Making processed foods healthier

April 20, 2020

Come dinnertime these quarantined days, what with kids to school and work Zooming by, we may have just enough energy to cook with the can opener.

How to make processed foods healthier. Crush up chips and bread chicken and eat it with a salad.
It’s possible to make processed foods healthier. Try crushing up chips to bread chicken. Then eat the chicken with a big salad. Photo: Getty Images.

But that shame tsunami in our heads gets its wave up: “How dare you serve and eat processed food.”

Certainly, processed foods by and large contain unholy amounts of salt, fat, and sugar. And it is undeniably healthy to eat home-cooked scratch meals.

But the problem with shame is that it’s neither sympathetic nor creative.

As an occasionally exhausted home cook who also encourages people to prepare their own food, I prefer to be both understanding with others and creative in my admonitions for kitchen work.

In short, what you can do with all that salt, fat, and sugar in processed foods is spread them out, dilute them, add healthy stuff to them so that they no longer dominate (nor, to be blunt, imperil) a dish.

I once was staring at a bag of Spanish potato chips flavored with black truffle. Would they taste delicious one after the other, as a snack? Betcha. Crushed up, would they be even tastier than panko or regular breadcrumbs on some baked chicken tenders? Betcha plus.

Another time, I looked at some jars of pre-made soup and the thought occurred that, in the main, they’re exactly like leftovers, soup made one day to be eaten the next. Tuscan Italians have a great next-day dish that they call “ribollita,” which means “re-boiled”—close to the recipe’s directions in their entirety.

Let’s say that a single serving of some processed food, say boxed macaroni and cheese, contains 50% of the recommended daily allowance of sodium. If you tinker with that serving and stretch it out with fresh or frozen vegetables into two servings, then each serving now has 25% of the daily value for sodium. And so on.

Read more get cooking tips from Bill St. John.

A frozen dinner entrée in the Indian way, heavy on the sodium and even sugar? Top it with two or three soft-boiled eggs and some roasted cashews, add more cooked rice, then split it down the middle for two servings instead of one. Half the trouble that you started with.

To ramen packets and their flavorings, add fresh or frozen vegetables such as nibble carrots or baby bok choy. Stretch a frozen cheese pizza with toppings of baby spinach, fresh mushrooms, sliced red bell peppers.

My overall point is that the can opener isn’t opening a can of worms; it’s opening a can of possibilities.

Chicken breast paillards

Choose the potato chips for this recipe based on whatever flavorings they advertise; “barbecue” adds BBQ flavor, “jalapeño,” that flavor, and so on. Makes 2-3 servings


2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
2 big handfuls regular (not baked or fat-free) potato chips
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, whisked
2 tablespoons ghee or clarified butter
2 tablespoons flavorful extra-virgin olive oil

Place 1 chicken breast between 2 pieces of plastic wrap (or inside a clean plastic bag) and pound to an even thickness of 1/3 inch with a meat mallet or the bottom of a strong-walled pint glass. Repeat with second chicken breast. Crush the potato chips well and add the black pepper to taste, stirring it in well.

Arrange three plates side by side, with the flour in the first, the eggs in the second, and the crushed chips mix in the third. Lightly dredge both sides of each chicken breast in the flour, then in the eggs and then the chips, pressing down on the chips so that they adhere. Over medium-high heat, melt the ghee or butter, add the oil, and sauté the paillards 5-6 minutes on each side or until slightly browned and cooked through yet still juicy.

(You also may cook the chicken paillards in the oven, avoiding the fat of the frying pan by omitting the butter or ghee and the olive oil. After the dredging steps, place the paillards on a cake cooling rack that is itself set atop a metal sheet pan covered with aluminum foil. Roast them in a preheated, 350-degree oven for 18-20 minutes.)

Canned soup ribollita

One of the greats in the repertoire of Italian soups is ribollita, a heartily dense Tuscan soup. It is one day’s leftover minestrone or bean soup that is reheated the next day using the addition of chunks of stale bread. Makes 4 large or 6 medium servings.


2-3 large- or medium-sized jars or cans vegetable-based soup (bean, minestrone, lentil, etc.)
Chunks of stale hearty crusted bread
1/2 to 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/4 to 1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Flavorful extra-virgin olive oil

Heat the soups until very hot. Add as much of the bread as you like, knowing that it will stretch out the soups’ many flavors but also sop up a good deal of the soup’s liquid. Keep the soup somewhat moist; it’s enjoyable that way.

Top each serving with generous spoonfuls of the cheese and parsley, as well as big swirls of the olive oil.

You may reach Bill St John at [email protected]

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.