WITH so many warnings about calories from saturated fats and sugar and their substitutes, convenience food often gets a justifiably bad press.
The current advice from Safefood about thinking before choosing what we buy sent me around supermarkets to see what is available as alternatives to quick-fix foods such as pizzas and pasta dishes.
Healthy option convenience foods seem like a good idea to save time while counting calories and avoiding fats and sugars, but what we found was quite a mixed basket of mostly dull food.
If we really want to eat well and quickly, a simple omelette with grated carrot and cabbage or broccoli on the side, with a hunk of wholemeal bread is packed with nourishment, and far more sustaining than many quick-fix options.
As protein sustains us more than carbohydrates, a small piece of good-quality fish or meat will keep hunger away longer than carbohydrates.
When shopping watch for low-calorie ready-meal options that are simply smaller portions of their usual offerings. Elsewhere, fat is taken out for low-fat products, but substituted with some form of sugar.
We looked at whether prepared products aimed at those looking for healthier options are worth their money.
Marks & Spencer Fuller Longer 400g €5.99
We need protein to keep hunger away and often high-carbohydrate meals have very little meat, fish or egg and so don’t keep us satisfied for long. This Fuller Longer range has 8.7% protein, which is double that of many other ready meals we looked at. We tried the slow-cooked venison in red wine and onion sauce, which had plenty of lively shredded green cabbage and creamy potato and parsnip mash. Two 5cm chunks of tender venison looked a bit bare, but were perfectly adequate, and the red wine sauce made from beef stock provided more meatiness. It was all quite tasty and, while not cheap, made for a satisfying meal.
Marks & Spencer Count On Us rhubarb & custard, 130g €1.59
This calorie-counting range has plenty of options and this small tub with stripes of rhubarb compote, custard mousse and rhubarb jelly, has 120 calories. With a high enough 17.2% sugars, saturated fats at 0.3% are low. As comfort food goes with its layer of decent rhubarb-flavoured jelly, it a was satisfying dessert. Still needs to be thought of as an occasional treat.
Tesco Healthy Living Beef enchiladas, 400g €4
‘Big on taste, lower in calories’ is the claim, and with 390 calories, the count is low, with 13.6% carbohydrates including 3.5% sugars. However, protein at 4.6% makes it a light meal. As with many prepared pasta dishes, satisfaction may not last very long. The flavours are strong here with tortilla wraps filled with chilli beef and red kidney beans, and topped with peppers and a salsa dip in a separate pouch. For a balanced meal, vegetables or salad on the side would be necessary.
Tesco Healthy Living Moroccan style bulghur wheat and lentil pot, 70g €1.89
This seemed like a substitute for a pot noodle-style snack. Hot water is added and the pot left for 10 minutes while the wheat swells up and the lentils are rehydrated. There are also sunflower seeds, sultanas, tomato, dried cumin, coriander and chilli, garlic powder and sugar. Palm oil, which got bad press lately due to its unsustainability, is also used, however there are no other nasties. Protein from the lentils and seeds at 6.1% is quite high, so we can expect it to be more satisfying for longer than a tub of noodles. Tasters thought it a bit expensive, but liked it more then expected and would buy again.
Dunnes Stores Fresh giant couscous with chickpeas and edamame beans, 240g €2.99
Dunnes Stores has no obvious healthy options range, but this own-brand Fresh range had one product that appealed to us. A winter salad of couscous, chickpeas, edamame (young soya beans) and yellow spit peas also has 16% spelt and some pumpkin seeds. All in all, a good collection with a mild oil and vinegar dressing. It’s a good, easy lunch snack, not cheap, but could last more than one meal. Plenty of fibre here and 7% protein is quite satisfying. Tasty too.
Supervalu Free From bread rolls, 4 for €1.99
Supervalu doesn’t have a healthy range, but has its own Free From brand. These bread rolls are free from gluten, dairy and wheat. Made from tapioca starch, rice flour, potato starch, sunflower oil and seeds, the added linseeds and poppy seeds help to add texture to a fairly bland bread. The texture is usually what suffers in gluten-free bread but this one is quite pleasant.
Supervalu Rice cakes with milk chocolate, 100g (six cakes) €1.49
These lightly coated rice cakes make a simple replacement for biscuits, so have some merit. A processed food, most of the nutritional value is removed, yet the still clock up at least 75 calories per cake. However, the wheat and dairy-free and plain versions are sugar-free, so are preferable to some other snacks. 12 plain rice cakes cost about €2, so chocolate-coated ones are not good value. Tasters liked the chocolate coated ones a lot more than plain, favouring dark chocolate ones even more.
Aldi Simply Bistro, 400g €1.99
The white fish and potatoes option comes in a plastic tray with plastic film so it’s heated from frozen by steaming. The fish is basa, farmed in Vietnam, and comes complete with boiled potatoes, green beans, peas and broccoli. Looks like a fairly well-balanced meal. The fish, despite its very long journey, tasted quite fresh, but the potatoes were spongy. The green vegetables had a little flavour. Total calories come to 304 and the dish is quite satisfying for a light eater. As instant dinners go, it’s not bad except for the unsustainability of the journey from Vietnam and Belgium where the dish is put together. One taster liked it, the others were not so impressed.
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