It’s been a long day at the office and the last thing you want to do is cook; we feel you. But before you order takeout, give yourself a minute to consider another option—a microwavable meal.
Long derided for being full of artificial preservatives and sodium, frozen meals have undergone a healthy renaissance in recent years. “Frozen meals have changed into integrating more whole grains and more superfoods, like kale, beans and lentils,” says Bethany Doerfler, RD, LDN, and a clinical research dietician at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago.
In fact, frozen dishes may be better for you than food you pick up, or even meals you cook at home. They often boast several hundred fewer calories than people normally consume during a standard meal due to their smaller portion sizes, according to Doerfler. But before you go grabbing just any boxed meal, get the scoop on how to pick the healthiest options in the freezer section, and which health-conscious brands you might want to try.
The 411 on Finding Healthy Frozen Meals
Your first order of business in the freezer aisle: Take a close look at the nutrition facts label before tossing anything into your cart. You’ll want to be especially careful to check the sodium levels and grams of saturated fat in your meal choice, to avoid accidentally introducing a bloat-inducing health don’t into your diet.
“Get something under 600 to 700 milligrams of sodium,” Doerfler says. And when it comes to saturated fats, shoppers should look for a meal that contains no more than a few grams, if any at all.
Your next task is to find a meal containing the least amount of artificial ingredients.
One tip: Ingredients on nutrition labels are listed in order from greatest representation to least. Therefore, the first couple you see should be whole grains, vegetables or lean proteins, according to Doerfler. What you don’t want to find? Food starches. They’re often used to replace fat and provide texture in frozen dishes. “Ideally, food starch should be the last ingredient, or one of the last ingredients used,” Doerfler says. “It’s not a dangerous food additive, but it’s [mostly empty calories]”
Finally, frozen meals are meant to last a long time—a bonus when you find yourself coming home late after most stores have closed. But, some will contain compounds such as butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), which is used to prevent oils in foods from going bad over time. While the FDA has declared BHT safe for consumption, people should try to minimize consumption of preservatives like this one, when they can. “The less we can get away with things like BHT, artificial sweeteners or food starches, the better,” Doerfler says. “If you can, stick with simple, clean, whole food groups.”
Frozen Meals and Weight Loss
Tying to shed a few pounds? Frozen meals could be a great secret weapon to add to your arsenal.
A well-known study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition followed 100 obese patients throughout a dietary intervention—half relied on conventional foods when dieting and the other half on portion-controlled meal replacements (primarily shakes, bars and soups). Over a two year period, the group using meal replacements lost more weight than the traditional diet group, and was better able to maintain that weight loss. “Hands down the biggest, most likely explanation [for these findings] is that the meals are portion and calorie controlled,” Doerfler says, which is why she recommends pre-packaged frozen foods to dieters as well.
Seek out meals that contain between 250 and 400 calories. For most people trying to lose weight, Doerfler advises consuming around 400 calories for lunch and approximately 500 calories for dinner. That means you can—and should—supplement lower-calorie frozen meals with fresh fruits and veggies, or healthy carbs like a baked potato, to ensure you’re consuming enough calories and nutrients to stay full until your next meal.
Microwave Meals We’re Digging
While old favorites like Healthy Choice are continuing to up the ante with their offerings, new brands such as Luvo are making waves with their innovative and delicious frozen meals that include entrees like Chicken Chile Verde or Kale Ricotta Ravioli.
Focused on healthy, natural ingredients, Luvo boasts a menu full of, “BHT-free meals, proteins raised without antibiotics, dairy raised without hormones, cage-free eggs, and non-GMO ingredients for the top six high-risk crops, including corn, soy and canola,” according to Samatha Cassetty, RD, Luvo’s director of nutrition.
Each Luvo meal is cooked en papillote—it’s prepackaged in a paper bag, not a plastic container—ensuring that chicken doesn’t get rubbery and noodles remain al dente when microwaved. “None of our meals have more than 500 milligrams of sodium, and, barring one exception, none of our lunch or dinner options have more than four grams of added sugar, which is a teaspoon,” Cassetty says. To put this in context, the American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than six teaspoons of sugar per day for women, and nine teaspoons per day for men.
Healthy Choice is also making strides in satisfying customer demand for better-for-you foods. They recently unveiled a line of gluten-free meals adhering to the FDA’s new rules for g-free products. The name Healthy Choice requires the company to adhere to certain standards, as “healthy” is an FDA regulated term. “Each of the foods has to be low in fat, low in saturated fat, controlled in sodium, controlled in cholesterol and have at least three positive vitamins and minerals,” says Kristin Reimers, PhD, RD and director of nutrition at ConAgra, Healthy Choice’s parent company.
Doerfler also recommends Artisan Bistro meals, noting that they often contain well under 500 mg of sodium per serving. And she applauds Amy’s Light & Lean line of foods for being low in fat and calories, as well as for providing ample choices for vegetarians and people with food allergies. Their meal options range from Roasted Polenta to Quinoa & Black Beans with Butternut Squash & Chard.
Chosen carefully, frozen meals “are absolutely a part of a healthy diet,” according to Doerfler. So next time you’re too wiped out to cook, hit up the freezer aisle rather than your local fast food joint.
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