Whether you have little time for meal preparation or are on a tight budget—or perhaps you are counting calories—the vast array of choices available to buy in your supermarket’s freezer section can help make your life a little easier. Today you can choose from individually packaged vegetarian, organic, ethnic (Chinese, Indian, Italian, Mexican), reduced-calorie or comfort food frozen entrées, all of which can be on the table in less than 15 minutes. There is also a growing range of family-size frozen entrées designed to feed the whole household.
But when you're shopping for frozen entrées, you have to keep an eye on nutrition—the options run the gamut from healthful (low in calories, saturated fat and sodium, and high in fiber) to frozen nutrition disasters.
Frozen entrées and your health
Frozen entrées that contain vegetables, grains, and a lean protein source (such as chicken) constitute a balanced meal. How healthful they are is another story. These products vary tremendously in calories, fat, sodium, and fiber, so the nutrition label on the package is your essential guide for picking the best ones. Though there are plenty of “healthy,” “lean,” and “diet” choices, most frozen entrées are laden with calories (almost 800 for “man-size” portions), saturated fat (more than 10 grams), and sodium (as much as 2,000 milligrams). Because it’s hard to find frozen entrées with less than 500 milligrams of sodium—an amount that would help you stay within the 1,500-milligram sodium limit recommended for most adults—it’s not a good idea to rely too heavily on such foods. An occasional frozen dinner is fine, but it’s far better to make a habit of cooking with fresh ingredients.
Understanding frozen entrée products
- Check the serving sizes of frozen entrées, which can vary widely, and note whether they are for the entire package or just a portion of the contents. If you eat more than a single serving, you’ll have to adjust the nutrition numbers accordingly. Keep in mind that some frozen meals, especially those marketed for weight control, may be small—sometimes totaling just 6 ounces of food—and may not satisfy your appetite. Also be aware that “low in calories” doesn’t translate into “low in sodium.” In fact, to enhance flavor, some entrées that are low in fat and calories may actually be higher in sodium.
- Take advantage of the sales frequently offered by some of the major brands of frozen entrées and stock up: The cost per serving is often the same as or less than if you bought ingredients and cooked a family meal from scratch.
- If you want to go organic, look for the USDA certified organic label. But remember, organic only indicates the way the food was grown and processed; it doesn’t guarantee good nutrition. In fact, many organic frozen entrées have just as many calories and just as much saturated fat and sodium as their conventionally produced counterparts.
Healthy grocery shopping tips for frozen entrées
- Choose a frozen entrée that provides no more than one-quarter of your day’s calorie intake (about 400 to 600 calories), 4 to 6 grams of saturated fat, less than 700 milligrams of sodium (ideally less than 500 milligrams) and at least 3 grams of fiber.
- Look for an entrée that contains vegetables. If the pickings are slim, buy your favorite veggies to add to the dish or serve on the side.
- If your choice is Italian, opt for tomato and marinara sauces over cheese, Alfredo or other white sauces. But always check the nutrition label for the bottom line in fat and calories.
- Experiment with some of the more unusual options, such as Chinese style pot stickers, portabello mushroom stroganoff, lemongrass coconut chicken, Moroccan chicken with vegetables, chicken-almond pilaf and chicken vindaloo.
- Toss salad fixings and some fresh, frozen or canned fruit into your cart to boost the nutrient and fiber content of the meal.
Published August 15, 2013