Healthier Convenience Options: Frozen Dinners
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, a Hungry Man 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). Of course, the name -- Hungry Man -- warns you to expect a calorie overload. But even Stouffer’s small Chicken Asiago Panini has 460 calories, 22 grams of fat and 40% 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 could not pronounce (never a good sign).
There are lighter alternatives, and I came across a few more impressive brands of frozen dinners. Of course, they still contain their fair share of sodium and preservatives, but less than many other options. Kashi makes a Black Bean Mango vegan entrée (that means there's no dairy in it), which contains 340 calories, 8 grams of fat, 1 gram of saturated fat and 430 milligrams of sodium; Chicken Pasta Pomodoro has 280 calories and 470mg of sodium. Amy’s offers a variety of "light in sodium" meals and uses some organic ingredients.
Healthy Choice and Lean Cuisine are two of the leaders in healthier frozen meals and offer some 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.
Birds Eye Steamfresh Meals for Two is a new kid in the freezer section (you may have seen their commercials lately). There are a ton of variations depending on the flavor. Some options had only 290 calories but 1290mg of sodium where others were much lower in sodium, but higher in fat. The good news is nutrition info for these and most other brands are available on their websites so you can narrow things down before you hit the store.
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.
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