Frozen meals have come a long way. While the iconic TV dinners of the 1950s were processed, bland and loaded with calories, many modern varieties offer tasty, well-rounded entrees that are healthy and ready in minutes. The trick is choosing the right ones.
Today, the average American eats 72 frozen meals a year. So we asked Melissa Hughes, a wellness education specialist with Sharp Rees-Stealy's Center for Health Management to share her nutritional pros and cons.
When it comes to health, frozen meals tend to get a bad rap. They are often seen as fattening or artificial — and some are. But between the processed meats and fatty casseroles are good, wholesome options, debunking these common falsehoods:
Myth 1: Frozen meals are pumped with chemicals.
Truth: Some frozen foods are still processed and may have more chemicals or artificial ingredients in them. But in general, fewer preservatives are needed for frozen foods because freezing naturally preserves them.
Myth 2: Frozen meals lose their nutritional value in freezing.
Truth: In most cases, nutritional content is often preserved by freezing, especially in the case of fruits and vegetables. Several studies have found that frozen fruits and veggies are higher in certain nutrients, like vitamins A and C. In fact, the vitamins and minerals in fresh options can break down over time, whereas freezing retains them.
Myth 3: Frozen foods are fattening.
Truth: With many foods, there are healthy and not-so-healthy options. But the right frozen foods can actually help with weight loss and management. They're pre-cooked, pre-cut and ready to use — making it easier to skip the drive-through. And prepped as single servings, they can make excellent choices when working on portion control.
Choosing the right frozen foods
Navigating the frozen food aisle isn't always easy. Packaging can be confusing, and labels like "organic" aren't always enough. "Even the healthier brands have varying information," says Hughes, who offers these tips to make the best choice:
1. Focus on ingredients. Browse the ingredients and choose items like veggies, fruits, lean proteins and whole grains. Some brands, like Amy's, Evol or Kashi, focus on using whole, natural ingredients. Steer clear of foods designed with only taste in mind, like frozen turnovers, pizzas and versions of restaurant meals.
2. Check the label. Go for entrees with at least 10 grams of protein. Frozen foods can be high in sodium, too, so aim for 600 milligrams or less per serving for heart health. For frozen vegetables or fruits, avoid those with added sugar or high-fat sauces.
3. Note the serving size. Some frozen meals sneak two servings into what looks like a single-serving meal. So check the serving size, then make sure it fits into your calorie budget.
4. Build it better. If frozen meals are not your thing, build it better by adding your own ingredients. Pair with 2 cups of fresh or frozen veggies to increase volume and fiber for a more fulfilling meal. “One of my favorite combinations is store-bought reduced fat macaroni and cheese with 2 cups of frozen broccoli,” says Hughes.
"My freezer is almost always well-stocked with healthy frozen foods," she says. "They're convenient, can be affordable and many of them taste pretty good. But like anything you eat, it's so important to read nutrition labels and know exactly what you're eating."