My aversion to canned food started early. Those aluminum cylinders just never seemed appealing, sitting there in the dark corners of our cabinet, far away from my treasured Cinnamon Toast Crunch. They were dull, dusty, and full of mysterious soup mixes. It was rare for my mom to pull one out, but when she did, I knew it was going to be the least exciting meal of the month.
As I grew older, my aversions felt justified. I learned that canned foods were loaded with sodium and that they were chock full of preservatives. Worse, the cans were lined with BPA. I didn’t know what that was, but everything I read made it sound like you’d have to be delusional to go anywhere near it. Without much thought, I put BPA on the same level as anthrax and asbestos.
My feelings surrounding frozen vegetables followed a similar trajectory. I assumed anything frozen was bound to be bland and unhealthy. Frozen fruit was okay to put in smoothies, I thought, but what was the point of a frozen vegetable? Frozen goods were tolerated, but never preferred.
Then, a couple of years ago, my stance around these foods started to shift. Now, I happily buy and consume both canned and frozen foods. Why did I come around so fast? Let’s investigate.
The Benefits of Canned Food
My first step toward embracing canned food came when, one day at the grocery store, I noticed cans that were labeled “BPA free.” I figured that if the cans no longer contained a toxic chemical, maybe the food inside would be okay to eat.
From that point on, I started experiencing the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, which refers to those times when you learn something new and then start seeing it everywhere. Not only was I noticing all the BPA-free cans, but I was seeing canned foods containing wild caught fish, sustainably harvested organic vegetables, and grass-fed beef. It was like entering an alternate universe of healthy, cheap, long-lasting foods.
In particular, I started exploring bean options.
Beans are a much loved food among frugal folks, and for good reason. They are cheap, healthy, and filling. Most people like to buy dry beans in bulk, as that’s the best bang for your buck. Unfortunately, try as I might, I can’t seem to find a way to prepare dry beans that doesn’t leave me feeling bloated after eating them. I’ve soaked them, I’ve cooked them in conjunction with other foods, I’ve pressure cooked them; for whatever reason, they don’t agree with me.
Canned beans? I’ve never had an issue. I wish I could explain why, but I’ve decided to embrace it without knowing, because I genuinely love eating beans. I now keep a supply of Goya canned black beans on hand at all times.
Still, there is the sodium issue. A traditional can of Goya black beans has a ton of sodium. But, there’s an easy fix to that, if you’re watching your salt intake. All you have to do is drain and rinse the beans! I was almost embarrassed when I found this out, because it’s so simple that I should have thought of it before. Using this method will get rid of about 40% of the salt, leaving you with a much more manageable total sodium level.
I was happy to find out that the nutritional establishment is mostly on my side in my quest to change the reputation of canned foods. Nutrition expert and registered dietician Lisa Hayim, who runs the site the Well Necessities, told me that she agrees that canned foods can be a healthy food option. She admits it’s “a little strange to think of a vegetable sitting on a shelf without expiration for two years.” However, she thinks that the right canned foods “are great if you’re on a budget. Just opt for no added sodium options and organic if possible.”
Hayim also loves eating canned fish to get quality nutrients without spending big bucks on the fresh stuff. She sees canned fish, specifically salmon and sardines, as a “great way to get in some healthy fats. Fish contains a ton of Omega 3 fatty acids, one of the best fighters of inflammation.” Rather than being a negative, Hayim says canned fish can be “a great option for those on a budget, limited access to fresh fish, or a limited ability to cook for themselves.”
If you’re a big fan of salmon, like myself, this is encouraging news. High quality salmon is usually expensive when fresh, but I can find cans of tasty, wild caught stuff for under three bucks each. Sure, some people might find the taste or texture to be lacking, but to me it’s not a problem. It’s not like when I buy fresh salmon fillets I prepare them like Bobby Flay. I tend to throw things in a pan and hope for the best. That being the case, I’m perfectly happy with the flavor and presentation of my canned fish.
All in all, the term “canned food” is too broad to to account for all the nuance and variety found in that space. Writing off the whole category would be akin to saying you’d never eat at a restaurant, because you heard those meals tend to be unhealthy. But, we all know there’s a big difference between eating a Bloomin’ Onion and ordering a chef’s salad.
The Benefits of Frozen Food
I followed a similar path of with frozen veggies as I did with canned food. One day I read about how frozen vegetables get a bad rap, in the sense that most people think they’re less nutritious than their fresh counterparts. From then on, I was questioning everything.
Are nutrients lost in freezing? If they are, is it significant?
Thankfully, these processes have been studied, and you don’t just have to take my word for it. A large-scale study out of the University of California-Davis found that our collective aversion to frozen foods doesn’t have much merit, and that storing fresh food for days on end is a surefire way to end up eating a less nutrient-rich food. “Losses of nutrients during fresh storage may be more substantial than consumers realize,” the study noted. “Depending on the commodity, freezing processes may preserve nutrient value.”
Experts at the University of California-Berkeley are also fans of freezing. In a question-and-answer series about frozen foods, they pointed out that “frozen vegetables… may or may not taste as good as fresh, but the difference in nutrition is slight—frozen foods will still have plenty of vitamins.”
I take all that to mean that frozen peas should not only be thought of as a way to ice an injury. They can be a tasty, affordable, healthy side dish in their own right. Once again, I was happy to find that my thoughts aligned with those of Lisa Hayim, the health professional. She loves frozen vegetables, telling me that they “don’t get enough attention” and that she “truly believes that they are the affordable solution to eating vegetables (even organic ones) at every meal.”
She’s right to point out the affordability of frozen foods. On the whole, they’re cheaper than their fresh counterparts. According to the most recent USDA data, a pound of frozen broccoli is 70 cents cheaper than a pound of the fresh stuff. That’s a small difference, but veggie by veggie, week after week, it can add up if you’re really trying to cut costs on food.
Buying frozen food may not be the budgetary equivalent of cutting out an expensive cable bill or anything like that, but it has something else going for it, too: It will never rot at the bottom of your produce drawer.
The Waste Issue
It’s a sad reality that when we buy fresh food, it all too often goes uneaten. Americans lead the world in food waste. The USDA estimates that 30% to 40% of all food we harvest is thrown away uneaten. There are entire government initiatives to get us to waste less food, and so far they have been unsuccessful.
I am vigilant about eating what I buy, but I still slip up. I had a perfectly good head of broccoli wilt on me just last week. We get busy. It happens.
Once you address the fact that vast amounts of the fresh food you buy is being wasted, canned and frozen foods start to look even better. That’s because where they truly shine is in their durability. Canned foods can last for years, which is why they’ve long been a staple of emergency preparedness strategies. Frozen food will last as long as there is electricity to power your freezer.
If you’re looking for low effort ways to save some real money on food waste, canned and frozen foods are a great option.
My diet still has a focus on fresh food. It’s just nice to be able to incorporate cheap, healthy options when I’m in a hurry, or don’t feel like cooking with fresh ingredients.
I’m not advocating buying 20 cans of Hamburger Helper and considering your meal planning done for the week. I’m talking about incorporating tasty, cheap staples and produce that just happen to be easy to store and long lasting. What’s not to love?