Are you looking to reduce the amount of Ultra Processed Food in your diet? But don’t want to spend hours in the kitchen stressing over long and complicated recipes? I’m here to help! Here are 20+ quick and easy UPF-free dinners, plus some bonus tips and advice to help you eat less Ultra Processed Food.
Ultra Processed People
Have you read Ultra Processed People* by Chris van Tulleken? I read this book a couple of months ago, and it has really changed the way I think about food.
While I have always preferred to eat ‘real’ food wherever possible, and I rarely eat junk food and ready meals, Ultra Processed People has really opened my eyes up to just how bad Ultra Processed Food (UPF) is for our health and why it is such a key driver of the obesity crisis. It was also really eye-opening to discover just how hard it is to avoid UPF these days and how many foods that are marketed as ‘healthy’ are, in fact, anything but!
If you haven’t read Ultra Processed People yet, I really recommend you do. It is truly eye-opening and explains so much!
What is UPF?
Ultra-Processed Food (UPF) is essentially food that you couldn’t make in an ordinary home kitchen. Typically, UPF contains ingredients that sound like they belong in a science lab, not a home kitchen, such as artificial flavourings, emulsifiers, colouring, stabilisers, acidity regulators, sweeteners and preservatives. If the ingredients list on the label of a food product features strange, chemical-sounding names, chances are it falls into the ultra-processed category.
UPF often also involves essentially deconstructing ‘normal’ food and reconstructing it again using chemical processes. This allows manufacturers to create foods that are cheaper and which have a much longer shelf life… But sadly, this ultra-processing has unintended negative consequences for our health.
Worse still, most UPF manufacturers use ingredients and processes to make food ‘hyper-palatable’, making UPF often highly addictive and overriding the body’s normal ability to stop eating when full – this is a key reason why UPF is contributing to the obesity-crisis many countries are facing.
Of course junk food, most ready meals and most shop-bought cakes, biscuits and snacks are UPF. But there are many foods that are typically seen as everyday staples, or even ‘healthy’ foods that are, in fact, UPF.
More surprising examples of Ultra Processed Foods include:
- Shop-bought bread
- Most breakfast cereals (even many of the so-called ‘healthy’ ones)
- Many snack foods marketed as ‘healthy’, such as granola bars
- Fruit-flavoured yogurts
- Many shop-bought soups
- Most shop-bought sandwiches
- Nearly all shop-bought sauces (pasta sauce, curry sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise, brown sauce, BBQ sauce, salad dressings etc.)
In fact, it’s estimated that UPF makes up 57% of the average UK diet – and as much as 80% for some people.
UPF-free and easy? Is that possible?
But perhaps you are worried that eating UPF-free food means spending hours in the kitchen stressing over long and complicated recipes? If so, I have good news. Quick and easy UPF-free recipes is my super power! (I’ve been cooking up quick and easy UPF-free recipes since before the term Ultra Processed Food was even invented!)
All the recipes below are quick and easy to make, but won’t disappoint on flavour, either. They are packed with delicious TRULY natural flavourings – like garlic, chilli, herbs and spices!
Can you go completely UPF-free?
As Ultra Processed People explains, UPF is so prevalent in our modern food that it is extremely difficult to go completely UPF-free.
While Chris van Tulleken decided to completely eliminate UPF from his diet, many nutrition experts advise that a much easier and less frustrating route (and one you are more likely to stick to long term!) is to aim to REDUCE your consumption of UPF, rather than try to eliminate it altogether.
Some of the recipes below include small amounts of UPF (usually a stock cube, or a small amount of mayonnaise, balsamic vinegar or mustard). If you are going for the ‘reduce’, rather than ‘eliminate’ approach, then it’s fine to carry on using stock cubes, mayonnaise, mustard etc. Though I recommend looking for good quality, minimally processed versions that contain the least amount of additives possible.
However, if you want to completely eliminate UPF from your diet, I have given extra tips for making the recipes completely UPF free, where necessary. (For example, making your own stock from scratch instead of using a stock cube.)
20+ Quick and Easy UPF-Free Dinner Recipes
Whether or not you have read the book, if you are looking to reduce the amount of Ultra Processed Food in your diet, I am here to help. I have compiled a bumper list of 20+ quick and easy UPF-free dinners. Plus you’ll find some bonus tips and advice at the bottom of this article, to help you eat less ultra processed food this year.
Easy Carrot and Butternut Squash Soup
One of the easiest UPF-free dinners to make is homemade soup. Made simply from vegetables, stock, herbs and spices, this Easy Carrot and Butternut Squash Soup is not only unprocessed, it’s packed with nutritional goodness, it counts as 3 of your 5 a day and only contains 167 calories per serving!
If you are going for the ‘reduce’, rather than ‘eliminate’ approach, then it’s fine to use a vegetable stock cube. Just make sure you use a good quality one that is as unprocessed as possible. (I like the Kallo Organic brand.) If you are trying to completely eliminate UPF from your diet, then you will need to make homemade vegetable stock from scratch.
Be sure to serve your homemade soup with homemade bread, as most shop-bought bread is UPF.
Easy Chicken Dhansak
Shop-bought curries are pretty much always UPF. But the good news is, you don’t have to give up curry if you want to go UPF-free! Homemade curry, makes a great UPF-free meal.
This Easy Chicken Dhansak is a huge favourite on Easy Peasy Foodie and contains only ‘real’ ingredients, like onions, peppers, garlic, spices, tomatoes, lentils and chicken.
The only ingredient you will need to double check is the coconut milk. Coconut milk is often UPF, but you can get coconut milk that only contains water and coconut. Alternatively, buy creamed coconut (which is usually 100% coconut) and turn it into coconut milk with boiling water.
Serve with homemade pilau rice, to ensure the rice is UPF-free too!
Homemade Nando’s Chicken Butterfly
Nando’s on a UPF-free diet? You betcha! I have dozens of UPF-free homemade versions of Nando’s classics on this website, like this delicious Homemade Nando’s Chicken Butterfly, which is made using herbs, spices, lime juice and chicken – no UPF in sight!
Serve with one or more of my UPF-free homemade Nando’s sides for the complete experience – I recommend the Spiced Grains and Butternut Squash and the Garlic and Lemon Long-Stemmed Broccoli. But, if your favourite Nando’s side is chips, you are in luck – I even have UPF-free chips!
(NOTE: a couple of my homemade Nando’s recipes do contain small amounts of UPF – for example, mayonnaise, but they are easy to sub out, if you want to go totally UPF-free.)
Beef Mince Fried Rice
Fried rice from a shop will almost certainly be UPF, but the good news is it’s very easy to make your own UPF-free fried rice at home! I have lots of fried rice variations on this website, but one of my favourites is this Easy Beef Mince Fried Rice – it’s ready in just 15 minutes and only uses a handful of ingredients – but is utterly delicious and very much UPF-free.
The only ingredient to watch out for is the soy sauce. Traditional soy sauce is UPF-free, but some brands are most definitely not! I like to use Kikkoman, which is naturally brewed and has only the following ingredients: water, soybeans, wheat, salt.
(Not a fan of beef? You can sub the beef mince with pork mince, chicken mince or lamb mince… but my personal favourite is turkey mince!)
Easy Chicken Breast Traybake
One of my favourite ways to go UPF-free is an easy peasy traybake! You’ll find lots of delicious UPF-free traybakes here on Easy Peasy Foodie, but my all-time favourite is this Easy Chicken Breast Traybake – very quick and simple to make, very little hands-on time, and only ‘real’ ingredients, like chicken, sweet potato, peppers, onions and paprika.
Roasted Butternut Squash and Beetroot Salad with Feta and Walnuts
Sweet roasted butternut squash and earthy beetroot combine with salty pops of feta cheese, crunchy walnuts and a simple balsamic dressing in this delicious warm salad. This easy Roasted Butternut Squash and Beetroot Salad with Feta and Walnuts makes a great-tasting UPF-free meal!
Depending on how UPF-free you want to be, you may need to adjust the dressing slightly, since balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard may count as UPF. (It depends on their exact formulations – some have additives).
If you’re going down the ‘reduce’ route, then you are fine. But if you are trying to eliminate UPF completely, you will have to check the labels very carefully. Alternatively, you could leave the balsamic and mustard out, and just dress the salad simply with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.
Easy Sweet and Sour Chicken
Sweet and Sour Chicken is usually a complete no-no for those following a UPF-free diet. The shop-bought versions are highly processed, and even most homemade versions don’t pass the UPF test, as they typically contain tomato ketchup and/or other additive laden ingredients.
But my Easy Sweet and Sour Chicken is completely UPF-free! I use tomato puree instead of tomato ketchup, and the rest of the ingredients are just normal ‘real’ foods like chicken, peppers, pineapple, ginger, garlic and apple cider vinegar.
As a bonus, my recipe is much lower in sugar than most sweet and sour recipes too! The only ingredient you’ll need to take care with is soy sauce – some brands are decidedly not UPF-free. So, make sure you get a traditionally brewed, UPF-free one like Kikkoman.
Easy Turkey Mince Bolognese
Shop bought bolognese sauces are typically very much UPF, but it’s easy to make your own flavoursome bolognese from scratch! This Easy Turkey Mince Bolognese is made using only ‘real food’ ingredients, but tastes amazing!
The only two ingredients to watch out for are the chicken stock and the soy sauce. As I’ve said already, you’ll need to choose a traditionally brewed, UPF-free soy sauce and make your own chicken stock, if you are trying to eliminate Ultra Processed Food entirely. But no need to worry about it, if you are just trying to reduce your UPF intake.
Turkey mince not your thing? Then sub with beef mice instead, or check out my Easy Peasy Beef Mince Bolognese recipe!
Immune System Booster Soup
Another great UPF-free soup, this Immune System Booster Soup is also packed full of goodness – with a whopping great TEN immune system boosting ingredients! It’s also super easy to make and utterly delicious.
As before, this soup does contain vegetable stock. If you are just trying to reduce UPF in your life, then making up your vegetable stock from a cube is fine. (I like the Kallo Organic brand, which seems to be the least UPF-y one.) But if you are trying to eliminate UPF completely, you’ll need to make your own vegetable stock – or just use water.
And don’t forget to serve with homemade bread, as shop-bought bread is nearly always UPF.
Chicken and Prawn Yaki Soba
Another of my homemade takeaway recipes! This Wagamama-inspired Chicken and Prawn Yaki Soba is one of my favourite fakeaways – and totally UPF-free! (Though do check the labels on the soy sauce, noodles and garnishes.)
Easy Peasy Pork Curry
Packed full of flavour and with meltingly tender pork, this Easy Peasy Pork Curry is super quick and easy to prepare – then leave your oven (or slow cooker) to do all the hard work. And, of course, it’s UPF-free! (Just make sure you buy UPF-compliant coconut milk – not all of them are.)
Homemade Nando’s Boneless Chicken Thighs
Ready for another cheeky (homemade) Nando’s? This time my homemade version of Nando’s Boneless Chicken Thighs. And, of course, no UPF in sight. Just a whole load of deliciousness 😀
Serve with any of my UPF-free Homemade Nando’s sides.
Easy Salmon Traybake
Another easy peasy (and totally UPF-free) traybake! This Easy Salmon Traybake is one of my all-time favourite recipes. Just simple ‘real food’ ingredients, like salmon, sweet potatoes, peppers and red onions… plus, it takes just 30 minutes – and only uses 1 tray. Bonus!
Easy Prawn Tikka Masala
Another easy peasy curry! My Prawn Tikka Masala is packed full of flavour and ready in just 20 minutes – perfect for busy evenings, when you don’t have much time to cook but still want to eat well! And, of course, it’s totally UPF-free, so long as you use additive-free coconut milk.
Easy Chicken Pad Thai
Shop-bought chicken Pad Thai and Pad Thai sauces are most decidedly UPF. But my Easy Peasy Chicken Pad Thai is completely UPF-free. (Though do double check the ingredients list on the soy sauce, fish sauce and noodles to make sure.) Better still, it takes just 20 minutes to make – perfect for busy evenings!
Though not traditional, I love to pair this with my Plain Egg Fried Rice – which is also UPF-free.
Cauliflower, Broccoli and Bacon Pasta Bake
Is Bacon UPF? There seems to be some disagreement about whether bacon is UPF or not. Most bacon bacon contains ‘nitrates’ which seems to put it in the UPF category, but it hasn’t been reconstituted, so it’s often classed as ‘processed’ rather than ‘ultra-processed’.
If you’re trying to completely eliminate UPF, it’s probably best to avoid bacon. You can simply leave it out of this Cauliflower, Broccoli and Bacon Pasta Bake recipe, or use something like diced cooked chicken or turkey instead.
Mustard is the other potentially UPF ingredient. Again, if you are trying to completely eliminate UPF, then just leave out the mustard. But if you are just trying to reduce your UPF consumption, you don’t need to worry about the bacon and mustard.
The rest of the ingredients in this delicious pasta bake are all ‘real food’ – like pasta, cheese, broccoli and cauliflower – and this is a great way to sneak in extra veggies into your diet. Serve with a big side salad for even more UPF-free nutritional goodness!
Spicy Parsnip Soup
This quick and easy Spicy Parsnip Soup recipe combines the wonderful flavours of parsnips, ginger, cumin, turmeric and garam masala, with just a touch of chilli… The result is a delicious and nutritious soup that can be on the table in under 30 minutes!
As before, if you’re trying to completely eliminate UPF from your diet, then you’ll need to make your own homemade vegetable stock. But if you are just trying to reduce your UPF consumption, then using a good quality stock cube is fine.
Easy Peasy Beef Stew
My easiest ever beef stew! This Easy Peasy Beef Stew takes just 15 minutes prep time and only uses 1 pan, but produces fabulous results every time. Plus, I’ve included lots of ideas for adapting this basic beef stew recipe to make it even more delicious!
The only potentially UPF ingredient is the beef stock cube. Again, if you’re trying to completely eliminate UPF, you’ll probably want to make your own homemade beef stock. But if you’re just trying to reduce UPF, then just use a good quality stock cube, like Kallo.
Homemade Peri Peri Chicken Wings
Another UPF-free Homemade Nando’s recipe! This time Homemade Peri Peri Chicken Wings. They are really easy to make at home and take just 30 minutes… and not a UPF in sight!
Serve with one of my Homemade Nando’s Inspired Sides for the full UPF-free Homemade Nando’s experience!
Easy Peasy Cottage Pie
There are few dishes as comforting as a good old-fashioned cottage pie. This Easy Peasy Cottage Pie is quick and simple to make, but packed full of flavour… and is like culinary equivalent of a great big hug!
The only potentially UPF ingredient is the beef stock cube. Again, if you’re trying to go completely UPF-free, then you’ll need to make your own beef stock. But otherwise you’re fine.
And all the rest of the ingredients are gloriously UPF-free: like potatoes, onions, carrots and beef mince.
Macaroni cheese is a wonderfully easy and UPF-free dinner. You can go for my super simple Classic Macaroni Cheese – with nothing extra added. (A huge favourite among Easy Peasy Foodie readers!)
Or you can add ‘extras’ to make it even more delicious, such as my Turkey Macaroni Cheese – which includes cooked turkey breast (or cooked chicken breast, if you prefer). Or – if you don’t mind bacon – there’s my Bacon Macaroni Cheese.
If you’re going totally UPF-free, you may want to leave out the mustard and, either leave the breadcrumbs out altogether, or use breadcrumbs from homemade bread. But otherwise my macaroni cheese recipes are UPF-free.
Want more easy peasy UPF-free dinners?
If you want more easy peasy, UPF-free dinners then check out my full recipe index. Most of the recipes on this website are either completely UPF-free, or just need a tiny tweak to make them completely UPF-free.
Tips for further reducing Ultra Processed Food in your life…
So that’s dinner covered… But what about the other meals? Here are some bonus tips and advice to help you reduce your UPF-consumption in the rest of your life…
What about breakfast?
Classic breakfast options like cereal and toast are very much UPF! Here are some delicious and easy UPF-free alternatives…
What about lunch?
Shop-bought sandwiches are pretty much always UPF. And even a sandwich made at home is likely to contain UPF – most shop bought bread is UPF, as are many sandwich fillings. But there are plenty of great lunch options that are totally UPF-free…
- Homemade soup
- Easy Spanish Omelette
- Tuna Rice Salad
- Warm Lentil, Beetroot and Feta Rice Salad
- Fruity Couscous Salad
- Chickpea, Feta and Bulgur Wheat Salad
- Homemade sandwiches made with homemade bread and UPF-free fillings – e.g. cooked chicken and salad, cheese and tomato or tuna and cucumber
- Leftovers from last night’s dinner
What about bread?
Sadly most shop-bought bread is UPF. But the good news is, homemade bread is very easy to make – especially my easy peasy recipes!
What about puddings and desserts?
Shop-bought puddings and desserts are nearly always UPF. But happily, most homemade puddings and desserts are not!
Of course, most homemade puddings still contain sugar and butter – so should be eaten in moderation. But a homemade pud is nearly always a better option than it’s shop-bought equivalent, when it comes to avoiding UPF.
Here are some easy homemade versions of traditional pudding favourites:
Where can I learn more about UPF?
If you want to learn more about UPF, I highly recommend you read Chris van Tulleken’s excellent book: Ultra Processed People
Here are some other useful articles and resources on the topic of Ultra Processed Food:
- What is Ultra Processed Food? (BBC)
- Ultra-processed foods: the 19 things everyone needs to know (Guardian)
- Revealed: The everyday foods that you’d never guess are packed with ultra processed ingredients (Daily Mail)
- Ultra-processed foods: how bad are they for your health? (British Heart Foundation)
- What’s the Difference Between Processed and Ultra-Processed Food? (Healthline)
If you like this roundup…
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