We all know about the merits of eating in-season and shopping for produce at your local farmer’s market, but it’s worth pointing out that canned food is seriously underrated by the healthy eating crowd. (Perhaps even more so than the B-sides of Carly Rae Jepson’s Emotions album…)
The short list of canned foods’ accomplishments: they have a longer shelf life, help cut down on cooking time, and are often inexpensive, says Maggie Michalczyk, MS, RD. Plus, “for those looking to follow more of a plant-based diet, using things like canned chickpeas, and other beans in your meals is a great way to add plant-based protein and more fiber to the diet,” she adds. Even if you are a major meat lover, those canned goods can enhance your meal in terms of more nutrition (like fiber!) and flavor—so long as you choose wisely.
“I would say if there is a low sodium or no-salt-added version of the canned food you are grabbing at the grocery store, go for that one. If not be sure to rinse and drain all canned items to remove some of the salt,” says Michalczyk. This keeps heart health in check and lowers bloating and water retention.
What’s more, “BPA [an environmental toxin present in small amounts in many canned goods] has potential health risks which is why you want to look for cans that say ‘BPA free,’” she says. “Many companies have taken initiatives to remove BPA, however I would still check the can,” she explains.
Now it’s time to go shopping! Here are the best healthy canned food items to always keep on-hand, according to dietitians.
1. Pumpkin puree
Buy it: Libby’s 100% Pure Canned Pumpkin Puree ($4)
Don’t think this is just a staple for the fall. “You can buy canned pumpkin year-round and it’s a great cheap way to add more nutrition like vitamin A, C, and fiber to your diet,” says Michalczyk. It’s great for your heart and skin health, and it tastes delicious too. “Add a spoonful to your smoothies, add it to baked goods, or add a can to a chili recipe like this one,” she says.
Buy it: Goya Chickpeas ($14 for six cans)
If you haven’t noticed by now, people are putting chickpeas into literally everything—dessert bars, cookies, on pizza or flatbread, or even in baked items for a crunchy snack. Doesn’t hurt that the affordable legume is a nutritional powerhouse, too. “Chickpeas are a good source of plant-based protein and fiber, are super versatile and again are very inexpensive,” says Michalczyk, so definitely keep them on your shopping list.
Looking for more healthy food recs? Check out what an RD always buys at Trader Joe’s:
3. Beans (dealer’s choice)
Buy it: 365 Everyday Value Organic Black Beans ($1)
“Like chickpeas, black beans are a good source of plant-based protein and fiber,” says Michalczyk. They’re super versatile, too—they’re great in Mexican staples like tacos and breakfast burritos, work well as a salad topper, and even make a convincing healthy sub in desserts.
You can also go for white beans, says Kelly Jones, MS, RD. “They are a more palatable option for people who are not used to eating beans such as black or kidney beans due to their soft texture, but still provide a similar nutrient content,” she says. “Make a white bean chili, or blend into creamy soups to provide extra protein,” she says.
Buy it: Hunt’s No Salt Added Diced Tomatoes ($12 for 12 cans)
“Having canned tomatoes on hand is a great idea to save money when fresh ones are not in season,” says Michalczyk. They’re a great shortcut to making healthy pasta sauce, soups, chilis, salsas, and pretty much anything else where tomatoes would be the starring ingredient. Plus they are not very expensive and will still taste fresh and delicious—because there’s truly nothing worse than a mealy, out-of-season tomato.
5. Canned tuna or salmon
Buy it: Safe Catch Elite Wild Tuna ($24 for six cans)
Jones loves keeping canned chunk light tuna and salmon in the home. For the tuna, go for chunk light over albacore tuna, as it is much lower in mercury and considered more safe to eat on a regular basis, she explains. “Rich in omega-3 EPA and DHA as well as high-quality protein, it doesn’t have to just be used to make tuna salad. Mix it with a little hummus or avocado to spread on crackers for a post-workout snack, or pair with rice and vegetables for a quick dinner,” she recommends.
6. Coconut milk
Buy it: Thai Kitchen Organic Unsweetened Coconut Milk ($17 for six cans)
Canned coconut milk is often used as a lactose-free, dairy-free, milk substitute in recipes for baked goods and sauces. Canned coconut milk (unlike refrigerated coconut milk) is thick, creamy and rich in fat, where a little goes a long way.
“Some of my favorite ways to use canned coconut milk are in my coffee or smoothie, or to make a creamy oatmeal or chia pudding. Coconut milk is also often used in Thai sauces like Thai red curry sauce,” says Charlotte Martin, MS, RDN.
7. Green chiles
Buy it: Hatch Mild Diced Green Chiles ($2)
Add some heat in a flash with this healthy canned food. “I always have diced mild green chiles in my pantry. I add them to soups, taco mixtures, chili, and even sometimes shakshuka and rice dishes,” says Jones. In addition to flavor, they also provide vitamin C and a variety of phytochemicals, so that’s great for immunity and your heart.
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