Stroll down any supermarket frozen food aisle and the evidence is clear: frozen meals are big sellers, claiming more shelf space than virtually any other type of frozen food. Beyond the old-standard TV dinners, you'll find ethnic (especially Asian), vegetarian, low-calorie, supersized, natural, and organic meals.
The challenge is to find frozen meals that you enjoy, that will satisfy your hunger, and won't sabotage your weight loss efforts.
Choosing a Frozen Meal
There is no getting around it. When selecting a frozen meal, you'll need to read the "nutrition facts" panel on the package to make sure your choice is a healthy one. So allow yourself a little extra time on the frozen-foods aisle (or use my handy list of picks below).
Weight Loss Clinic eating plans prescribe two levels of frozen meals: a light frozen dinner, with less than 300 calories and no more than 8 grams of fat; and a regular frozen dinner, with 360-400 calories and a maximum of 25 grams of fat.
Jot these numbers down and refer to them when checking labels. Of course, whenever possible, it's best to select a lighter frozen meal, with fewer calories and fat.
Here's a label-reading tip: Make sure you check the portion size, listed on the very top of the nutrition label. Some crafty manufacturers measure a portion as something less than the entire contents of the box.
As a general rule, look for entrees that include plenty of vegetables. These tend to be lower in calories and higher in vitamins and minerals as well as fiber (which helps fill you up). Opt for brown rice or whole grains whenever possible, and choose lean meat, fish, or chicken.
Some frozen dinners are loaded with fat, sodium, and calories. Sticking with the lighter versions (such as Lean Cuisine, Healthy Choice, Smart Ones) is usually a safe bet. But there are no guarantees. You still need to read the label to be certain.
If you're watching sodium, be especially careful about frozen meals. My advice for everyone is to look for meals with less than 800 milligrams of sodium (that's about 1/3 of a day's recommended allotment). If you're on a low-sodium diet, divide the total number of sodium milligrams recommended per day by three. Then use that number as a guide when selecting frozen entrees.
Don't be fooled into thinking that package claims are always what they seem. While most brands are reputable and honest, some may use wording that can mislead you. For example, it's not always clear what makes products labeled "natural" or "organic" qualify for that terminology.
Some labels boast that their dinners are "preservative free," yet most frozen meals don't include preservatives because freezing prevents spoilage. The bottom line: Don't assume a product is healthy without carefully checking out the nutrition facts panel.
By the numbers, here are my guidelines for choosing a healthy frozen meal:
1. Aim for those that keep calories in the 250-300 range (journal as light frozen meal). 2. Choose meals with less than 4 grams of saturated fat. 3. Choose meals with less than 800 milligrams of sodium. 4. Select meals with at least 3-5 grams of fiber.
12 Good Choices
There are too many healthy options on the market to list, but here are a few to consider when choosing your next frozen entree.
The Beauty of Frozen Meals
Singles, busy families, older people, and office workers alike enjoy the simplicity and convenience of the frozen meal. At my office, the freezer is jammed with all kinds frozen meals, which get zapped in the microwave for quick, portable, portion-controlled, and relatively inexpensive lunch.
Here's one more tip: Try to add a side salad and a serving of fruit to round out your meal, especially if you're having a lower-calorie frozen dinner. Not only will it boost the vitamin, mineral and fiber content, but the extra fruit and vegetables will help fill you up. After all, what good is the portion-controlled serving if you still feel hungry after you eat it?