comes to successful long term weight loss is the stupid all-or-nothing mentality. Once I make a “mistake” I want to leap off the wagon. My second biggest struggle is just be constantly overwhelmed and pressured by trying to eat well. I get up at 4:45 am each morning, workout, quickly shower and get ready, commute to work, work, commute back from work, and it’s nearly 6pm! I have mere 3 hours to fit in everything (including dinner, clean up, packing lunch for the next day, etc) that I want to do. Even though I do enjoy cooking, I still don’t want to spend most of that time in the kitchen. I’ve had to accept that often means Lean Cuisines and Smart Ones. I’m perfectly okay with that. It’s still far better than eating cookies and pizza. I’ll eat fresh foods when I can, but don’t put pressure on myself to make time to prepare them. If I have a free weekend, I usually do spend a lot of time cooking things for the week, but when the weekend is packed, I try my best not to feel guilty about Lean Cuisines.

  20. I think it’s all about balance and finding what works best for your body. I would like to eat more whole foods but since I’m trying to reduce the importance of food in my life, I’m trying to just go with the flow (of what I have or what’s on sale it gout obsessing about what I can or cant eat).

  21. When I turned sixteen, I moved in with my “parents” after my real mom kicked me out of the house — after that, I only ever knew what it was like to grocery shop each week and cook all food from scratch. If anything, the habit has become such a fun and quick one that it would be more inconvenient for me to purchase and “prepare,” if you will, prepackaged/prepared food!

    Gretchen if you get a chance, I’d love to know what you think of the question I posted on my blog today! 🙂

  22. I feel the same way. I get the prepackaged dinners from Trader Joes, I think they have clean wholesome food. But I JUST literally had a spoonful of Nutella.

  23. I realize I’m commenting late but I wanted to share this blog I recently discovered (I have no connection to the author- I just think it’s cool).

    http://www.poorgirleatswell.com/ is good for tips and recipes on how to keep down the cost of good and healthy food.

    As for convenience, I have a stack of small tuppers where I freeze extra portions of dishes I cooked for low energy days. (Or at least that’s the hope ;).)

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