01/26/2011 06:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Process or Perish: Praise for Packaged Food

While helping Laurie David with her latest book, The Family Dinner, I appreciated her pragmatic approach to mealtime. She knows that families can't whip up a from-scratch meal every night -- not surprising since she's a working mom of two bright, active daughters. Her goal is to get there slowly, with the focus on eating together as often as possible, even if it means dishing out Chinese takeout around the coffee table, or stuffing straight-from-the-box taco shells with frozen corn, canned black beans and pre-shredded cheese.

The ideal, of course, is to incorporate as many whole foods into our meals as possible. In the long run, I know it is impractical, if not impossible, to feed 300 million Americans -- let alone my tiny family -- day in and day out, on freshly procured food. Besides, people have been manipulating, preserving, pickling, fermenting, drying and "putting food by" for thousands of years.

Perhaps the first thing to do is define what's what in terms of "nice processed" and "scary processed" foods. A visit to one of my favorite New York restaurants, Candle 79, provides a snapshot of one kind of gentle processing -- cutting, chopping, marinating, fermenting, slow and moderate heating -- that's required to make live, raw and vegan whole food interesting and exciting. Because of the intense labor (not to mention talent) involved in preparation, I'm not likely to make their Live Young Coconut Pad Thai or Vegetable Nori Rolls at home -- there just aren't enough hours in my day (so thank you, Chef Angel Ramos, for doing it for me).

On the other end of canning field are pre-packed lunch "kits" that typically combine cardboard, plastic, crackers, cheese flavored rubber, glue, cellophane, "luncheon meat," brick-like cookies and something called a juice box. (If I believed in the devil, I'd consider these products the work of its hands.) And of course, there's ordinary junk food (cheese popcorn, pretzels, crackers, chips, candy, cookies, soda), canned spaghetti with sauce, Spam, Vienna sausage (unheard of in Austria), cake mixes, frozen burritos, microwaveable sandwiches and an endless array of boxed cereals and protein bars (some better than others).

Unfortunately, the latter group creates so many health problems in children and adults -- from type 2 diabetes and obesity, to run of the mill sugar and salt jonesing. Devoid of nutrition and brimming with all sorts of chemical preservatives, highly processed foods are seductive to people of every economic level from middle class families and the working poor who find temporary emotional comfort from the crap that fills their carts. Next time you're slogging through the free sample offerings at Costco or the grocery aisles at a Walmart Supercenter, live in the moment and look at your fellow shoppers' baskets. And then look at them -- but don't stare! Maybe it's not scientific but on the ground observation contains a lot of truth.

We also have to get real: Processed food isn't going away. Nor should it. Eliminating it from supermarkets isn't possible, nor is it preferable. But do get off the couch for a minute and check your own cabinets and freezer -- what kinds of canned, boxed or bagged items do you have? Can you live without them?

I can't run my home kitchen without the help of canned beans, a cheap, convenient source of low fat protein that make Thursday night chili a snap to put together. Vegetables and fruit, picked at their peak and flash frozen, allow northerners like me to add summertime produce to stews, salads and pies in the middle of winter. Boxed stock, dried pasta and tubes of tomato paste means soup is minutes, instead of hours, away.

And then there are condiments. As the daughter of a mother who disliked cooking (she'd rather have cocktails and eat dinner out) jars of exotic pickles and olives, brown and green "gourmet" sauces, and various marinated fish made up a large part of our larder. So today, to the disgust of many of my friends and family, I love me a big spoonful of kimchi on scrambled eggs (try it -- it's sublime). My most embarrassing processed food craving is one I inherited from my mother: pickled herring on Triscuits... for breakfast. What do you want me to do, catch my own herring and pickle it at home? And what about mango chutney? Okay, I can make that (see recipe, below) only because I have an Intervention-level addiction to Indian food.

All this thinking about processed foods started when I made my 90-year-old father a kipper herring sandwich recently -- a treat he hadn't had in years. I had found a tin of it in the back of his cupboard and the nostalgia of the little key needed to unlock its smoky goodness brought me to tears. We thoroughly enjoyed sharing that sandwich -- it brought us even closer in an unspoken way.

So why not celebrate the best of the boxes, bags and jars that allow us to express ourselves in the kitchen and help bring us together? I love Kitchen Basic's stocks because they have the least ingredients, even compared to organic brands, and not a lot of sodium. They taste homemade. And Clif Bars, especially the kid's versions, are a convenient and fairly healthy on-the-go breakfast.

I asked a few of my most discriminating foodie friends and colleagues to weigh in on what's in their pantries. Oh yes, it turns out they've all got their stash.

So, what's your can't-live-without box, jar or bag?

Laurie David: "The problem now with anything canned is that they often have BPA or Bisphenol-A, a plastic and resin ingredient that's the main building block for polycarbonate (PC) plastics. Even at low doses, BPA has been linked to cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, obesity, and insulin resistance, among other creepy things. I finally found organic tomatoes in a glass jar, from Lucini Italia Organics. I've always got them on hand."

Kristen Uhrenholdt: Laurie's co-author and cook loves Trader Joe's organic canned beans, because, "they're firm, not mushy." Also in her shopping cart: Muir Glen tomato salsa, Arrowhead Mills Tahini, Whole Foods' house brand 365 Organic Everyday Value frozen corn, peas, and spinach; and Tinkyada brand rice pasta ("It's not mushy like some others").

Kris Carr: Green Goddess, gorgeous girl, and author of the bestselling Crazy Sexy Diet loves Earth Balance Natural Buttery Spread ("it kicks dairy butter's ass"); Nayonaise and Follow Your Heart's Vegenaise instead of conventional mayo; Dr. Cow nut cheeses ("for special occasions"); Eat in the Raw Parma! vegan Parmesan; and brown rice crackers from Sesmark. Sounds like a party to me!

Chef Timothy Tucker: Sustainable chef and institutional food innovator loves organic almond and cashew butter (Living Tree Community Foods is a good source), chili garlic sauce (try Temple of Thai), A1 Steak Sauce for omelets and burgers ("I don't eat ketchup because it's hard to find brands without high fructose corn syrup"); Nutella ("On bread for breakfast like they do in Italy...yes please!'); Silver Spring horseradish sauce, and Alstertor Dusseldorf Mustard - the kind that comes in the cute reusable miniature beer stein!

Elissa Altman: Consummate food writer (Poor Man's Feast, Big Food), editor, cook, and funny girl, makes a lot of her own condiments (if I didn't adore her, I'd have to hate her for that) but does recommend Chin-jung's kimchi. Beyond that, she says she, "eats no other processed/packaged foods other than Rooster Brand Sriracha, and Taste of Thai curries and chile pastes. But that's it (seriously)." Okay, okay!

Nathalie Dupree: Author of ten cookbooks and a two-time James Beard Award winner, this Southern cook and food expert (and the woman responsible for teaching me how to make the perfect pie crust) doesn't hesitate: "Definitely peanut butter!" Maybe that's because she makes these incredible Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup Cookies? Once Again brand nut butters, including their peanut butter, is among the best - certified organic, pure and really peanutty.

Victoria Moran: Bestselling author, charmed life lady, motivational speaker, life coach and holistic health counselor who loves life and good food says she can't do without canned beans. "I get the organic ones from Eden (they even put them in healthy, BPA-free cans) and Westbrae and use them for chili, soups, and to toss in salads. Beans are so good for you, but soaking and cooking from scratch takes forever and is far from foolproof, so the cans really work in my kitchen." Amen!

Karen's Intervention Refrigerator Mango Chutney
This spicy-sweet chutney requires no sterilizing and canning procedures that could result in an I Love Lucy moment. Store leftovers in (clean, recycled) jars and keep in the fridge for about four months - a long life thanks to the preservative powers of brown sugar and cider vinegar.
4 somewhat under ripe and firm, large mangoes, peeled, pitted, and roughly chopped (uneven sized pieces are preferable here, and authentic)
3 tablespoons peeled and freshly grated ginger
1 small onion, halved and sliced paper thin
1 clove garlic, minced
½-cup raisins
1/3-cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1-teaspoon sea or kosher salt
2/3-teaspoon cumin
¼-teaspoon cinnamon
1-teaspoon cayenne pepper
½-teaspoon turmeric
½-teaspoon ground cloves
½-cup cider vinegar
½-cup water

Place all ingredients in a stainless steel or enameled cast iron saucepan and stir with a wooden spoon to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium high heat, and then reduce to low heat and simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the chutney to cool. Serve at room temperature or chill. Store in glass jars up to four months in the refrigerator.