After a long day of work, getting a healthy dinner on the table can seem like a daunting task. However, taking a closer look at your pantry can change that for you. We’re talking canned foods here, and how they can be key for quick, cost-effective, healthy meals.
Often overlooked, canned foods are a convenient source of essential nutrients, and contain the same amount of dietary fiber and vitamins as fresh produce. The canning process preserves food for long-term storage by sealing foods in an airtight container, preventing changes in taste, smell, texture and sight — thereby making them shelf stable long-term. The convenience of canned foods simply cannot be beat. With that being said, it’s time to embrace the can. Here are five healthy meals you can make starting with just a $1 can of food:
1. Tuna salad
Depending on how you prepare it, tuna salad can be a cost-effective, healthy meal that you can have on the table within minutes. The canned tuna itself is an all-star ingredient; not only is it inexpensive, but it’s low calorie and packed with protein and omega-3 fatty acids. To make the ultimate tuna salad, swap the traditionally used full-fat mayonnaise for hummus, plain Greek yogurt, light mayonnaise or mustard. Make your tuna salad even more nutrient dense by chopping up and mixing in different vegetables too. Green beans, celery, onions, carrots and cucumber can give your tuna salad an added crunch, and mixing in ingredients like roasted red peppers, olives, pickles, relish, raisins and apples can add so much flavor you won’t even need to add dressing. Serve atop a bed of lettuce or leafy greens, and there you have it, dinner is served!
Pro tip: Opt for low-sodium tuna packed in water, as opposed to oil. This will keep the overall sodium, calories and fat content low.
2. Vegetarian chili
A big, warm bowl of vegetarian chili can make for a warm and comforting dinner, especially during wintertime. Hearty, filling and delicious, the magic bean behind a good vegetarian chili is, well, beans! Beans are packed with soluble fiber and protein (7 grams per half cup serving of both), which together help fill you up and keep you full, as fiber and protein are the two nutrients that take the longest to digest. The best part about canned beans, though, is they’re super affordable, ranging from 79 to 99 cents a can, meaning you can get a hearty, nutritious dinner on the table without having to shell out the big bucks.
In addition to canned beans, you’ll need vegetables, canned tomatoes and spices. In a large pot, cook whatever vegetables you want to include until tender, along with garlic, spices, and canned tomatoes. Then stir in beans and simmer to reach desired thickness. Serve with sprigs of cilantro and a teaspoon of Greek yogurt for extra tang.
Not a chili fan? Reap the benefits of beans by making a salad. Toss a few cans of beans together with red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, and you’ve got yourself a stellar side dish.
3. Pasta night
Jarred tomato sauce is often loaded with added sugar and can set you back a few dollars. Keep the cost down, but the flavor and nutrition high, by pairing your pasta with a homemade tomato sauce instead. While homemade tomato sauce sounds complicated, it can be made in as little as 10 minutes, starting with canned tomatoes. Just like their fresh counterparts, canned tomatoes are full of vitamin C, low in calories, and high in lycopene, which helps protect your skin from the sun’s damaging UV rays. To make your sauce, sauté onions and garlic in a pot over medium heat, and then add canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and spices like thyme, basil, oregano, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Bring it all to a boil before reducing to a simmer. Simmering for about 10 minutes will create a thin sauce, but the longer you let the sauce simmer, the thicker it will get. Serve over zucchini noodles, spaghetti squash, or whole-wheat pasta for a superior, homemade and low-carb meal.
4. Mac and cheese
Fun Fact: You can sneak an entire serving of vegetables into traditional mac and cheese, and even the most finicky of eaters won’t be able to tell. The secret ingredient here is canned pumpkin, which is great source of beta-carotene and potassium. Moreover, with 7 grams of fiber and 3 grams of protein per cup, the pumpkin will make your meal more filling too. To use canned pumpkin in your meal, simply combine the pumpkin puree with low-fat grated cheese in your go-to mac and cheese recipe. Easy as (pumpkin) pie!
Pro tip: Check the ingredient list and nutrition facts panel to make sure you’re choosing “100% pumpkin” to avoid purchasing pumpkin pie filling.
5. Beet salad
Flavorful and sweet, beets take leafy greens from side-dish status to main-course potential. Beets are a good source of vitamin C, folate, iron and fiber. Not to mention, they are high in antioxidants, which can help keep your skin looking healthy and improve your liver function. The cool thing about beets is, unlike other vegetables, their texture and flavor remain intact throughout the canning process. The results of cooking your own beets versus buying canned beets is similar, yet canned beets are much more convenient to work with. Sliced raw, or roasted in the oven for 15 minutes on 350 degrees, beets pair well with arugula, walnuts and feta or goat cheese. Because beets are juicy and sweet, you likely won’t need much dressing. A drizzle of olive oil, lemon juice or balsamic vinegar should do the trick.
Tanya Zuckerbrot MS, RD, is a Registered Dietitian in New York City and the author of two bestselling diet books: The F-Factor Diet and The Miracle Carb Diet: Make Calories and Fat Disappear – with Fiber.