Q. My husband is after me to make a “processed food-free Shabbat.” How do I even do that?
Anything boxed, canned or bagged would be processed, including canned vegetables and bagged salad. Pre-cut vegetables? Processed. Box of whole-wheat crackers? Processed. Sometimes the processing that the food undergoes actually makes it safer to consume, like pasteurization of milk. It may also increase its nutritional value—like the addition of vitamin A and D to many different milk brands.
There is a hierarchy, though, within the world of processed foods. The more processed a food is, the more likely it is to include more of the ingredients we want to limit—namely, sodium, sugar and fat.
+ Minimally processed foods: That’s where your salad bags, prewashed veggies or cut-up fruit would fit in, along with ground nuts or coffee beans. These foods are not changed all that significantly, just prepared to make them easier to use. Though processed, these would not be considered unhealthy since they have no added sugar, sodium, fat or other undesirable additions.
+ Foods “processed at their peak”: These are the vegetables that are frozen when they are fresh to preserve nutritional quality. Same thing with canned beans, tomatoes, fish and jars of baby food. These would also be considered fairly healthy foods for the most part; some may run high in sodium and, in some cases, sugar and fat as well.
+ Foods with added ingredients like spices, flavors or preservatives, but are not considered “ready-to-eat”: Rice, salad dressings and pasta sauce are a few examples; cake mixes and gelatin are too. As you can see, some of these could be wholesome options, while others can be quite the opposite. Now we are starting to get to the processed foods you’ll want to limit.
+ “Ready-to-eat” foods: You may need to heat it or add water, but it’s basically edible straight from the package, like cereal, crackers, jam and peanut butter, granola bars, cookies, deli meat, cheese spreads and much more. These are more likely to have the additional sodium, sugar and fat, not to mention preservatives, flavorings or additional chemicals you want to avoid.
+ Heavily processed foods: Packaged ready-to-eat meals, including frozen pizza, are typically the worst offenders when it comes to added ingredients you don’t want.
If most of the processed foods you purchase are from the first two categories, you’re doing pretty well. When you need to get foods from the third and fourth categories, check the label and ingredient list. (See sidebar for tips.) Avoid the fifth category if at all possible.
Now, on to Shabbat. Unless you live on a farm, your husband probably means that he wants a generally healthier, more nutritious Shabbat meal with fewer foods from the latter categories above. So let’s go through some of the Shabbat staples:
Challah: Your least processed option would be making your own from scratch. Second choice, buy from a local bakery versus a packaged challah from the supermarket.
Fish: A frozen gefilte fish loaf is out. If you want to grind your own fish, by all means, go ahead. Many recipes call for matzah meal, which means using a processed ingredient that’s not too bad, along with eggs and often sugar and salt. That’s why I’d recommend getting a slab of fresh fish (salmon is my pick) and preparing it with fresh herbs and spices. Much less processed and more nutritional bang for your buck.
Soup: Pass on the soup mix and use plenty of chicken, vegetables, herbs and spices to flavor your stock.
Main Course: Let’s say it’s chicken. Skip the jarred sauces, the onion soup mix, fancy breadings and other packaged ingredients that you’ll often find in cookbooks. Opt for a basic recipe that uses salt and spices and maybe a little oil. My go-to Friday night chicken dish is a large whole chicken rubbed with paprika, cumin, turmeric, garlic salt (okay, so I cheat a little there—you can use fresh garlic and salt) and olive oil, surrounded by sliced onions.
Sides: If you’re a kugel family, make them yourself—don’t buy takeout. Think fresh ingredients to start. That’s your clue for less processed. If it comes in a bag or a box, it’s processed. No crust needed for your kugel. Ditto for topping. Or substitute fresh roasted vegetables for the kugel altogether. No time on Friday to make them? Cut them all up Thursday night and bag and refrigerate, so all you need to do is spice them and throw them in the oven Friday afternoon.
Salad: I prefer starting with fresh romaine leaves that I check myself, but bagged salad or pre-checked lettuce mix is fine. If it makes you more likely to eat salad, go for it. Do add more fresh vegetables. It’s okay to cut in some pickles or throw in some nuts or even sliced olives if you need a little more flavor. Go easy on craisins, croutons, crunchy noodles, potato chips or who knows what else people add to salads lately! When it comes to dressings, toss the bottle and make your own with basic ingredients like lemon juice, vinegar and oil.
Cholent: Start with onions, potatoes, meat and spices. Dried beans, sans flavors, are not the worst processed food to include. Pass on the ketchup and barbecue sauce and it probably goes without saying, but pass on the kishka, hot dogs and sausages as well. Eggs are okay; if you have access to free-range eggs, use those. You might consider forgoing cholent completely and opting for warmed chicken prepped with spices and oil, as you had on Friday night.
Dessert: You knew I was going to say fruit. Truth is, a cake baked from scratch is less processed than one from a cake mix or a packaged cake from the store. Keep your home-baked goods “cleaner” by staying away from ingredients like frozen whipped topping, frostings or margarine.
Shabbat party: Not sure how this tradition started exactly, but you don’t really need this. If you have already gotten into the habit of giving the kids in your life a treat on Shabbat afternoon as a “Shabbat party,” make some homemade frozen fruit popsicles before Shabbat. Or dress up plain old fruit by putting several types together on a skewer or sticking in cute toothpicks.
Shira Isenberg is a registered dietitian and writer in Memphis, Tennessee. She has a master’s degree in public health nutrition from Hunter College in New York.