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How to Choose Healthy Favorites Without Making Your Taste Buds Suffer

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Every day in this series, Sally Squires, whose Lean Plate Club column runs weekly in The Post's Health section, will offer tips on making nutritious and budget-conscious meals and snacks.

What's for dinner?" ricochets through every household daily. For many, the answer comes from the drive-through, not the kitchen. Yet stocking a few ingredients can increase the odds of whipping up a fast meal that's family-friendly, healthy and tasty.

Start with pasta. It doesn't spoil, and it's a favorite of all ages. Hodgson Mill Whole Wheat Spirals, Torino Whole Wheat Spaghetti and DaVinci Organic Sea Shells earn the top score -- three stars for best nutritional value -- from the Hannaford Bros. "Guiding Stars" program. The New England grocery chain assembled a team of scientists to develop a math l formula to rate 25,500 products on 21 measures. The most nutritious get three stars, the least nutritious get none -- 80 percent got no stars. (There are no Hannaford stores in the Washington area, but Hannaford's parent company, Delhaize Group, plans to introduce Guiding Stars to its Food Lion stores this year.)

Other good choices include Earth's Best Mini Cheese Ravioli (with Sesame Street's Grover on the box), Wacky Mac Veggie Spirals and Annie's Homegrown D.W. Whole Wheat Pasta & Alfredo. (Can't find these products in your grocery? Check Amazon.com, which sells cases of some that qualify for free shipping.)

For mac and cheese lovers, there's Kraft Whole Grain Macaroni and Cheese; Annie's Homegrown Totally Natural Arthur Macaroni & Cheese, or Bunny Pasta with Yummy Cheese. Whole Foods 365 Everyday Macaroni and Cheese is a bargain at about 99 cents and has nearly the same ingredients as Annie's for a fraction of the cost.

Tomato sauces vary, too. Vino de Milo Portobello Shiraz and Vito Marcello's Tomato Basil Marinara both earn the top rating of three stars. Coming in with two stars, signaling better nutritional value, are Ragu Fresh & Simple Tomato Basil and Prego 100% Natural Marinara.

Broiled or grilled burgers and chicken are a snap to make. Simply add fries from the frozen food section, for better nutrition than you'd get at the drive-through. Ian's Sweet Potato Fries have 70 calories per serving of seven chunky fries. They're low in sodium and fat, and provide nearly three times the daily intake of Vitamin A. Compare with Ore-Ida Extra Crispy Fast Food Fries, with about double the calories and fat, and nearly 10 times the sodium and no Vitamin A.

Other healthy options: Cascadian Farms Organic Shoe String French Fries, low in sodium and fat; and Alexia Organic Yukon Gold Julienne Fries, seasoned with a little sea salt and healthy sunflower or safflower oil. The freezer can also serve as your sous-chef. Healthy Choice Grilled Chicken with Smokehouse BBQ Sauce has 370 calories. Look for specials on frozen food, especially during summer. Another option: Kashi Southwest Style Chicken with 7 Whole-Grains Pilaf. At about $4 each, it's pricey, but packs just 240 calories and with plenty of whole grains to boot.

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