A lot has changed in the world of nutrition since you were a kid. Moms back-in-the-day may not have been aware that many childhood favorites weren't exactly good for us. From bologna and other processed deli meats loaded with nitrites, saturated fat and carcinogens, to processed snack foods rich in artificial colors and hydrogenated oils, to refined white carbs and sugary desserts – we now know these foods wreak havoc on our health. Read on to find out which foods mom served that you should avoid in your house today and how you can make some of those old favorites more nutritious.
1. Boxed Macaroni and Cheese
If on busy nights dinner came from a box, you're not alone. Boxed dinners were a go-to at the end of a long day, and that dinner was often in the form of orange, powdered cheese food and white macaroni noodles. According to the USDA, a 1-cup serving of boxed macaroni and cheese has 16 grams of fat, of which 3.5 grams are unhealthy saturated fats. One serving also offers nearly 670 milligrams of sodium, which is more than one-quarter of the 2,300-milligram adequate intake set by the Institute of Medicine. If you must make mac and cheese, eschew the box; use whole-grain noodles and organic, farm-raised cheese, suggests consulting nutritionist Carole M. Farina. Add spinach and other veggies to boost the nutritional value, and guilt be gone!
2. TV Dinners
There's really nothing appetizing about overcooked meat and vegetables smothered in gravy and served in a foil tray, yet TV dinners always seemed like such a treat. What makes them so bad? Aside from the gratuitous amounts of fat and sodium, consulting nutritionist Carole M. Farina explains that they're too high in starchy carbs, like potatoes and corn. "There's not enough green beans or carrots or mixed vegetables in it," Farina says. "You are going to be hungry in an hour because it gives you too many carbohydrates and not enough fiber and protein to satisfy you." As for healthier frozen meal options, Farina advises to make your own. Prepare meat, vegetables and whole grains, pack the individual meals in airtight containers and freeze them.
Related: The Best (And Worst!) Frozen Meals
3. Microwave Popcorn
Diacetyl, butyric acid, acetoin, propylene glycol, 2-nonanone, triacetin, p-xylene and perfluorinated alcohol 8:2 telomer aren't ingredients in gasoline -- they're chemical compounds in a bag of microwave popcorn, some of which may be potential carcinogens researchers of a study published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition reported in 2007. If your favorite part of movie night was hovering over the bag inhaling the buttery steam, well, researchers of the study report that more than 80 percent of the chemicals are emitted when the bag is opened after popping. A more recent in vitro study (2012) also found that diacetyl may worsens the effects of a brain protein that links to Alzheimer's. To avoid this, ditch the bag and pop plain kernels in a pot on the stove. Once popped, top with a little olive oil and sea salt.
4. Canned Soups
One cup of a canned bean and ham soup has about 1,000 milligrams of sodium, and nearly half of its fat content is saturated. Even more worrisome are findings from a small Harvard study that showed that people who consumed a serving of canned soup once a day for five days experienced more than a 1,000-percent increase in urinary levels of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in food packaging that has been linked to birth defects. Researchers of the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in November 2011, reported that the urinary concentrations of BPA following canned soup consumption were "among the most extreme reported in a nonoccupational setting." Choose low-sodium soup in a box or make your own.
5. Hot Dogs
A study published in American Journal of Epidemiology in November 2009 reported that increased processed meat intake is linked with increased incidence of prostate cancer. And more recent research found that eating a hot dog a day, increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 21 percent. In addition to unhealthy levels of saturated fat, hot dogs also contain preservatives called nitrites, which the researchers say play a role in the formation of N-nitroso compounds, a group of potential carcinogens. If your mom grilled your hot dogs, she set you up for a double whammy: researchers also reported a link between grilled meat consumption and cancer. Opt for unprocessed meat, and work on reducing your red meat intake.
6. Sloppy Joes
Remember Sloppy Joes? Greasy ground beef, mixed with ketchup or canned tomato sauce, onions and seasonings (mostly salt) oozing out of a bun made from refined white flour. Or maybe your mom was the type who turned to powdered seasoning mixes? Either way, that thing was loaded with fat and sodium, with barely a vegetable to be found. Try a modern update by mixing lean ground beef -- or ground turkey -- with lots of veggies and even some fiber-rich beans to lighten it up. Use salt sparingly, and add other flavorful spices such as paprika instead to lower your sodium intake. Serve it open-faced on a whole-grain bun with a side salad.
7. Fried Chicken
Whether you preferred the drumstick or the wing, that battered and deep-fried comfort food you may have grown up with was detrimental to your health. Two battered and fried drumsticks have almost 13 grams of fat, with 3.5 grams of artery-clogging saturated fat and 87 milligrams of blood pressure-raising sodium. Depending on what your mom fried them in, they may have also been rich in trans fats, which are linked with a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes. For a healthier dish reminiscent of mom's Sunday dinners, opt for removing the skin, coating the chicken lightly with a mixture of buttermilk, spices and whole-wheat flour and oven-baking it.
8. Flavored Gelatin
That gelatinous, brightly-colored dessert that graced party tables in various forms -- molds, salads and parfaits -- and soothed sick kids is no more than "sugar, sugar, sugar," says consulting nutritionist Carole M. Farina. "Why do we eat this?" Why, indeed. A quick peek at the ingredients list reveals some shocking truths: it's nothing more than artificially-flavored gelatin, which is made from animal by-products. Bet you didn't know that as a kid! While it does offer almost 2 grams of protein per serving, it provides nothing else besides empty calories from sugar -- no vitamins, minerals or fiber. For a healthier nostalgic treat, make your own naturally flavored "gelatin" with Agar-Agar and with fresh fruit. Agar-Agar, is a gelling agent made from seaweed (yes, it's vegan!).
9. Instant Mashed Potatoes
Anything that is supposed to be a root vegetable that shows up as flakes in a box, loaded with sodium and without the fiber-rich skin deserves some questioning. On top of that, you're instructed to add margarine, which is supposed to make them somewhat edible. Try this instead: boil a potato or sweet potato, once cooked let it cool just enough to peel it. Then, mash it with a little bit of olive or coconut oil and a pinch of sea salt. It does take longer than mixing up a batch of the instant kind, but it offers far more wholesome nutrition.
Related: 16 Diet-Friendly Healthful Carbs
Kids always looked forward to fondue night. What could be better than dipping hunks of bread in a pot full of gooey cheese? But when it comes to your health, almost anything is better for you. Depending on the way mom made fondue, that pot of cheese may have contained hundreds of grams of fat and more than a day's worth of sodium. What's more, the refined French bread she served it with did nothing to satisfy your hunger or keep you feeling full, so you were probably ready to snack again an hour after dinner. According to the USDA, a serving of cheese is 1.5 ounces. If you have a need for cheese that you just can't deny, try melting a small amount of an organic cheese over a couple apple slices or a slice of whole-grain bread.
11. Breakfast Toaster Pastries
Your mom may have made use of toaster pastries on busy mornings, as it was easy to just pop them in the toaster and go. Since they are basically just dough and a little bit of sugary fruit filling topped with icing, just one of these frozen, store-bought pastries provides more than 16 grams of sugar and has few other redeeming qualities. If you need something sweet in the morning, spread almond butter on a piece of whole-grain bread and top it with some banana or strawberry slices.
Related: 15 Reasons To Kick Sugar Now
12. Sweet Potatoes Topped with Marshmallows
Here's a really good way to ruin a perfectly healthy food: mix it with butter and sugar and top it with marshmallows. That's exactly what some moms used to do when they made this favorite that often showed up during the holiday season. The butter and sugar is bad enough, but marshmallows, which are nothing but animal byproducts mixed with sugar, should never go anywhere near your mouth. Instead, roast sweet potatoes in olive or coconut oil and mix with generous amounts of cinnamon, a spice which consulting nutritionist Carole M. Farina says brings out the sweetness of foods so that you don't have to add sugar. If you must increase the sweetness, registered dietitian Nicole White recommends a little drizzle of organic raw honey or maple syrup.
13. Birthday Cake Made from a Packaged Cake Mix
In the late 1940s, Betty Crocker and Pillsbury both came out with a new convenience for people who wanted an easier way to make homemade cakes: boxed cake mix. The primary ingredient in these mixes is sugar, however they are also loaded with artificial colors, artificial flavors, monoglycerides and diglycerides, thickening agents, and preservatives. Want to serve up something healthier for your own little ones today? Ditch the packaged cake mix and the canned frosting, and make your own from scratch using healthy ingredients and minimal sugar or a sugar substitute.
Related: 15 Reasons To Kick Sugar Now
14. Conventional Peanut Butter and Jelly on White Bread
The perennial lunchbox favorite of kids, PB&J isn't all it's cracked up to be. Take white bread that's been refined with all the fiber removed, top it with peanut butter made with hydrogenated oil and sugary jelly and you have a calorie- and simple-carb bomb that will wreak havoc on blood sugar levels. But that doesn't mean you have to forsake good old PB&J, says registered dietitian Nicole White, who suggests an open-faced sandwich on whole-grain bread with all-natural peanut, almond or walnut butter and no-sugar-added fruit preserves or sliced bananas.
15. Canned Meat
You may never find out what's actually in canned meat, but a serving has nearly 6 grams of saturated fat and nearly 800 milligrams of sodium. That's about one-fourth of the American Heart Association's recommended daily limit for saturated fat for a person on a 2,000-calorie diet and one-third of the 2,300-milligram adequate intake for sodium set by the Institute of Medicine. The bad news: there is no healthy substitute for canned meat. Eating any kind of processed meat increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes, reports the Harvard School of Public Health. Eat meat in moderation, and go for cuts that you can actually recognize as part of an animal, recommends consulting nutritionist Carole M. Farina.
What Do YOU Think?
Did we miss your favorite childhood food on our list? Were any of these your favorite meals as a kid? Do you still make any of them today? Do you have a recipe you use to make it healthier? Leave a comment below and let us know!
Related: How to Ditch Comfort Food
- USDA National Nutrient Database
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Americans Consume Too Much Sodium (Salt)
- American Heart Association: Trans Fats
- American Heart Association: Know Your Fats
- USDA: Food Guide Pyramid Serving Sizes
- Harvard Health Publications: Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load for 100+ Foods
- Ask Dr. Sears: Harmful Effects of Excess Sugar
- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: Bisphenol A (BPA)
- Eating Well: Oven-fried Chicken
- MyFitnessPal: Jell-O (Jello) - Gelatin Dessert - Black Cherry
- Mother Earth Living: Microwave Popcorn Lined with Carcinogenic Chemical