Pick Your Poison: Choosing the Least Unhealthy Frozen Dinner

TV dinners were a part of my childhood: I have fond memories of that black partitioned plate and the steam radiating from it as you pull back the plastic wrap. For some reason, that processed meat and gravy, the grainy mashed potatoes, peas and carrots, and gooey hot cherry stuff was a real treat to me back then. Little did I know that some of those meals can top 1,000 calories, not to mention over half a day’s recommended sodium levels.

Frozen meals are convenient, quick, easy, and they’re not going to go away. In observance of Frozen Food Month, here are some tips to help you pick the least unhealthy options.

CALORIES– Many unhealthy foods are high-calorie, but some frozen meals actually might not have enough calories for a full meal! For example, some Lean Cuisine® and Healthy Choice® options barely reach 300 calories. In that case, I suggest adding a handful of nuts to that meal to keep you fuller, longer. Other options, like the Hungry Man® dinners, provide entirely too many calories for one meal (for most people); consider saving half for later.

CARBOHYDRATES–
Pasta, rice, and potatoes are cheap! Protein and nuts are not. That’s while you’ll find plenty of starchy foods in your frozen meals. Try to keep the carb content of your frozen dinner around 30-45 grams and make sure there is a significant amount of protein—aim for 14 grams or more.

TRANS FAT – It may be difficult to tell if unhealthy trans fat is in your meal. This is because labeling laws allow manufacturers to list facts in increments of 0.5 grams. Look closely at the ingredients listing. If you see any partially or fully hydrogenated oil in the ingredients, put it back on the shelf.

SODIUM– We often think of “salt” when we hear sodium. But there are many sodium-based additives in our food. Sodium enhances flavor and helps keep your food fresh longer: a win-win for the manufacturer, but a loss for you. The Nutrition Facts give you a clue. If the product is providing nearly 20-50% of your day’s sodium intake, look for a healthier option.

“FIRST FIVE” – Ingredients are listed in order of weight, so you know the first five comprise the largest portion of the food. Do you see a cheap form of sugar, syrups, or hydrogenated oils at the top of the list? If so, there might be something better out there.

PRESERVATIVES –
You’d think that because these meals are frozen, they wouldn’t need preservatives to keep them fresh. However, frozen meals are often full of preservatives that help kill bacteria in the food and help it last longer. But what about your healthy gut bacteria? Are these preservatives killing them, too?

DESCRIPTIONS-
Beware of entrees with gravies, sauces, and descriptions like “sweet,” “cheesy,” and “creamy.” They tend to be higher in fat and sodium.

In general, limit frozen meals as much as possible. Keep them “in case of emergency,” for days you aren’t able to eat something with fresh ingredients. To help avoid these kinds of emergencies, I suggest packing dinner leftovers at night into a small plastic container as a mini-meal for the next day. It doesn’t get much more convenient than that! Plus, you’ll spare yourself large amounts of unhealthy starch, preservatives, and sodium.

– True Health Clinical Health Consultant Stacie Wheatley, MA, RD, LD

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For more information on nutrition for exercise and other lifestyle tips, contact True Health Diagnostics at 877-443-5227 to set up an appointment with a Clinical Health Consultant.

All True Health Diagnostics materials are provided for your information only and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on contents of this information. Readers should always consult the appropriate health professional on any matters related to their health.