Family life

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Ain't no shame in the packaged foods game. Some nights, supper just needs to make itself. We tapped a nutritionist for the healthiest, tastiest and quickest options.

By Aileen Brabazon

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Illustration: Justine Wong

dinner cheats

We get it: Weeknight dinners are hard. But you shouldn’t have to feel guilty about transferring something from the freezer to your preheated oven—so we tapped nutritionist Aileen Brabazon to round up the healthiest, tastiest and quickest options.

*All prices are approximate. We shopped for national brands at Loblaws, Sobeys and Costco stores. Availability may vary.

Illustration: Justine WongIllustration: Justine Wong

Jamie Oliver Tomato and Basil Pasta Sauce, $4 (400 g)

Leave it to the Naked Chef to produce a simply delicious jarred tomato sauce. This one has tons of ripe tomato flavour and a hint of basil. Heat and toss with high-fibre noodles or use it on DIY pizza—spread it over a whole-grain pita or naan, top with veggies and grated mozzarella, and then bake until the cheese is bubbly.

Nutrition notes: This brand is lighter on sodium and sugars than many others, and it’s made with whole food  ingredients. Plus, ½ cup provides 20 percent of the vitamin A everyone needs a day.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Honest Earth Creamy Mash $15 (14 8-serving pouches)

It takes just four minutes to whip up this boxed comfort food that—honestly and surprisingly—tastes pretty close to homemade mashed potatoes. For a super speedy meal, serve with rotisserie chicken and bagged kale salad.

Nutrition notes: This side dish is lighter in sodium than many other instant mashes and contains only dehydrated potatoes, butter and salt. Avoid flavoured boxed taters, as they’re often loaded with odd-sounding ingredients.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Uncle Ben’s Bistro Express Wholegrain Brown, $3 (250 g)

It’s a little less nutty than the slower-cooking stuff, but this brown rice only takes two minutes (two minutes!) to make—just heat with a splash of water.

Nutrition notes: This whole grain is free of salt and strange additives, and has the same amount of fibre as regular brown rice. Avoid flavoured rice sides, as they’re typically too high in sodium. Add your own instant seasoning instead by stirring in salsa, pesto or a splash of low-sodium soy sauce.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Janes Natural Goodness Chicken Breast Nuggets, $14 (700 g)

These lean, white-meat morsels are made for kids—and for parents, because they’re healthy and fast. They bake from frozen in just 15 minutes. 

Nutrition notes: These nuggets have less fat, calories and sodium than many of their counter-parts and are free of questionable ingredients. They’re still quite salty though, so stick to the four-piece serving size

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Cuisine Adventures Mini Quiche, $15 (72 pieces)

Ideal for finger-food addicts, these low-cal two-bite quiches are a big deal for a light dinner. The box offers two varieties: roasted red pepper and cheddar in a phyllo crust or crustless ham and Swiss. Bake for 15 minutes, then dish them up with veggies and dip.

Nutrition notes: These morsels fill bellies with protein, and they’re free of artificial colours and flavours. Serve three or four quiches per person so you don’t overdo it on the sodium and fat.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

President’s Choice Whole Wheat Couscous, $3 (340 g)

This versatile, fluffy food cooks up in 5 minutes. For extra flavour, use low-sodium broth instead of water. Serve it like rice or quinoa, or make a big salad with veggies like cucumber and sweet peppers, salt-free canned beans, leftover chicken and vinaigrette.

Nutrition notes: Unlike a lot of quick-cooking grain sides, this one is sodium-free. The only ingredient is whole durum wheat semolina, which is a source of protein, fibre and iron.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Compliments Balance Spinach and Ricotta Cheese Lasagna Rolls, $9 (family-size tray)

This satisfying main course features stuffed multi-grain noodles topped with a slightly sweet tomato sauce. The tray takes about one hour to bake, so you’ll have time to help with homework.

Nutrition notes: With 6 grams of fat per roll, this pasta dish is a lot leaner than lasagna made with meat. It provides plenty of satiating protein and fibre, as well as bone-building calcium and immune-boosting vitamin A.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Stromboli Herbs and Cheeses Pizza, $5.80

Ready in 14 minutes, this frozen pizza is faster—and better for you—than delivery. The crust is thin and crispy, and the herbs are subtle enough for kids but provide a little extra zing for grown-ups.

Nutrition notes: Frozen pizzas can be high in sodium and saturated fat, especially when topped with meat like pepperoni. Stick with cheese and veggie and enjoy in moderation. This one is better than many others because its ingredients are simple—no questionable additives.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Barilla Plus spaghetti $3 (14.5 oz)

These noodles taste as good as the regular stuff but are much higher in fibre, protein and nutrients than standard pasta made with refined wheat.

Nutrition notes: Made with ingredients like legume flours, egg whites and ground flaxseed, these noodles contain a whopping 14 grams of protein and eight grams of fibre per serving. The pasta also provides stress-busting, energy-boosting B vitamins. 

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Ian’s Fish sticks, $10 (8 oz)

These certified sustainable fish sticks are fantastic. They’re ideal for families with food allergies, as they’re free of eggs, dairy and nuts, and they’re also gluten-free. What’s more, they’re super tasty, with a crispy corn batter and not-too-fishy centre.

Nutrition notes: Made with straightforward ingredients, these fingers are lower in fat and sodium than many others.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Yves Veggie Cuisine Kale and Root Vegetable Patties $5 (4-pack)

Just a few minutes in a hot pan and these patties are ready to serve chopped up with veggies and dip for a finger-food feast.

Nutrition notes: Made with kale, carrots, brown rice and flaxseed, these burgers provide filling fibre and protein, and nutrients like vitamin A, C and magnesium.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

McCain Shoestring Fries, $3.30 (900 g)

Kids love fries—and you love how easy frozen ones are. Instead of fries with a crispy coating (including sweet potato fries), which have more salt and added ingredients, opt for shoestring cuts—they stay crunchier than thicker ones. Instead of dipping in too much too-sweet ketchup, make loaded fries: Top with grated low-fat cheese, a dollop of plain Greek yogurt and a pinch of chives.

Nutrition notes: These are a lot lower in salt, fat and calories than fast-food fries, but should still be considered a treat, because they really don’t have much nutritional value.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Amy’s Shepherd’s Pie $4.50 (single serve)

Pop this gluten-free vegan dish into the oven for a healthy, hassle-free meatless Monday dinner. The potato topping is creamy, and the saucy filling is tomato-based.

Nutrition notes: Unlike other frozen shepherd’s pies, this one is full of nutrient- and fibre-rich veggies and beans and low in fat and calories. The pie does have a lot of sodium, scoring higher than 15 percent daily value, although it still has less than many other TV dinners.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Glutenfreeda Burrito Chicken and Cheese, $4 (1 wrap)

This frozen burrito can be popped in the microwave for three minutes or baked in the oven for 45 minutes. If you have time, baking crisps up the tortilla and brings out its delicious corn flavour. Inside, there’s a mixture of rice, chicken and cheese tossed together with salsa and very mild spices. Bonus: The filling doesn’t fall out everywhere, making it easy to enjoy on the go.

Nutrition notes: It has a modest amount of sodium for a frozen food. The burrito provides satiating protein and it’s gluten free.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Yves Sweet Potato and Chia Bites, $6 (240 g)

These mild two-bite nuggets are crispy on the outside and tender inside. Bake them in 10 minutes and serve like falafels: Stuff into a whole-grain pita and top with hummus, lettuce and tomato.

Nutrition notes: Made with sweet potato, chia seeds and pea fibre, these nuggets deliver vitamin A and iron. Calories and fat are moderate, but stick to the serving size to keep sodium in check.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Nudge whole wheat Macaroni and Cheese $4 (170 g)

Try a better boxed mac: Its ingredients are organic, and the cheese comes from cows that have enjoyed free pasture life. Made with whole wheat and flax, the noodles are a little chewier than the standard stuff, but the sauce is as cheesy as you’re used to.

Nutrition notes: This mac and cheese is free of fake dyes and preservatives. Plus, it provides 5 grams of fibre and 9 grams of protein to satisfy hungry tummies. Nonetheless, eat it only occasionally, since it’s still high in salt and fat.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Kodiak Cakes Power Cakes flapjack + waffle mix, $5

These pancakes are simply delicious. Spread on some peanut butter, add banana slices and top with a second pancake for a fun, breakfast-for-dinner sandwich.

Nutrition notes: The powdered mix contains whey protein (14 grams for three pancakes!) and filling whole grains.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Organic Cookin’ Greens: A blend of kale, butternut squash and quinoa, $4.80 (300 g)

Canada’s Food Guide recommends at least one dark green and one orange veggie a day—you’ve got it in the bag with this blend! Cook it in less than 10 minutes with low-sodium stock instead of water, then wrap it up for a dinner burrito.

Nutrition notes: Flash-frozen veggies are as nutritious as fresh ones. Kale and squash have immune-boosting vitamins A and C, and quinoa provides protein.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Arctic Gardens Yin Yang Style Stir Fry, $3.80 (750 g)

Expedite stir-fry night! Sauté with sesame seed oil, low-sodium soy sauce, grated ginger and garlic and add cubed extra-firm tofu.

Nutrition notes: These frozen veggies are nutrient dense: Broccoli and bell peppers brim with cold-fighting vitamin C; peas provide fibre and B vitamins; and carrots are full of vitamin A. 

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Le Grand classic Basil pesto with 4 Nuts and Cheese, $6 (5.5 oz)

Two reasons this pouch should be in your fridge: It’s one of the most delicious pre-made pestos and it adds instant flavour to so many foods. Toss with steamed veg, spread on pizza, stir into soups, drizzle over salads or brush onto chicken before baking.

Nutrition notes: No funky additives here and it’s less salty than others. Like all pestos, this one is high in fat and calories, so measure out your portions rather than eyeballing them.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Pacific Organic Chicken Broth Low Sodium, $6 (almost 4 cups)

There are lots of packaged stocks on store shelves, but this one has well-rounded chicken flavour that tastes closer to homemade than many others. Use it instead of water when you cook veggies and whole grains like quinoa and rice, or poach fish and chicken breast in it. Or whip up nutritious—and fast!—chicken noodle soup: Simmer pasta, chopped rotisserie chicken and frozen vegetables in the stock until everything is cooked through.

Nutrition notes: Heat-and-eat soups and stocks are often sky-high in salt. Choose low-sodium brands (like this one) made with natural ingredients.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Eden Organic Pinto Beans no salt added, $3 (425 g)

Fast-forward dinner—and add filling protein and fibre—by cracking open a can of beans. Toss them into salads, chili and stews or mix with rice for a hearty side dish. Pintos can easily be transformed into healthy refried beans for burritos— just sautée a little chopped onion in a pan, add chili and garlic powder, then beans and a splash of water. Simmer for a few minutes, then smash them up!

Nutrition notes: Pintos are a good source of energy-boosting B-vitamins and iron. If you can’t find no-sodium canned beans, rinse them thoroughly before using.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

LaTortilla Factory Whole Wheat Tortillas, $6 (8 fajita size)

Skip the pre-paackaged taco kit next Taco Tuesday—they may be easy, but they’re also high in sodium and additives. Here’s a healthier speedy solution: Use these soft tortillas (and add Mrs. Dash Salt Free Chili Seasoning Mix, jarred salsa, and pre-grated cheese). The tortillas have a smooth texture and mild wheat flavour. Use them at breakfast with soft scrambled eggs, or in this genius school snack: Banana Sushi.

Nutrition notes: Made with whole grains, each wrap contains 13 grams of fibre—that’s about half the amount you need a day!—and 9 grams of protein.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Sunrise Farms Chicken Breast Burgers, $16 (16 patties)

Feel like chicken tonight but don’t have 45 minutes to bake a breast? These burgers are your fallback. They taste like the real deal, have a texture similar to a fast food patty and only take 10 minutes to cook from frozen. Sandwich the burger in a whole grain bun, or chop and toss the chicken into pasta,  green salads or tacos.  

Nutrition notes: These chicken breast burgers are full of lean protein, free of gluten and additives and contain only a few straightforward ingredients.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Green Organic Green Peas, $4

You know some kids love frozen peas straight from the bag, right? They’re slightly sweet and kind of pop in your mouth as you chew. To thaw them, simply put peas in a colander and run under cool water for a few minutes until they’re no longer icy. Toss these nutrient-dense gems with pasta, combine them with halved cherry tomatoes and vinaigrette or, for polka-dot spuds, mix them into mashed potatoes.

Nutrition notes: Just 3/4 cup of peas contains 5 grams of satiating fibre and 5 grams of protein. They also offer iron and immune-boosting vitamin C.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Thai Kitchen Peanut Satay Sauce, $6 (200 mL)

Thick, rich and nutty with hints of sweetness and spice, this satay sauce makes a scrumptious dip for grilled chicken, tofu and cold spring rolls. You can also add it to stir-fries and  noodle dishes for for instant bold flavour.

Nutrition notes: It’s lighter in sugar and salt than many other stir-fry, marinade and dipping sauces. Stick to the serving size to avoid overdoing sodium and fat (remember, it’s made with peanuts).

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

No Name Potato and Cheddar Perogies, $3 (907 g)

Your little dumpling lovers will dig these morsels. The filling tastes like mashed potatoes with a hint of cheese. Lightly pan-fry in vegetable oil to give the outside a great crisp-chewy texture. Dish up perogies with a high-protein, low-fat dip: Simply stir 2-percent plain Greek yogurt with chopped fresh chives. And don’t forget a generous side of bagged kale or romaine salad.

Nutrition notes: They contain less salt and fat than other frozen perogies and offer satiating protein. Still, the ingredient list is a little long and complicated, so reserve them for a twice-a-month treat.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Green Giant Valley Selections Vegetable Fried Rice, $4 (400 g)

This bag is your key to a fuss-free fried rice. Pre-seasoned—it has a subtle sesame and soy sauce flavour—and packed with corn, carrots and peas, your only job is to cook the frozen mixture in a skillet for 6 to 9 minutes. Serve it as-is alongside baked chicken or fish. Or turn it into a complete main course by adding chopped chicken breast or tofu, cashews and steamed broccoli.

Nutrition notes: Low in calories, this mix contains a lot of eye-protective vitamin A. Unlike many pre-flavoured dishes, it doesn’t serve up a bunch of artificial additives.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

President’s Choice Cabbage Rolls (club pack), $15 (10 rolls)

Did your kid bring a few friends home from school? Pop this crowd-pleaser in the oven and set the table! The tomato sauce and cabbage are mild in flavour and the meat-and-rice filling is reminiscent of meatloaf. It takes 90 minutes to cook from frozen but requires no attention, so you have time to toss a salad to serve alongside.

Nutrition notes: The cabbage rolls are low in calories and deliver protein, cold-fighting vitamin C and some fibre. To keep sodium and fat in check, dish out one per person.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Cardinal Sirloin Beef Burgers, $17 (12 patties)

You can feel good about serving burgers for dinner. They  take less than 10 minutes to cook from frozen and taste beefy like a good burger should. Ditch the buns and serve patties between two leaves of butter or iceberg lettuce for extra nutrition and crunch.

Nutrition notes: They’re gluten-free, loaded in protein and iron and contain only few simple ingredients. Beef is naturally high in saturated fat, so enjoy it just once a week.

30 best packaged foods to make dinner a breeze

Read more:
How to read food labels like a pro 10 quick and easy dinner recipes 18 healthy store-bought snacks for kids

This article was originally published on Jun 15, 2019

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