By Cathy Cassata
While you plan to stock up on groceries during the pandemic, you may be wondering which items with a longer shelf life are the healthier choices to add to your cart, and which are the unhealthy ones to stay away from.
Though some items may seem obvious, it isn't always easy to tell the difference — or make the healthier choice.
"It is important to keep in mind both shelf life and the nutritional value. It can be tempting to pack your cart with cookies and sweet treats to get your mind off the stressors we all face, but these foods won't support your immune system or keep you feeling your best," Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, and author of "Belly Fat Diet for Dummies," told Healthline.
Instead, she said look for foods rich in antioxidants, fiber, protein, and healthy fats to support your energy needs and keep you at your best.
Here are 9 healthier choices you may want to consider, and 6 items you should consider limiting or avoid altogether.
With a shelf life of a year, prunes make a great option for increasing your produce intake even when you can't get to the store.
"This no sugar added dried fruit not only provides a good source of fiber to promote digestive health, [but] prunes are also incredibly versatile. Enjoy them alone as a sweet treat, add into homemade trail mix, or purée and use as a substitute for added sugar in any baked good," said Palinski-Wade.
Eating 5 to 6 prunes per day can prevent bone loss, she added.
Canned and frozen fruits and veggies are also go-to shelf stable options, said Alyssa Pike, RD, manager of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation.
"There are tons of options depending on your needs and preferences, and they can be cooked to add extra nutrients to a meal or easily thrown into a smoothie," Pike told Healthline.
Pulses, including lentils, chickpeas, beans, and dry peas, have an average of 8 grams of protein per half cup serving, which is more than double the protein of quinoa, said Palinski-Wade. This makes them one of the best sources of plant-based protein.
"Eating just a half cup three times per week can help you to increase your healthy protein intake while adding fiber and nutrients to your diet. Both canned and dried options have a shelf life of one year and can be added into a variety of recipes such as salads, soups, and even baked goods," she said.
Visit pulses.org for a variety of recipe ideas and information on how to best prepare them.
3. Winter squash and cabbage
When looking for vegetables that have a long shelf life, those that have a thick peel or rind are best, said Amanda Frederickson, cook and author of Simple Beautiful Food.
"Winter squash has a thick peel that can last for at least a couple of months on your counter. Winter squash includes everything from butternut squash to spaghetti squash to pumpkins," she said.
Cabbage can last for at least a month in your refrigerator, she added.
"It is a hearty vegetable that can be used in everything from salads to stir frys, or even braised on its own," said Frederickson.
4. Riced/spiralized vegetables pasta
It can be tempting to stock up on boxes of white rice and refined flour pasta, but eating too many of these foods can lead to unhealthy spikes in blood sugar levels, said Palinski-Wade.
"Instead, head over to the frozen food section to stock up on rice vegetables, such as riced cauliflower along with precut spiralized vegetables. Not only do these options save time with food preparation, but they have a much longer shelf life than their fresh alternatives," she said.
She recommends the Green Giant brand, which has a variety of options offered nationwide.
Frederickson said whole grain oats can last a year or two in your cabinet and longer if the container isn't opened.
"You can obviously use them in oatmeal, but they also work in cookies, bread, or even as the base for oat milk," Frederickson told Healthline.
Pike agreed, noting their biggest health benefit is fiber.
"Enjoy rolled or steel cut varieties for breakfast or add to baked goods to increase the nutrient-density of your creations," Pike said.
6. Canned salmon and tuna
Because salmon and tuna are packed with protein and will last a long time in the pantry, Pike said she advises adding them to your grocery list.
She also suggested buying lean meats, poultry, and seafood and storing them in the freezer to extend their shelf life.
7. Coconut milk
Frederickson said she always has canned coconut milk in her pantry because it will last at least a year, if needed.
"Coconut milk can be used in anything from sweet to savory dishes, some of my favorites are coconut curries, base for oatmeal, or even whipped cream," she said.
8. Pyure Organic all-purpose stevia blend
It may be tempting to bake a lot while being quarantined, but making too many treats packed with added sugar can start to have a negative impact on health and weight.
Instead, Palinski-Wade suggested using Pyure Organic all-purpose stevia blend.
"This granular all-purpose sweetener can be used in the same way as traditional sugar without the added calories or carbohydrates and it has a shelf life of 2 years. With 0 grams of net carbs and 0 calories, this sweetener works for almost any diet plan and can be used to sweeten everything from baked goods to beverages," she said.
9. Veggies Made Great double chocolate muffin
When you need a chocolate fix, Palinski-Wade said her go-to is the double chocolate muffin by Veggies Made Great.
"Eating foods packed with produce helps to provide your body with immune-supporting antioxidants. That's why I love these double chocolate muffins by Veggies Made Great. They taste like a decadent cupcake, but with the first two ingredients being zucchini and carrots, they are packed full of good-for-you nutrition to give your body what it needs right now," she said.
Less Healthy Choices
1. Instant pancake mix
While just-add-water pancake mixes are convenient and have a long shelf life, many are also a source of refined carbs without much nutritional value.
"Instead choose an option rich in protein and whole grains, such as Kodiak Cakes Power Cakes," said Palinski-Wade.
2. Toaster strudel
What you choose to eat in the morning makes all the difference in how you'll feel throughout the day.
"Toaster strudels are packed full of refined carbohydrates and added sugar, leading to a quick burst of energy followed by a crash. As an occasional treat, these can be included in the diet, but I don't recommend stocking up on them as a meal choice now," said Palinski-Wade.
3. Frozen pre-fried chicken
Frozen fried chicken can make a great option for a quick meal because of its long shelf life, but Palinski-Wade said breaded and fried options contain a large amount of added calories and saturated fat.
She recommended opting for a precooked option that has been breaded and baked, or forgo the breading all together for a more nutritious alternative.
Kris Sollid, RD, senior director of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation, compares fats to fonts.
"It's the type that matters most. The type of fat we eat is more important than the amount of fat we eat. So, look for items with less saturated fat than unsaturated fat (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated)," he told Healthline.
4. Frozen pizza
A frozen pizza is a great option to have in the freezer and to eat occasionally. However, Palinski-Wade said avoid ones with lots of processed meat or stuffed crust (like this DiGiorno one).
"With the stuffed cheese crust and addition of extra bacon, this frozen pizza contains a high amount of saturated fat (one serving contains 50 percent of the recommended daily value), calories, and sodium," she said.
Instead, she suggested choosing a thin crust frozen pizza topped with vegetables, such as the DiGiorno Thin & Crispy Garden Vegetable option with only 210 calories and 4 grams of saturated fat per serving.
5. Creamy canned soup
Stocking up on canned soup makes sense, but canned varieties with a cream base are often loaded with saturated fat, calories, and sodium, Palinski-Wade said.
Instead, she suggested opting for select broth-based options labeled "low sodium" that contain lean proteins, vegetables, and whole grains, such as a low sodium minestrone soup.
Sollid agreed, noting that sodium is essential for the body to thrive, but too much can have a negative impact on health.
"If you are watching your sodium intake closely, opt for lower sodium items. Items that have 140 mg of sodium or less per serving are considered 'low sodium.' Items that have 35 mg of sodium or less per serving are considered 'very low sodium,'" he said.
6. Ice cream
Having gallons of ice cream stored in the freezer can lead to overindulging.
"If you do want to enjoy a frozen dessert, try purchasing single-serving ice cream bars to help control portion size or even better, make your own 'nice' cream by blending up those overripe bananas you stored in the freezer," said Palinski-Wade.
Sollid noted that added sugars are not an essential part of the diet, though there is room for small amounts of added sugars in a healthy diet. (He advised to aim for less than 10 percent of your total calories.)
"Keep your added sugar intake in check by choosing foods that are higher in fiber and lower in added sugars," he said.
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