Frozen meals are convenient, but if you don’t choose carefully, they can be diet-busters. Here are some tips for choosing a healthy, frozen meal. Frozen meals have sure come a long way.
The very first ones produced in the US – in the 1940s – were designed primarily for airline passengers, and it would be at least another decade before frozen meals came into more widespread use at home. And, since it would be another 30 years before most homes had a microwave oven, the foil-wrapped “TV dinners” of the 1950s couldn’t supply instant gratification – they required a 30-minute stopover in a hot oven before making it to the plate (or the TV tray*).
By the mid-1980s, though, home microwave ovens were fairly common, and the invention of the microwavable food tray was a game-changer. Finally, dinner could be on the table, literally, in minutes.
Now, consumers want both convenience and good nutrition from their frozen meals – and it’s getting easier to do. Consumers are demanding better ingredients, more protein, less salt and healthier fats than they used to – and food manufacturers are stepping up to meet the demand. That means that you can find a convenient frozen meal that is also good for you – but you need to know what to look for.
The Good and Bad of Frozen Meals
One of the main advantages of a frozen meal is that it’s portion- and calorie-controlled. When you’re counting calories and watching your weight, this can be a huge plus; it eliminates the uncertainty that’s associated with weighing and measuring (or simply estimating) your own portion and, therefore, your calories.
Convenience is obviously an advantage – most frozen meals take only a few minutes to heat up, and you can have a healthy frozen meal without having to shop and prep. And, since there’s plenty of variety available, using frozen meals might keep you from getting bored on your diet.
On the downside, many frozen meals are really high in sodium, and they may contain ingredients (like preservatives, for example) that you wouldn’t be adding to foods you cook yourself; and the better quality frozen meals can be pricey.
What to Look For in a Frozen Meal
When shopping for healthy frozen meals, you’ll want to check the nutrition facts carefully. Here are some guidelines to help you make the best choices:
• Calories: This number will vary depending on your personal needs, but 350-500 calories for a meal is a pretty good target for most people. If you’re trying to lose weight, you might be tempted to choose the lowest calorie meal you can find, but if the calories are too low (I’ve seen some “meals” with less than 200 calories) the meal isn’t likely to keep you full for long – and that could set you up for some unhealthy snacking later on.
• Protein: Protein helps to keep you full, so the more protein you can find, the better. Look for meals that provide at least 15 grams of protein (ideally, more).
• Sodium: Finding lower sodium frozen meals is easier than it used to be, so look for meals with 750 milligrams of sodium or less.
• Fiber: Frozen meals don’t generally have large portions of high-fiber whole grains or vegetables, but it doesn’t hurt to look for it. If you can find four to five grams of fiber in your meal, it would be a plus.
• Fat: Total calories from fat in your meal should be 30% or less. To figure this out, look for meals that have no more than three grams of fat per 100 calories.
• Serving size: Make sure you know what the serving size is. Most meals are designed for one person, but it doesn’t hurt to double check. Remember that the nutrition facts apply only to one serving.
• Label Claims: When you see words like “vegetarian” or “organic” or “gluten-free” you might assume they’re healthy and low in calories. They might be, but there’s no guarantee. Really read the entire nutrition facts panel and the ingredients so you know exactly what you’re getting.
How to Make a Frozen Meal Even Better
• Most frozen meals have pretty skimpy vegetable portions, so it helps to add a side salad, some extra veggies, or a cup of vegetable soup to your meal.
• If you do add soup or a salad, you can eat your meal in courses, which will help you to slow down.
• It does add to cleanup, but consider putting your hot meal on a regular dinner plate. It will make it feel more like home-cooked, and you’re likely to enjoy it more.
• Save the trays – they can be useful for putting together your own quick, portion-controlled meals from leftovers you make at home.
*I can just barely remember eating TV dinners when I was very small. Every once in a while my mom would pop three of them into the oven for me and my two sisters if she and my dad had a big night out. I don’t think we liked the food all that much, but it was the only time we were allowed to eat in front of the TV – that part we liked a lot.