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Healthy Home Cooking: Recipes to Replace Packaged Products

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Skip the pre-made cans and boxes at the store. Instead, try these easy homemade recipes for healthy alternatives to packaged fare! Cooking at home isn’t difficult and it almost always tastes better.

Read more about learning to cook when you never learned how, here.

cheesy casserole in a white dish - example of easy cooking at home

Basing my assumptions on a trip through the grocery store, it looks like much of America begins the process of “cooking” with something that comes in a box or a can. Mother Nature does not produce food that comes contained in a box; this is purely a human invention to a) speed up the process of getting dinner on the table and b) make tons of money for the company that produces the product.

Home cooking, it is not.

Cooking at home

Cooking from scratch is really very easy, and I’ve found that once I learn a new recipe, it doesn’t take that much longer than using the store bought shortcuts. The deal is, you have to make a recipe several times before it becomes as second nature as opening a box or can.

Wondering what recipes you can switch to homemade without losing hours of time to prep work? I’ve eliminated these convenience items from my cupboard with very little trouble by swapping them with some easy homemade recipes.

Stack of three easy pumpkin pancakes on a white plate with syrup - example of easy cooking at home

Pancake mix

I grew up on Bisquick and Krusteaz pancakes, but started making my own from scratch twenty or more years ago and never looked back. Easy homemade recipes for pancakes from my Betty Crocker cookbook might take me a full minute longer to follow the recipe than to start with a mix. I’d link to Betty’s recipe here, but her online version now calls for…Bisquick. Betty, Betty, Betty!

Instead, mix up a batch of this easy pancake mix so you’ll have it ready when you need it. These pumpkin pancakes and persimmon pancakes are easy to make, too.

Frozen waffles

Sure frozen waffles are easy. But homemade waffles are so much better. Plus, you can make extra and freeze them! Try these:

homemade granola in a white ceramic bowl

Cereal

I won’t lie to you and tell you we’re 100% cereal free. I do splurge and buy an industrial size box of cereal for my kids a couple of times a year. And when I go out of town? My husband’s dirty little secret is that he heads to the grocery store to buy a box of raisin bran. But other than those few times when we deviate from our usual routine, homemade granola is our go-to breakfast cereal.

3 glass jars of homemade mustard - example of easy cooking at home

Healthy homemade condiments

We’ve become accustomed to buying jars full of our favorite flavors, but many condiments are easy to make at home. Start with mustard (it’s the easiest) and work your way up to mayonnaise, peanut butter, and more.

Pudding

I was well into my twenties before it even occurred to me that there must have, once upon a time, been someone who made pudding without the aid of a box. This homemade chocolate pudding recipe is excellent and a great way to use up milk that’s starting to turn. It’s easy, but it does take some stove top stirring time – it’s not instant. Cooking recipes like this at home isn’t difficult, but it can take a bit more time.

easy spanish rice in a brown pottery bowl with a tomato wedge and sour cream

Fancy pants rice

Early in my marriage I did use these boxes of rice, because my new husband loved them. No more. If we want a rice dish, I’ll usually make a healthy homemade risotto, but Spanish rice is another of the rice dishes we make.

bowl of homemade refried beans with more bowls of cilantro and chopped onion on a teal background

Cooking dried beans

Canned beans are easy, and I like having some in my emergency supplies and I can store a lot of dry beans in a smaller space. Here’s what you need to know about cooking dry beans from scratch. Cooking dried beans at home saves a bundle, too.

I use dry beans to make homemade chili and in my family’s favorite refried beans. If you’ve got a pressure canner, you can make your own canned beans for easy, fast meals. If you’re a fan of baked beans, skip the can and try this easy homemade recipe for homemade baked beans.

Salad dressing

Homemade salad dressing is not hard to make. It’s just a matter of breaking the habit of buying bottled dressing. This is not even really cooking at home; it’s more like mixing and assembling at home. In other words, easy!

roasted tomato soup with kale sprinkled on top; brown pottery bowls

Cooking soup at home

Soup is one of the easiest and most frugal things you can make homemade. You can use a recipe for making soup, but once you’ve made it yourself a number of times, I suspect you’ll find yourself making soup from all of the bits and bobs of veggies that are beginning to wilt in the fridge. In fact, that’s what soup is especially good at! It’s a great way to utilize produce that’s nearing its shelf life.

homemade pizza with sausage and red peppers up close - example of easy cooking at home

Related: Easy Supermarket Products You Can Make at Home

Cooking pizza at home

If you keep frozen pizza in the freezer for “emergencies” or buy those plastic-wrapped Boboli breads (something I was guilty of long ago), consider learning to make your own pizza dough. Truly, it’s an easy homemade recipe to learn to make. And just think of the waste you’ll eliminate, not to mention the higher quality of food your family will be ingesting.

baked portuguese sweet bread rolls

Cooking bread at home

Okay, homemade bread takes a little bit more of a commitment. But if you buy sandwich bread regularly, you might want to give this foolproof sandwich bread recipe a try.

Pre-cut vegetables

Come on, people. Cutting vegetables is not hard. Buying your vegetables wrapped in plastic (I’m looking at you, Trader Joe’s!) is an affront to sensibility. I know it’s fast and easy, but if you’re working toward more homemade fare, this is a great place to start. Grab a knife and cut the veggies you’ll need for the week and keep them in the fridge. They’ll be ready when you need them!

(Note that I didn’t actually eliminate this habit, because I never started buying my vegetables pre-cut.)

Off the top of my head, those are the packaged foods that we’ve eliminated over the years.

8 Kitchen Skills to Know for Fearless Cooking

What about you? What boxed or canned product have you eliminated in favor of homemade? What product do you think you can work on eliminating to create a more sustainable diet?

Originally published in April 2011; this post has been updated.

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Meet the Author

Kris Bordessa

Kris Bordessa founded Attainable Sustainable as a resource for revitalizing vintage skills. Her book, Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living (National Geographic) offers a collection of projects and recipes to help readers who are working their way to a more fulfilling DIY lifestyle.

41 comments… add one
  • Patricia Apr 13, 2011, 8:08 am

    Great post, I’ll need to share this one on my FB page. I feel I’m on my way towards purer food offerings for my kids, but I know I still have a long way to go.

    Ironic you chose a hamburger helper box for your example. I did this series of blog posts expressly about Hamburger Helper (AKA The Culinary Devil) in May 2010:

    1.) Kids begged me to buy Hamburger Helper: https://vollmerdp.blogspot.com/2010/05/what-does-natural-taste-like.html
    2.) We made/tasted said Hamburger Helper: https://vollmerdp.blogspot.com/2010/05/hypothesis-successful.html
    3.) A week later, I made a much-better HOMEMADE “Hamburger Helper”-like dinner: https://vollmerdp.blogspot.com/2010/05/homemade-hamburger-helper-its-pretty_08.html

    I don’t buy Bisquik anymore (I know the homemade pancake/waffle/biscuit recipes by heart!), and the only rice I ever buy is 10 lb. sacks of “Hinode” or “Mahatma” brand plain long or medium grain rice. I will flavor it myself, although I don’t usually even have to do much. My family likes it with stir fry.

    Homemade “home fries” with herbs and EVOO instead of frozen french fries.

    Always homemade mashed potatoes. Prepackaged stuff always tastes like chemicals to me.

    I also buy whole roaster or fryer chickens and dissect them myself. Cheaper, fresher, less packaging. I haven’t quite graduated to buying bulk-hunks of beef or pork, but I can see that in our future.

    I’m guilty of keeping a pizza in the freezer for “emergencies” but to be honest we only have frozen pizza 1-2x per year.

    I’ll see commercials for the SunSweet brands “Ones” prunes and want to throw a brick at the TV: https://www.sunsweet.com/products/ones.html. Prunes are awesome, but they DO NOT have to be individually wrapped.

    I also have issues with the 100 Calorie Packs of assorted foods. Also a packaging nightmare. And a cost scam.

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 14, 2011, 7:43 am

      Patricia, I can remember as a kid begging my mom for Hamburger Helper! She never gave in, so I can honestly say I’ve never tried it. And I totally agree about the individually packaged prunes/100 calorie snacks!

  • MyKidsEatSquid Apr 13, 2011, 8:43 am

    Thanks for these reminders–I do better some weeks than others. I like making my own pizza dough, but recently I’ve been picking up dough from a local Italian store near my house.

  • Jennifer Margulis Apr 13, 2011, 9:10 am

    The one I do on and off is homemade bread. All these others we adhere to. I’ve also tried to make my own cereal but I thought it tasted terrible! (Our neighbor loved it) So we eat raw oats these days instead (and sometimes buy a big bag of fruit sweetened organic cornflakes.) I guess I’d add soups to this list– homemade are so much better. And ice cream! We’ve been making our own when we can, instead of buying cartons.

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 14, 2011, 7:41 am

      Yes, my soups are always homemade too. It’s so ingrained for me to make homemade soups that I didn’t even think of that as a “change” I’ve made. Been doing it for eons! Bread is a tough one for us. I *really* want to eliminate those plastic bread bags, but we go through So Much Bread. I will make it on occasion, too, but just can’t seem to keep up with our needs. It’s one of the things I’m working on getting better about.

      • Dawn Umfleet Jan 30, 2014, 3:44 pm

        It may be only a small change, but I learned from my grandmother how to recycle the bread bags.  Once rinsed and dried, she would flatten them out and roll them up like how trash bags come.  Then when ever you needed a smaller bag, you had them on the ready.  One of her favorite things to use them was to fill them up with ice and make mini portable ice bags.  Tons of other uses as well!

      • nancy Jan 30, 2014, 4:43 pm

        If ou make sure to have 6-8 bread pans, you can make several loaves at one time like I did when kids were little.  Then freeze thm!

      • Carol Moseley Jan 31, 2014, 8:10 am

        Bread is an Easy change! It only takes about 30 mins. to make it up and the rest of time is rising (while you’re doing other things) I Never buy store bread anymore. Our children are grown and the recipe I use makes 2 loaves ~ I guess it would be more inconvenient if the kids were still at home? I’d be happy to send you my favorite white bread recipe if you’d like so you can try it.

        And Thanks for the excellent post & FB page! 🙂

      • Jane Feb 3, 2017, 10:46 am

        I have been making an amish white bread ( lately mixing a bit of rye and whole wheat) and my recipe makes four loaves. I put two in the freezer, which we use for toasts and the other two we eat fresh. It has saved me a lot of time and money too. The other day I didnt bake because of the heat ( Summer here in South American) and I got a store bought sandwich bread. Well, many complaints… so I needed to get my act together and stocked the freezer.
        I enjoy your posts and have been implementing your ideas. Thank you!

  • Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi Apr 13, 2011, 9:28 am

    I do some of these but need to do more. Especially making more of my own cereals. On the To Do list!

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 14, 2011, 7:39 am

      And I’m sure when you get to that to-do list, you’ll share your results on your blog!

  • sheryl Apr 13, 2011, 9:52 am

    This is such a great post. And so sensible, too. You’re right – it only takes minutes more to make your own. I used to be so sucked in by time-saving, “easy” preps, until I realized that these are also the most unhealthy preps. I’d rather do my own as much as possible, thus eliminating all the salt and preservatives. No more canned fruit; only fresh. No more canned soups; homemade is the way to go. And like you, I’ve always washed and cut up my own veggies.

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 14, 2011, 7:38 am

      Here’s what I’ve realized: more sustainable living results *automatically* in healthier living and more frugal living. Win, win, win!

  • NoPotCoooking Apr 13, 2011, 10:05 am

    I hate canned soup. I think it tastes awful, so I try to make soup and freeze it in small portion size quantities.

    The thing about most of these prepared items is that they contain chemicals you would never in a million years use when making it at home.

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 14, 2011, 7:37 am

      Funny. I was raised on canned soup, and truth be told, I actually love Campbell’s vegetable beef soup. I don’t buy it though; all of our soups are homemade, always.

      • nancy Jan 30, 2014, 4:45 pm

        I try to make food homemade, but I do like Campbells Tomatp soup.  

  • Alisa Bowman Apr 13, 2011, 2:12 pm

    I’ve been trying to eliminate most boxed, canned and packaged foods. I can’t live without some of them (flour, sugar, milk), but I’ve found that most of them really are not that hard to make from scratch. We’re just out of practice. Your pancake mix is a great example. Hardly takes any time at all and tastes tons better.

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 14, 2011, 7:36 am

      I know that our flour is “packaged” and purchased from afar, but I consider it a staple ingredient. If I can eliminate pancake mix, boxed cake mixes, boxed muffin mixes, frozen desserts, etc by keeping a (paper) bag or two of flour on hand, it’s a good swap in my opinion.

  • Alexandra Apr 13, 2011, 3:05 pm

    I learned to do this in France, because none of these mixes were available when I moved there in 1969. I still cook from scratch, and find it hard to understand anyone who doesn’t, although mixes have now reached France, too, from what I hear. What has changed with my cooking is that I try to use organic foods, and avoid GMOs whenever possible.

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 14, 2011, 7:34 am

      Isn’t it unfortunate that these mixes and packaged foods are making their way to countries that have been, up until recently, eating wholesome, packaging-free food??

  • Living Large Apr 14, 2011, 2:59 am

    It’s amazing how we all get used to doing something one way. I grew up on boxed mixes, I don’t have a clue how to make a cake from scratch. A friend of mine who only cooks from scratch and eats only organic food, tried an organic muffin mix. She had to make 3 of them to get it right, she had no idea how to cook from a box! 🙂 I’m making more things from scratch now. But it sure is tempting to throw that frozen pizza in the freezer and use it on days I’m stressed and pressed for time.

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 14, 2011, 7:32 am

      I grew up with boxed mixes for making cakes, too. I first tried to make a cake from scratch about 20 years ago. It failed miserably and I went back to boxed. As time passed, though, I became less and less willing to eat the unpronounceable ingredients in boxed cake mixes, so tried again. I had really good luck with this recipe: https://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Jans-Chocolate-Cake/Detail.aspx. Coffee instead of water makes it divine!

      • Jane Apr 14, 2011, 8:39 am

        My daughter and I are taking a cake decorating class together. (she dreams of owning a vegan bakery) In our first class, the instructor demonstrated how to make a cake and frosting. Both my daughter and I cringed as she proceeded to dump cups of crisco, powdered sugar, and artificial flavorings and colorings into the mixing bowls. It was a completely “ah-ha moment” for us as we realized what really is in those cute little boxes of cake mix at the store. We eat very well overall as a family, but never thought twice about picking up a cake mix and frosting for a birthday. Not anymore!

        • Kris Bordessa Apr 17, 2011, 6:54 am

          Well, cakes are certainly not a healthy option, but Crisco is something I just don’t use. I use butter in my frosting instead. No artificial coloring/flavoring of course!

  • Jane Apr 14, 2011, 8:30 am

    Cooking from scratch is totally empowering and not as much effort as many people think it will be. The food is healthier and tastes much better.

  • Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart Apr 14, 2011, 9:26 am

    Ok, so I’m guilty as charged on some of these fronts, but I do make waffles from scratch. I do know how to make pudding from scratch (and often do to go inside homemade cream puffs … even though, it seems, people at parties assume I bought them from the freezer case and just thawed them out).

    For years I tried to convince myself that pasta sauce in jars was just as good, but I had time to make it from scratch recently and remembered just how wrong I was.

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 14, 2011, 9:51 am

      Since I haven’t had a garden, and thus home canned tomatoes/marinara in a year, I’ve had to come up with a viable alternative. I buy organic marinara sauce in glass jars (plain tomatoes all come in bpa-laden cans) and use that as my tomato “base.” I saute my onions/garlic/peppers/meat (if using) and then stir in a jar or two of marinara. It’s a passable substitute for completely homemade.

  • Heather Anderson Apr 14, 2011, 6:31 pm

    We make all of our own bread and never buy cereal except for a rare treat. We do a lot of our own canning and freezing too. The one thing I had a hard time replacing in casseroles and soups was cream of mushroom soup. But I found a great recipe that works great for me, so no more cream of mushroom cans from the store.

  • sarah henry Apr 15, 2011, 10:40 am

    Sound advice. We make our granola and pancakes from scratch but my kid still prefers “box” tomato soup to my home-made version, much to my dismay. But then I remember growing up I had a fondness for canned asparagus and pineapple, neither of which I eat now. I think of them as entirely different foods to their fresh original.

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 17, 2011, 6:47 am

      I’ve yet to find a tomato soup recipe that holds up to Campbell’s myself! 😉 It’s just not something that’s on the menu anymore.

  • Darci Baker Apr 16, 2011, 12:08 pm

    Mahalo for the instpiration, Kris! We’re trying. With such a busy lifestyle, sometimes these things save us.

    We’ve practically eliminated buying eggs since getting our hens. I know….not homemade, but I was looking at the store-bought-foods-to-eliminate list. LOL Only in the winter do we buy because our girls just stop. =)

    I am still trying to tweak my kim chee recipe so I’m not buying kim chee. I know….not an essential, but when I eat stew, my family will go through an entire bottle!!! LOL

    Got a long ways to go, but gotta start somewhere. Thanks again!

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 17, 2011, 6:46 am

      Darci, eggs! Those totally count. And when you get that kim chee recipe fine-tuned? Please share!

  • merr Apr 19, 2011, 11:05 am

    This is great…I love the links and roundup. More and more the prepackaged stuff had just lost its appeal. Fresher is better. I’d like to know a good veggie cutter, though. I have a Chop Wizard https://www.chopwizard.com/ for cubing certain foods (it is awesome!) but would like to know of other devices for larger volumes, too. Any suggestions?

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 19, 2011, 5:19 pm

      You really like your Chop Wizard? I’ve seen those ads and wondered if it could really work that well. I have a Zyliss chopper for small quantities, but actually use the pulse feature on my food processor if I need to chop lots of veggies in a hurry.

  • Amanda Richards Apr 26, 2011, 8:16 am

    We make everything from scratch here. In the fall, I glean apples, peaches and pears, and can them into slices, sauce and cider. I remember bringing home bottles and bottles of applesauce from Costco, ugh. My kids HATE Kraft mac & cheese, they actually cry when I tried serving it to them (I was preggo and craving it, lol). I have a bread machine and make all my dough in it (I use the oven to bake it, though, as we live off-grid and cooking it in the machine takes too much electricity). I make our own cheese and yogurt from our dairy animals. I buy spices in bulk and grow my own herbs.

  • April Aug 9, 2011, 9:55 am

    I make large quantities of cake mix and pancake mix and keep them in my pantry. I wrote about it on my blog a few years ago. I make most everything from scratch. It started bc of some food allergies with my son. Even though he’s outgrown them now, I still do it. I make everything from bread to crackers to tortillas (with olive oil instead of lard and they are AWESOME), granola bars, soups, and even corn dogs on rare occasion. It’s just habit now, and the store-bought stuff is just nowhere near as good. I’m excited about all the packaging we eliminate. I buy grains and things in superpails and then 50-lb bags to refill.

  • Barbee Aug 17, 2013, 7:28 am

    Making your own instead of buying the boxed items saves so much too on controlling salt and sugar content. So much healthier and costs less in the long run.

  • crafty_cristy Feb 10, 2014, 12:06 pm

    I actually love to make my own hot chocolate mix for the kids to have on cold days. I’ve been doing it for years. I also have a homemade mix for cream of (fill in the blank) soup I love. I have made it for about 10 years, and haven’t had to buy a single cream soup can in all that time. 🙂

  • Julie-Anne Apr 27, 2015, 4:46 pm

    I make my own bread (a no-knead recipe which I just love), herbed/spiced salt mixes, yoghurt, I bake cupcakes and muffins from scratch and freeze them for lunches. I make bacon and egg pie (I have made the pastry from scratch using Nigella’s recipe and it was lovely, but butter isn’t cheap, so I don’t always do that) and freeze that, too. I make my own chicken stock for risotto and freeze it in the right size to thaw and use. I make my own spreadable butter… There are probably other things, but that’s all I can think of at the moment. I never use boxed things, and I minimise canned goods. I always try to avoid ‘the numbers’ and boxed things have All The Numbers. (621, etc)

  • Natalie Oct 9, 2019, 2:56 am

    Great recipes! Looking forward to trying the homemade pancakes one! But where can I find the recipe for the casserole in the picture at the top of this post? It looks like potato & broccoli, but I’ve searched all over your site and can’t find it. Thank you!

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