I hear it all the time, “I don’t have time to cook…”
And, it’s true! A Mom’s life is demanding in all kinds of new 21st Century ways. Busy Moms don’t have time to cook, don’t have the energy to cook, and sometimes just weren’t taught how to cook. It’s a different world from our previous generation when frozen dinners were the begrudged trays of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and corn. It was the babysitter is coming over food with the apple crumb dessert being its only redeeming quality, making the crumby meatloaf marginally more palatable.
Happily, frozen dinners have come a long way from their predecessors, the high fat, low fiber varieties that were mainly meat and potato based. With vegan, gluten-free, calorie controlled, kid-friendly and other varieties of frozen meals, it can be an overwhelming proposition to navigate the frozen food section. And, there’s still the lingering question…”Are they the healthiest option on the shelf?
Let’s break down the attributes of choosing a frozen meal!
ATTRIBUTE 1: FROZEN MEALS SHOULD COMPLEMENT DINNER
Please place aside any preconception that your frozen meal has to be the main entree or the only item on your plate. You can add frozen vegetables or a salad on the side to increase the nutrient quality. To modulate blood sugar levels, be sure to include protein such as frozen fish, lean meat, beans or legumes. Edamame adds an elegant touch to meals and is an excellent plant-based protein, just be sure it’s organic since conventional soy crops are heavily treated with glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.
ATTRIBUTE 2: FROZEN MEALS SHOULD BE NUTRITIONALLY DENSE
A quality and nutritionally solid meal will contain around 500 calories and should be low in total fat, trans and saturated fat. If a product contains 300 calories, it should have no more than 9 grams of fat per serving to be considered low-fat (3 grams fat per 100 calories). Saturated fat should be 1 gram or less per serving or 15% or less of the calories from saturated fat, but with most choices, you’re lucky to get below 3 grams. To maximize nutritional quality and density, choose meals that do not contain red meat, cream, butter sauce or cheese.
ATTRIBUTE 3: FROZEN MEALS SHOULD NOT CONTAIN ADDED, REFINED SUGAR While your meal may not taste sweet, sugar hides in unique ways in packaged foods, especially in frozen meals. sugar seems to be fairly prevalent but sometimes hidden in many frozen meals. Typically, meals containing teriyaki sauce, BBQ sauce, fruit glaze or a dessert in the meal (cooked fruit in sauce, mini cake or brownie), will be higher in sugar. Avoid these like the plague! The US Dietary Guidelines advise that no more than 10% of total calories come from sugar, which means 10 tsp per day for men and 6 tsp per day or less for women. Look for frozen meals containing 8 grams or less (2 tsp) per serving, preferably sourced from real foods such as fruits and vegetables, rather than added, refined sugar.
ATTRIBUTE 4: FROZEN MEALS SHOULD BE LIMITED IN SODIUM
Sodium is prolific in most frozen meals; it acts as a preservative and flavor booster, especially when fat, sugar, or calories have been minimized. These nutrients are constantly leveraged for flavor, so when a meal is marketed as low in sugar, it’s a pretty good assumption that sodium or fat has been modified. Case in point, the “Smart Ones” may contain 600 mg of sodium or more per meal. We could all use a little less sodium in our lives given the connection between sodium intake and hypertension. Ideally, most health organizations recommend Americans should aim for 2300 mg or less and even less (1500 mg per day) for those with hypertension, kidney disease, congestive heart failure, liver disease, Africa American heritage or age over 50. Dietitians at the Cleveland Clinic suggest looking for meals with 500 or less calories, 600 mg or less sodium and 3 grams of saturated fat or less per meal
ATTRIBUTE 5: FROZEN MEALS SHOULD CONTAIN FIBER!..YES, REALLY!
With an estimated 5% of the US population meeting the recommended amounts of dietary fiber set by the US Dietary Guidelines, I don’t know a single person who couldn’t use more healing fiber. Fiber both regulates your digestion and provides weight loss and general health benefits. To improve fiber intake when choosing frozen meals, include entrees containing whole grains, beans, and legumes. My favorites picks include brown rice, bulgur wheat, buckwheat, quinoa, beans or legumes. Consider adding a side salad, steamed vegetable or fruit for dessert to round out your meal and boost fiber intake.
A few brands that sometimes hit the mark with my 5 Attributes of a healthy frozen meal include Luvo, Amy’s (primarily vegetarian and vegan meals), Trader Joe’s and Healthy Choice entrees. Because there are so many varieties of meals out there, reading labels still remains a critical tool to identify preservatives and chemicals and to weed out the real healthy choice meals.
Finally, rather than relying completely on frozen, pre-packaged meals, why not try a few easy tips to create your own meals? Here are a few items to keep on hand for quick meals:
- Cooked batches of brown rice, couscous, or quinoa to mix with fresh meats and fresh or frozen veggies
- A variety of frozen veggies
- Sweet potatoes
- Canned, organic beans (chickpea, white bean, black bean, kidney) in BPA free cans
- Lean protein such as wild. sustainable fish or pasture-raised organic, skinless poultry
- Vegetarian entrees with less sodium
- Farm fresh, pasture-raised eggs
- Veggie pasta
- Roasted pasture-raised, organic chicken
Make your own meal kits:
Check out my Dinner 5 Ways blog for fast, fun, and easy meals!
- Stir fry dinners using squeeze ginger, low sodium soy sauce and jarred garlic
- Lower sodium chicken entrees paired with veggies and brown rice
- Seafood that can be baked or broiled and paired with frozen veggies and yams
- Fresh chicken with frozen veggies and quinoa
- Orange chicken (use only a quarter of the sauce) and serve over frozen brown rice and a big salad
Minimize or omit (red light foods):
- Cheesy items like pizza, lasagna and pasta, which are usually too high in saturated fat and sodium
- Most pasta entrees are high in sodium
- Pot pies or “pocket sandwiches” are high in fat and sodium
- Fried items
- Items that are high in saturated fat, sodium, and or calories.
My freebie to you!….Download “Frozen Meal 101” Printable PDF Handout here
If you love the idea of having meals planned for you each week with an accompanying grocery list, get registered for my weekly meal plan, which I deliver to your inbox each week for free!