Courtesy of Dana Angelo White
Whipping up an effortless dinner in minutes is tempting, but that often means relying on frozen pre-packaged meals. Are there healthy options? I perused the freezer section of my supermarket to see what I could find.
The biggest problem with most ready-to-eat meals is the large amount of preservatives needed to keep them fresh. The sodium content in many prepared foods is much higher than if you were to cook the food yourself. Too much sodium can aggravate blood pressure conditions and cause water retention. Heart disease and stroke are also concerns. The daily recommendation for sodium is less than 2300 milligrams per day (which is about one teaspoon of salt).
I wasn't surprised to see many of the conventional frozen dinners I checked had loads of sodium. It was more of a shock to see that they were also filled with fat! For example, one frozine Classic Fried Chicken Dinner added up to 790 calories, 40 grams of fat, 10 grams of saturated fat and 1940 milligrams of sodium per serving (and remember that's two-thirds of your daily sodium just in one meal). Another meal, a small Chicken Asiago Panini, had 460 calories, 22 grams of fat and 40 percent of sodium for the day, which is a lot for a little sandwich. Many of these foods also have long ingredient lists, with numerous things that I can't even pronounce (never a good sign).
Healthier Frozen Options
There are lighter alternatives. They still contain their fair share of sodium and preservatives, but less than many other options. One Black Bean Mango vegan entree (that means there's no dairy in it), had only 340 calories, 8 grams of fat, 1 gram of saturated fat and 430 milligrams of sodium; a Chicken Pasta Pomodoro had 280 calories and 470mg of sodium. Some brands offer "light in sodium" meals and uses some organic ingredients.
Some of the healthier frozen meal brands offer options with moderate sodium and lower calories. Their portions are small, however, and will likely leave you hungry. Also, to keep calories low, they often replace fat with sugar and additional preservatives so review the ingredients carefully. The good news is nutrition info for most brands is available on their Web sites, so you can narrow things down before you hit the store.
The Bottom Line
With our busy schedules, sometimes you need a little help from the freezer section and that's okay — just don't regularly rely on completely pre-made dishes. Add frozen vegetables and pastas to fresh ingredients when possible. When you do have time to cook, make extra of things — spaghetti sauce, chili, casseroles and soups — to pop in the freezer. You'll have your own "frozen dinners" (preservative-free) ready in no time.