You pop into Costco after work for a few necessities and the row of enticing prepared foods in the deli calls your name. It’s been a long day — wouldn’t it be nice to take a break from cooking tonight?
But if you’re like most of my clients, and heart health is a priority for you, do you have any good options there?
Earlier this week I took a stroll through our local Costco, snapping pictures of the ready-to-eat foods. Sorry to say, not much met my admittedly high criteria, but I have a few options for you.
It’s also fine occasionally to eat meals that don’t tick all the boxes. Of course! But I’m here to help you build up your heart-healthier food repertoire, so I’ll focus on that.
Please note that this review was not paid for by Costco or anyone else. We purchased any products we sampled and the opinions are strictly mine. I have no affiliation with Costco or anyone else in the food industry. I just like to write these reviews to help bring heart-healthy eating to real life for my readers.
Build a balanced plate at Costco
Just like with meal planning at home, we’re ideally looking for something like a half-plate of vegetables, whole versus refined grains, and fish or plant proteins – lentils, tofu, beans, etc. Chicken is okay too. And we’d want mostly unsaturated fats, with the added sugars and sodium reasonable.
It turns out the trickiest part of this in the Costco deli, as with most prepared foods, is the sodium, so I talk about it a lot below. The other components we can do!
How much sodium is too much?
World Health Organization (WHO) and Hypertension Canada guidelines suggest a limit of 2000 mg a day, so I often use the rule of thumb in home cooking of less than 500-600 mg sodium per meal.
For a dish prepared outside the home, 700-800 mg is more realistic, balancing with lower sodium the rest of the day. But keep in mind that restaurant meals often have 1500 mg of sodium or more. It’s all relative.
I know many people who still have healthy blood pressure and no heart problems don’t worry about sodium, and dissenting voices have caused confusion, but most of the science agrees that avoiding excessive sodium is important for health, cardiac and otherwise. We don’t need to ban salt altogether, but it does make sense to pay attention to it.
Unfortunately, many of the products in the Costco deli don’t divulge nutrition numbers like sodium. (They’re not required in Canada for food prepared onsite.) Third-party websites like Myfitnesspal list popular Costco products, but it’s hard to know how accurate and current they are, so the information below is from the local Costco deli manager, who was nice enough to help us out.
Start with veggies
Costco has an impressive selection of bagged salads that go well beyond lettuce, with nutritious veggies like kale, cauliflower, broccoli and even brussels sprouts! The salads and plain, pre-washed greens like spinach and spring greens are a brilliant start. We can all use someone to make veggies easier for us.
Most of the salads contain 300-400 mg of sodium per cup. Sounds reasonable until you see that’s only about 150 calories, not nearly enough to sustain a thriving human adult! You’re going to need more salad than the serving size indicates, and/or something else combined with it.
Most of the sodium will be in the dressing, with some in zesty accompaniments like cheese or olives. One option is to start with half the dressing and supplement with extra-virgin olive oil and lemon juice or a flavourful vinegar if needed. Same with the jazzy add-ons.
But no torturing yourself with dry, tasteless salad okay? If it needs more dressing, add a bit more! Eating food you enjoy is more sustainable, and if it gets those veggies into you, we’ll call it a win.
Which one is best? Most are pretty similar, so choose one you like. The Taylor Farms Creamy Dill Pickle, Asian Cashew, or Buffalo Blue are all fine. The deli-prepared Caesar salad is reportedly just 262 mg of sodium per 100 gram (~1 cup) serving, and you may recall I wrote last month about how Caesar salads aren’t that bad.
A couple of cautionary notes… The Inspired Salads Kickin’ Caprese cites the nutrition information for the whole package, so the sodium looks scandalous at 1570 mg. If we adjust to a 100 gram serving size like the other salads, it’s still on the high side: about 567 mg sodium.
The Greek Salad in the deli looks like it’s half feta cheese and olives, but apparently it’s being discontinued, so we won’t worry about that one.
The other concern is that the popular (and delicious) Eat Smart Sweet Kale salad kit is on the high side for sugar, with 12 grams (the equivalent of three teaspoons) of “free” sugar per cup, thanks to the sweet dressing and dried cranberries.
(Guidelines suggest most people aim for no more than 6-12 teaspoons a day, so, 3 is a lot for just a cup of salad.)
Any of those salads are a great basis for dinner though. You might just want to leave some of the some of the dressing and goodies for another day.
We sampled the Asian Cashew Salad last night and it had a lovely tangy dressing, with just a hint of sweetness. I used a little more than half of it and a little extra olive oil and rice vinegar. I pulled out the fried wontons and replaced with more cashews. Would definitely buy that one again.
Next to protein. Even a whole bag of salad with cashews won’t give us enough protein. What does Costco have for that?
If heart health is highest on your priority list, you might want to slide past the deli and look for canned black beans or chickpeas. Give them a good rinse and they’ll undoubtedly be lower in sodium than any of these other options, and with more fibre, magnesium, potassium. (Affordable too! ) Toss a few into your salad to round out the meal nicely.
For a fish option, you can usually find canned, ready-to-eat salmon, like this Ocean’s Wild Sockeye. It adds 160 mg of sodium, for a small (52 gram) serving, which still packs a respectable amount of protein (13 grams) plus omega-3 fats to boot.
Or if preferred, try canned tuna. People seem to especially love the Rio Mare Solid Light Tuna in Olive Oil, although it is higher in sodium, with 370 mg per (again small) 52 gram serving. If they used the same 100 gram serving size we see on the rotisserie chicken, it would be 712 mg of sodium!
Personally, I would pop a fillet of Costco’s beautiful steelhead trout into the frying pan and call that the protein. It’s as close to “ready-to-eat” as any fresh fish can be — so moist I often don’t bother with seasonings.
If you need more of a crowd-pleaser, the rotisserie chicken would likely be a win. Pass on the skin to keep the saturated fat down. The sodium is 350 mg for a 100 gram serving, so about the same as the regular (not oil-packed) canned tuna and salmon. With that plus a cup of salad you’d be at about the 700mg mark, so not unreasonable.
Even more convenient is this Fresh Additions fully cooked chicken breast. No nitrites or nitrates like most processed meat, but unfortunately the sodium is even higher, at 470 mg per 100 grams. (This one is lower than the Pinty’s brand at least.)
If you prefer this, or any other higher sodium option, you could combine with plain spinach or mixed greens. It’s all about balance, right? You have options.
Finally, next to the pre-cooked chicken breast I saw these Oh Naturel Spinach and Chickpea Patties. We haven’t tried them, but it’s a maybe nutrition-wise. We’re better off with minimally processed plant-based foods, like canned beans, but I know not everyone loves that. These do give you some protein (although not a lot!) and a bit of fibre and iron, for 260 mg sodium.
File this under “something fun if plant-based is important to you,” versus “super heart-healthy.”
For many of us, veggies and protein alone don’t quite feel like enough food. If you want add in some heart-healthy whole grains, there are a couple of options.
The Quinoa Salad in the deli combines chopped veggies with quinoa and bulgur (a wheat-based whole grain), as well as plant protein (lentils and mung beans).
Interestingly, Costco reports this one as having about 390 mg of sodium per cup, while other websites suggest that it’s much higher — 900 mg. (They may have changed the product over the years.)
This one we sampled, and the lemon on the dressing is very strong, a hint that they may have reduced the salt and went for flavour that way.
Not bad, but as others said in our Facebook community, it’s probably something I’d combine with chicken or fish. Maybe some feta cheese! (Sorry, that’s more sodium I know.) All by itself it I wasn’t loving it. Plus it needs more protein. (Just ~7 grams per cup.)
By the way, I have on good authority (my mom!) that it actually freezes well. She uses muffin tins to freeze it in small portions. A contributor in the Facebook group confirmed that she also freezes this in small batches, to add to soup. (Great idea!)
Another option is the Seeds of Change Quinoa and Brown Rice. I’ve had a few clients who like this. It comes in precooked, vacuum-sealed bags that you warm up in the microwave.
It’s 260 mg of sodium per serving though, and the label is a bit misleading. It gives us the nutrition for just a half-cup serving, but each pouch contains 1-1/3 cups. I know a lot of people who could comfortably eat that much rice, delivering more like 700 mg of sodium.
Not to be pedestrian, but a bag of plain brown rice or quinoa is much more affordable, and once you cook a batch, you can freeze that into little containers too. Almost as easy as bringing dinner home from Costco.
If you’re not in the mood for salad, the canned Sprague Organic Lentil Soup is an option. It’s surprisingly low in sodium for a soup, at 300 mg per cup or 478 mg for the whole can. And again, thanks to the lentils, a great source of fibre, protein, and other nutrients.
The other soup that caught my eye is the Kirkland Signature Chicken Tortilla Soup. It’s a bit higher in sodium, at 560 mg per cup, but still better than typical canned soups.
My trick with soup, for sodium, is to add frozen veggies and/or canned no-salt-added tomatoes, to dilute all that salt. If you’re not sure what to add, start with what’s on the label! In this case, some frozen corn, carrots, and a can of diced no-salt-added tomatoes would balance that sodium nicely and still leave you lots of flavour.
If you want a whole balanced meal really ready to go, you probably have your eye on something like the popular Chicken Tacos or Chicken Chow Mein in the deli, especially if you’re feeding a family.
Those are options for sure, but they do contain an awful lot of refined grains – white flour tortillas, noodles, rice, etc. Not ideal.
And again, higher in sodium. (The Chicken Chow Mein has 860 mg of sodium for a quarter of the package. Two Chicken Tacos are 1290 mg.)
You could absolutely grab something like that for your family though, and just go easy on the noodles or tortillas yourself. Pair with a salad and you’ve still got a quick, easy balanced meal.
I skipped anything with red meat for this review, but if you’re curious, just ask at your local Costco deli. They have the nutrition facts, they just don’t put them on the packages. Hmm…
For heart health, your best bet is to put together your own combo of a salad, protein, and perhaps whole grains.
For example (sodium in parentheses): 1 cup bagged salad with half the dressing and fixings (175mg), 52g canned sockeye salmon (160mg), tossed with 1/2 cup quinoa/brown rice (260mg) = 585mg sodium. Quite reasonable and nutritious (small) meal, if you’re not tasked with feeding teenagers.
But if that doesn’t quite grab you, one of these other options will do just fine. I always like to think a bit broader than strict nutrition when it comes to heart health.
Cooking something like this might give you time and energy for a walk in the evening, and that’s good for your heart too, right? Relaxing and taking the pressure off of yourself might lower your stress level, also important!
If you end up with a pretty good vs ideal meal, in terms of cardiac nutrition, but it enables these other things, I’d call it a win. You decide.
Other than the items mentioned, I haven’t tried many products from the Costco deli. Have you? Let us know what you thought in our free Sweet Spot Heart-Healthy Cooking Club Facebook group.
Questions about what did or didn’t make the list? Join me for a Facebook Live Q&A Wednesday, April 6, at 12pm.