Frozen dinners may not be what comes to mind if you’re trying to eat healthfully. Yet many people (guiltily) admit to eating them, whether for a quick and easy lunch or for those nights when they just don’t have the time or energy to turn on the stove or oven.
Some of you might remember the “TV Dinners” from decades ago (among the FIRST frozen dinners). They came in an aluminum tray with compartments for your chicken or meat, mashed potatoes, soggy vegetable, and some type of dessert. While the TV Dinners of yesteryear could hardly be called nutritious, they did help one practice portion control!
Today, frozen dinners are a six billion dollar industry. Take a stroll down the frozen food aisle in the grocery store and you’ll be amazed at the number of brands and varieties of frozen meals. And if you’re still turning up your nose at the “un-healthfulness” of these meals, you might be interested to know that some frozen dinner companies now offer choices that are gluten- and allergen-free, organic, and don’t contain any GMOs (genetically-modified organisms). However, there are still plenty of frozen meals that are too high in saturated fat and/or sodium.
Perks of frozen dinners
There’s really no need to feel guilty about eating frozen dinners as long as you’re making better choices. Frozen meals really do have quite a lot to offer. Here’s the rundown:
Convenience. If you’re rushing to get out the door in the morning or rushing home from work after a long day, a frozen dinner may be just the ticket. Needing only minutes to heat up in the microwave, frozen dinners can provide a nutritious, ready-to-go meal with little preparation or clean up.
Portion control. The use of “meal replacements,” which include shakes, bars, and frozen meals, has been proven in clinical trials to help people lose weight, keep the weight off, and improve blood glucose control. Why? Meal replacements are portioned-out for you. They take the guesswork out of how much to put on your plate or in your bowl. Very little thinking or decision-making is required.
Nutrition. No doubt some of you are still shaking your heads, believing that frozen dinners are low on the ladder of nutrition. Again, it boils down to which ones you choose. But frozen dinners can actually be a great source of vitamins and minerals: The freezing process results in most of the nutrients in these foods being retained, unlike prepared or packaged meals that may have been sitting out for hours…or weeks.
And research presented at the Experimental Biology conference last week revealed that people who eat frozen dinners came closer to meeting the Dietary Guidelines for Americans than those who eat at restaurants. They also tended to consume fewer calories and ate more vegetables, whole grains, and protein than restaurant-eaters.
Budget-friendly. Sure, cooking from scratch is usually the most economical way of preparing meals. But when you’re short on time or don’t have the right types or amounts of foods in your house to put together a meal, a frozen dinner is less expensive than eating out or ordering takeout.
How do you pick a healthful frozen dinner? With so many options to choose from, you may feel like you’ll be staring at the frozen food case for hours. Use the following tips as a guide:
Choose frozen dinners that contain between 300 and 500 calories. Any less than that and you’ll likely end up hungry an hour or two later, plus you may not get enough of certain nutrients.
Choose meals with no more than about 30% of calories from fat (you can find this information on the Nutrition Facts panel).
Aim for a meal that has no more than 2 grams of saturated fat and 0 grams of trans fat.
The frozen meal should have at least 15 grams of protein.
Remember to consider the total carbohydrate grams. Pasta- and rice-based meals will be higher in carbohydrate than meals featuring poultry, fish, or meat. Keep in mind your carbohydrate goal for your meal and remember to figure in any other foods you might eat at that meal, such as fruit, bread, or milk.
Watch the sodium. You can’t (and don’t have to) avoid it, but some frozen meals are loaded with sodium. Try to keep it to no more than 600 milligrams per meal.
Look for fiber. Choose frozen dinners with more than 2 grams of fiber per meal.
Avoid or limit the “Hungry Man” types of dinners and choices like frozen pot pies, breaded fish, or extra-cheese pizza.
Most frozen dinners don’t provide enough vegetables and really don’t give you all of the nutrients that you need. Round out your dinner by adding a salad or extra vegetables and a piece of fruit.
Some brands of frozen dinners are obviously a better bet than others. To save time when you’re shopping, consider the following brands:
• Healthy Choice
• Lean Cuisine
• Smart Ones
It’s still a good idea to check the Nutrition Facts label because dinners vary in calories and nutrients, even within a brand.