Let's be honest: If we're eating a frozen dinner, it's usually not because we love them. It's because frozen dinners are cheap, fast and easy. And the seemingly-better-for-you varieties are particularly tempting, offering built-in portion control for a brown-bag lunch at the office or dinner in a flash.
But "healthy" frozen meals aren't always healthy. Most are high in sodium, centered on refined starchy carbs like white rice and white pasta, and skimpy on protein. And many popular brands contain questionable – or at least unnecessary – ingredients that aren't found in a home kitchen.
I covered the topic in a column a few years ago, highlighting my top picks for frozen dinners. Since then, new products are on the freezer aisle and others have changed or are no longer available. The nutritional factors I look for in a frozen dinner include:
- A good ratio of protein to carbs; specifically looking for meals with as much protein as carbs, if not more (most of us already get plenty of carbs in our diet, and the protein helps to keep us feeling fuller longer, among other health benefits).
- Moderate sodium content; ideally not more than 600 mg per serving, though some of my "top picks" have more (the American Heart Association uses 800 mg as an upper limit for their heart checkmark for restaurant meals).
- A clean ingredient list that reads like the ingredients for a homemade recipe, not a chemistry book.
A few numbers to help give a frame of reference to the nutrition facts panel:
- 3 ounces of lean meat provides about 20 grams of protein.
- 1 cup of cooked pasta has about 40 grams of carbs.
- 1 teaspoon of sugar has 4 grams of sugar.
So, for example, that Pad Thai frozen dinner with just 10 grams of protein with 76 grams of carbs and 22 grams of sugar isn't such a great choice (sorry, Amy's Kitchen). A grilled chicken and broccoli combo with 27 grams of protein and 21 grams of carbs, however, can be a much better option.
The picture on the front of the box gives us a sneak peek into the nutritionals of the meal, saving us from lurking on the freezer aisle and making it easier to spot the meals with fewer starchy carbs. Still, it is essential to read the nutrition label,
And no matter the nutritional value of the frozen dinner, we can always make it a notch better by adding more veggies, fresh or frozen.
Here's my list of top six picks for frozen dinners that combine nutrition and convenience. All of the product websites have store-locator features, and if you don't see them in your local grocery, ask the store manager to stock them.
Beetnik is a new guy on the freezer aisle; I've only recently seen this brand at stores like Rouses and Whole Foods. I love that all of the meals are made with simple ingredients that look like your healthy-foodie friend's shopping list.
My favorite is beetnik's spicy Peruvian Seasoned Chicken Stew, made with all-organic chicken, vegetables, herbs and spices. It has a solid ratio of protein to carb (23 grams of protein and 8 grams of carbs), with just 240 mg sodium. This meal is only 130 calories, however, so you may want to add a carton of Greek yogurt with berries or a side of veggies to give it more staying power.
Beetnik's Chili with Grass Fed Beef is another great option, made with all-organic grass fed ground beef, vegetables, olive oil, herbs and spices. I love that it has 25 grams of protein and just 12 grams of carbs (mostly from the vegetables), and the sodium is one of the lowest I've seen in frozen dinners, with just 210 mg sodium.
Just a side note: Some of beetnik's meals are made with white rice or pasta, so the carbs are higher, but they all have an incredibly clean ingredient list.
Eggs aren't always an obvious choice when we're looking at the array of frozen dinners, but CedarLane's Spinach and Mushroom Egg White Omelette is a great protein-rich option for any meal of the day, not just breakfast.
With egg whites, mozzarella, mushrooms, spinach, onions, feta, and spices, it packs in 23 grams protein and 18 grams carbs (mostly from the vegetables), for 270 calories.
Other CedarLane varieties (available in the New Orleans area at Rouses and Winn Dixie) include a southwest-style Green Chile, Cheese & Ranchero Sauce Egg White Omelette.
Of all of the "mainstream" brands of frozen dinners, the Simply line of Healthy Choice Café Steamers is hands down my top recommendation. Self-proclaimed as "minimally processed," the Simply line is free of questionable ingredients; nothing that we couldn't potentially have in our own kitchens.
Healthy Choice Café Steamers Simply Chicken & Broccoli Alfredo is one of my favorites, with a great protein-to-carb ratio of 27 grams of protein and 8 grams of carbs. Not all of the Simply line is as low-carb as the Chicken & Broccoli Alfredo, but at least they use brown rice, and the pasta is a blend of whole grain and white flour.
The Healthy Choice Café Steamers Simply Meatball Marinara, for example, is a good portion-controlled option for those looking for a red-sauce-and-pasta frozen dinner, with 18 grams of protein, 39 grams of carbohydrate, and 6 grams of fiber. And like the rest of the Simply line, the ingredients look like a home recipe for authentic marinara sauce and meatballs.
The full line of Tandoor Chef Authentic Indian Cuisine is centered on all-natural ingredients with an abundance of flavorful spices. My favorite is Tandoor Chef's low-carb Chicken Tandoori with Spinach with 200 calories, 15 grams protein, and just 6 grams of carbs per serving. Note that there are two servings per container, though, and most people (at least most people I know, myself included) typically eat the full meal in one sitting, not two).
Even when doubled, however, the carbs and calories are still in check; the main drawback is that the sodium content also doubles, to nearly 1,200 mg per meal. Not necessarily a bad thing for someone who is physically active and loses a lot of sweat with exercise or work outdoors, and can use the extra electrolytes, but not a good option for folks who need to limit their sodium intake.
Amy's Kitchen is a vegetarian brand that's marketed as all-natural, fresh, and organic, but the majority of their products are heavy on white starchy carbs, many with at least three to four times as much carb as protein. Their Tofu Scramble with Veggies and Hashbrowns, however, is one that I really like, with 320 calories, 19 grams of carbs, and 22 grams of protein.
This is one of those "compromise" meals that can be a good fit for people looking for a starchy-carb-y frozen dinner.
Michael Angelo's Vegetable Lasagna is made with white pasta, but it's also one of the higher protein vegetarian lasagnas on shelves, without a huge load of carbs or calories (20 grams protein, 42 grams of carb, and 350 calories). And the ingredients are all whole foods, with more nutrient-rich vegetables (think broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, mushrooms, spinach and kale) than pasta.