7 Convenience Foods That are Easy (and Healthier) to Make Yourself

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on July 6, 2011

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Since I starting cooking nearly 5 years ago, I’ve been slowly decreasing my dependence on convenience foods. While I do this for the obvious health reasons, what really motivates me is taste. The food that I make myself simply tastes better than many of the pre-made versions.

But like a lot of parents, I don’t have hours to spend in the kitchen so everything needs to be simple to prepare. With that in mind, here are 7 items that have recently been added to my “make myself” list.

1. Hummus: When I first tried to make hummus I gave up because my homemade version was missing that kick found in my favorite Trader Joe’s product. After trying this winning recipe from Janet at Nutrition Unplugged, I realized that adding extra garlic and peeling the skin off the chickpeas is key (makes it smoother). To remove the outer skin layer, place the beans in a colander and rub the skins off while rinsing.

With its protein content, healthy fats and superb taste and nutrition (rich in iron, folate, thiamin, zinc, magnesium and phytonutrients), hummus makes the perfect veggie dip or addition to any meal. I usually halve this recipe.

-4 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
-2 16-oz. cans of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
-2/3 cup tahini, well stirred
-Juice of 2 lemons
-1/4 cup olive oil
-water (as needed)
1 teaspoon salt
Optional garnish: whole chickpeas, toasted pine nuts, chopped parsley, paprika, cumin or sumac

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Combine all of the ingredients except the water and garnish in a food processor and process until smooth. Add water to thin hummus to the desired consistency (about 1/2 cup). Transfer to a bowl and drizzle with additional olive oil to keep the hummus from crusting, and add garnish. Refrigerate until ready to use. Serve with pita chips.

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2. Pizza Dough: In one of my weekly meal plans I mentioned my failures making pizza dough. A few readers chimed in with how easy it is and that motivated me to continue trying. I found Fleishman’s Rapid Rise yeast at the grocery store and it was super simple. This is definitely Big A’s favorite meal to make.

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For the recipe and even a video on how to make the dough, click here.

3. Salad dressing: I don’t remember the last time I bought bottled salad dressing. I always have trouble finding one that I really like and that contains the type of vegetable oils I prefer (olive oil). Once I found out how simple and tasty it is to make vinaigrettes, I’ve never gone back.

Right now my dressing of choice is a balsamic vinaigrette. In an old, cleaned out jelly jar, I add 4 parts olive oil to one part balsamic vinegar, a pinch of brown sugar and a crushed garlic clove. I recently tried this ranch dressing which is nice for dipping veggies.

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4. Salsa: This recipe from the Pioneer Women is excellent and always gets rave reviews. I’ve tried making fresher salsas but this one tastes the best — and is great for adding to other recipes and for spicing up dishes like guacamole and taco meat.

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-1 can (28 Ounce) Whole Tomatoes With Juice
-2 cans (10 Ounce) Rotel (diced Tomatoes And Green Chilies — one mild one regular)
-1/4 cup Chopped Onion
-1 clove Garlic, Minced
-1 whole Jalapeno, Quartered And Sliced Thin
-1/4 teaspoon Sugar
-1/4 teaspoon Salt
-1/4 teaspoon Ground Cumin
-1/2 cup Cilantro (more To Taste!)
-1/2 whole Lime Juice

This is a large batch for the food processor you will need to use a 12-cup food processor, or you can process the ingredients in batches and then mix everything together in a large mixing bowl. I used a blender.

Combine whole tomatoes, Rotel, onion, jalapeno, garlic, sugar, salt, cumin, lime juice, and cilantro in a blender or food processor. Pulse until you get the salsa to the consistency you’d like—about 10 to 15 pulses. Test seasonings with a tortilla chip and adjust as needed. Refrigerate salsa for at least an hour. Serve with tortilla chips or cheese nachos.

5. Popsicles:It’s that time of the year that kids love something to keep cool. The easiest way to make popsicles is to freeze their favorite 100% juice in popsicles molds. You can do the same thing with a favorite fruit smoothie. So easy!

6. Oat Pancakes: I would go back and forth between making pancakes from scratch and using boxed versions. This recipe from All Recipes is now a family favorite and I think that buttermilk and quick cooking oats are the secret ingredients. I sometimes make this high-protein version for snack time sent in from Charlotte.

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(Serves 4)
-1/2 cup all-purpose flour (or whole wheat)
-1/2 cup quick cooking oats
-1 tablespoon white sugar
-1 teaspoon baking powder
-1/2 teaspoon baking soda
-1/2 teaspoon salt
-3/4 cup buttermilk (low/reduced fat optional)
-1 teaspoon vanilla extract
-2 tablespoons vegetable oil
-1 egg

Place all ingredients in a food processor and puree until smooth or just mix yourself (I did the latter).
Spray a griddle or frying pan with cooking spray and turn to medium high heat. Pour or scoop the batter onto the griddle, using approximately 1/4 cup for each pancake. Brown on both sides and serve hot or freeze for later use.

7. Taco seasoning mix: I used to use those little packets to season meat for tacos and burritos but this recipe from the Meal Makeover Moms changed all that that. They suggest using garlic powder, cumin, chili powder and salsa instead. I use these same seasonings for bean burritos.

So tell me, what are some items you used to buy premade but now make yourself?

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicole July 6, 2011 at 8:49 am

I just tried canning my own salsa this weekend. It was ridiculously easy. I’m planning to make up several different batches/varieties while the produce is in season. Then we’ll have homemade salsa ready to go for the rest of year.

I’ve also gotten into making jam this summer. So far I have 4 different kinds made up. Thanks to Pomona’s pectin, I can make a low sugar jam. And homemade is so much better than store bought.

I’m looking forward to making all sorts of foods for my family this way.

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goodfountain July 6, 2011 at 10:05 am

I have been wanting to make my own salsa for some time, but with fresh tomatoes instead of canned. But maybe I’ll try it this way. I love salsa. I too make my own taco seasoning (this recipe: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/taco-seasoning-i/detail.aspx).

I make my hummus almost exactly the way you do, but I put my parsley in with all the other ingredients and just blend it up. Also, rather than using water to adjust it, I reserve some of the juice when draining my beans and use that instead.

I make my own marinara sauce. I’ve never actually bought jarred, so I’m not really replacing jarred, but I notice that so many recipes call for jarred pasta sauce. What I make is ridiculously easy, quick, and so delicious. So much better than jarred (which I have tasted).

I agree – once you start cooking food yourself -it tastes so much better than what you can buy pre-made. And also at restaurants. Every time we eat out now (which is rare) my husband says, “You can make this better at home.” And then we work on figuring out how to do it. We now make the best artichoke sandwiches like what Penn Station has -only ours are better.

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Rene July 6, 2011 at 1:45 pm

I make everything on your list from scratch except the pizza dough. I should start.

I use this recipe for taco seasoning: http://www.food.com/recipe/taco-seasoning-mix-2642

I also make:
vanilla extract using this recipe: http://www.food.com/recipe/ruths-homemade-vanilla-extract-105417

Never weep whipped cream in place of cool whip: http://www.food.com/recipe/never-weep-whipped-cream-74805

chocolate syrup: http://www.food.com/recipe/chocolate-syrup-22877

lemonade: http://www.food.com/recipe/lemonade-23038

I also make ice cream, granola bars, protein bars, pickles, tomato sauce and veggie burgers. I made all of my son’s baby food. I started making many things from scratch to avoid preservatives, high fructose corn syrup and msg. I found that most are so simple and taste so much better then store bought.

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Michelle O. July 6, 2011 at 4:11 pm

I can honestly say i haven’t bought soup since i started making my own stock, there’s just no going back. Same with tomato sauce. The next big one was popcorn, switching from microwave popcorn. I would like to make my own yogurt, but i am not that skilled yet. Learning though :) I’ve always done my own taco seasoning, i remember when i first saw someone use the packets, i was all confizzled cause my mom never used them & neither had I. Its certainly cheaper to season your own w/ out the packets. I’ve also not wanted to go back to store salsa since i made my own. I’ve been makin my own dressing for a long time, but my husband can’t do anything too acidic, so i make him ranch (i just use plain yogurt & ranch seasoning) & myself a vinaigrette (lemon juice, olive oil, salt pepper, garlic).

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Dawn July 6, 2011 at 4:33 pm

I love making my own pizza dough with sourdough starter, I love making my own popsicles & salad dressing, and my husband prefers to make pancakes from scratch, but after my debacle of trying to blanch almonds and reading your description, I would definitely think twice about making my own hummus. (The skin comes off easy? Really? Even if it does, you still have to take it off *each one*.)

I did make my own fresh salsa once. It was great, but not what I’d call “easy” (or fast)–and buying it from the store definitely is. I get mine from the deli section instead of the canned salsa section to avoid all the extra sodium in canned versions.

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Gina July 21, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Great ideas! We’ve done all but salsa (tho we’ve made bruschetta) and hummus – and we just bought all the ingredients this week for sun dried tomato hummus. The kids are looking forward to it. These are those basics that I want to pass along to them.

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Bettina at The Lunch Tray July 25, 2011 at 4:07 pm

These all look so good! I’m feeling a little shame here since I still buy those taco seasoning packets (um, can you say sodium up the wazoo?) and I use store-bought hummus. I really ought to know better about the latter because once I started making homemade falafel instead of using a boxed mix, I couldn’t believe how much better it tasted, and it’s the same principle. I’m going to share this link on The Lunch Tray’s Facebook page now. Thanks for the ideas and recipes!

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Melissa Schwarberg July 25, 2011 at 6:49 pm

I was wondering if you could recommend a replacement for the lemon juice in the hummas. My son is allergic to lemons. :( Maybe a couple of replacements, he is allergic to alot. Thanks

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Melanie July 25, 2011 at 6:56 pm

We make our own dressing, taco seasoning, pickled onions, baby food, and I know there are more that I’m just not remembering at the end of a long day :-) hummus is one I will continue to buy at the store, though, because we just can’t bring ourselves to buy tahini or make it with the sesame seeds we keep in the freezer. Oh! We’re going to start making our own tomato sauce, too, this week. I’m going to make a few batches to stash in the freezer for after school starts (am a teacher).

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Tiffany July 25, 2011 at 7:29 pm

I’ve been making my own crackers! They are so easy and fun!

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Sharon July 25, 2011 at 8:36 pm

I make my own hummus, too, but I sometimes toss in a steamed beet. It doesn’t really change the flavor, but it makes the hummus bright purple… my 6 and 3 year old daughters love it!

One item I used to buy that I now make (partly for the nutrition, but mostly for the convenience of not having to plan ahead) is tortillas. I use this recipe… http://www.asksasha.com/Healthy-Cooking/Homemade-Whole-Wheat-Tortillas-Recipe.html. (The recipe says it makes 10-12 toritillas, but those would be small. I usually just get 8.)

I’ll have to try your taco seasoning recipe for bean burritos with my tortillas… maybe tomorrow, as I already have all the necessary ingredients in the pantry!

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Amber @ This Mommy Cooks July 28, 2011 at 7:08 pm

Hi! New reader here. I like your site and look forward to exploring it more. I love making granola, it is so easy and my kids absolutely love it!

http://thismommycooks.blogspot.com/2010/01/quick-and-easy-granola-recipe.html

Homemade fruit roll ups are great too!

http://thismommycooks.blogspot.com/2010/06/sweet-treat-tuesday-homemade-fruit-roll.html

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Carl Colburn - Beachbody Coach November 4, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Hi Maryann,
Great stuff. My family and I have been using salsa ALOT, it’s better than sugary condiments like ketchup. However, we have been buying jarred versions, like Pace, then adding fresh habernero and serrano peppers and using a hand blender to smoothe it out. Yes, we like it HOT! But I think it’s about time we start making our own. Seems dead easy! You have inspired me, and we are teaching our kids to eat healthier too! Thanks.

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A-M September 30, 2013 at 8:50 am

If you have a glut of apples, making apple sauce is the easiest thing. You just peel them and boil them in water until they’re easy to crush with a fork. Then I mash them up into whatever consistency I like. Sometimes I add some cinnamon. I eat it as is, or with natural yoghurt, or use it as an ingredient in muffins etc. And it freezes too, so when my apple trees all fruit at once I don’t have any waste.

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