When you’re rushing to get ready for work or too tired to cook dinner, nothing’s easier than grabbing a frozen entrée. After all, the prep time is zero.
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But how do you make sure these convenient meals aren’t hurting your efforts to stay healthy (and trim)? Our dietitians offer eight tips to keep in mind when browsing the frozen food aisle:
1. Emphasize quality
“The most important thing to look at is the ingredients list,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD. If you can find meals with fewer than seven ingredients, she says, you’re more likely to be eating whole foods and less likely to be eating additives and preservatives.
The quality of the ingredients is more important than the quantity of calories, she says.
Anna Taylor, MS, RD, LD, CDE, adds that “just because a product is advertised as ‘organic,’ ‘natural’ or ‘vegan’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy. You have to read the nutrition label and ingredients list to be sure.”
2. Round out meals
“The best meals have a nice portion of colorful vegetables, a lean protein source (like chicken, turkey, beans or fish/seafood) and either a whole grain or a starchy vegetable,” says Ms. Taylor.
If any of these elements are missing, add them as a side. “Pair a chicken-and-sweet-potato entree with a side salad, or round out your meal with raw veggies and hummus,” she notes.
3. Choose whole grains
“Entrees that utilize 100 percent whole grains or even grain alternatives, like bean pasta and cauliflower rice, are best,” says Ms. Kirkpatrick.
Finding refined grains, like white rice, in a frozen meal “is a deal-breaker for me,” she adds.
4. Keep it lean
“Compared with traditional frozen entrees, ‘lean’ and ‘light’ varieties typically shave off considerable calories, saturated fat and sodium,” notes Julia Zumpano, RD, LD.
Such meals are typically less than 400 calories — a good limit when you’re watching your weight.
“Steer clear of ‘hearty’ or ‘family-size’ meals unless you plan on sharing them,” she adds.
5. Favor fiber
Fiber is a nutrient missing from most processed foods. It eases digestion and helps you feel full so that you don’t overeat.
“Choosing meals with beans, whole grains and vegetables is a good way to increase your fiber,” says Ms. Taylor. “Aim for at least 25 to 35 grams of fiber per day.”
6. Spare the starch
Try to avoid frozen entrées that solely contain starch, such as macaroni and cheese, suggests Ms. Zumpano.
“If you crave the comfort of a starchy meal, limit the portion to half or three-quarters of the entrée. Then include a source of protein and some vegetables, like a hard-boiled egg and side salad,” she says.
If you can’t resist eating the entire entrée, just limit or avoid starches at your next meal to get back on track.
7. Limit salt and saturated fat
Frozen meals can be notoriously high in sodium and saturated fat. “The worst frozen meals have more than 700 grams of sodium and more than 4 to 5 grams of saturated fat,” advises Ms. Zumpano.
It’s best to limit the sodium in your frozen entrees to 600 grams or less, and the saturated fat to 3 grams or less.
8. Say no to trans fat and sugar
Avoid any meal containing trans fat, says Ms. Zumpano. The FDA has ruled it unsafe for human consumption. Adds Ms. Taylor, “Scan the ingredients list for ‘partially hydrogenated oils,’ a fancier term for trans fat.”
They advise avoiding added sugar as well. The daily limit for added sugars is 25 grams for women and 36 grams for men.
“Many frozen entrees labeled ‘healthy’ are high in added sugar. Some contain 12 grams — that’s a whole tablespoon!” notes Ms. Taylor.
On most days of the week, you’ll want to rely on fresh meals — or tasty leftovers. “I would limit frozen meals to no more than twice a week,” notes Ms. Taylor.
But when you need the convenience of a frozen entrée, these tips can guide your choices.