Without a doubt everyone is more crunched for time than ever before, which leaves many turning to frozen foods that can be popped into the microwave instead of homemade meals. But are these frozen dinners healthy? The answer may be surprising.
As with all the food that people eat, choices matter. There is a wide variety of frozen meals available on the market, and some are healthier than others. For example there is a line of vegetarian, organic meals that may be healthier than the giant "Hungry Man" varieties. However most of these meals do pose some nutritional problems in the long run.
If a person is concerned about portion control and weight, frozen meals can offer a short term solution, provided that these meals are chosen for healthy purposes and not just convenience. Unfortunately, the healthiest frozen dinners are not always easy to find in regular supermarkets, though specialty stores such as Trader Joe's or Whole Foods do offer better frozen dinner options.
While we in America have an ever increasing problem with portion control which contributes to the growing obesity epidemic, the problem with many frozen dinners is that the portions are not big enough. Consider that the selling point for these meals is that they are under 300 or 400 calories. Even if a person consumes three of these meals per day, that is still a paltry 900 to 1200 calories in a day. That is starvation rations for most people, as it doesn't meet the metabolic needs for the average adult body. This can lead to a person feeling hungry throughout the day and reaching for more calorically dense snacks which offer little in the way of nutrition.
Of course, a person will lose weight eating frozen dinners consistently, but then transitioning back to a normal diet becomes a problem. This is a major problem with weight loss programs that advocate purchasing their meals. Eventually people will stop purchasing those meals and then have to figure out how to eat healthy on their own, often resorting back to larger portion sizes of other convenience type foods, such as boxed meals or fast food.
Some meals do offer portion sizes that are a more comparable to normal portion size. However these meals are usually high in other unhealthy things such as fat, sodium and sugar.
In addition to portion size, what is actually contained in the meal is of the utmost importance. Some frozen meals are decidedly lacking in nutrition, along with adequate portion size. Nearly every frozen meal on the market is high in sodium, making them off limits to anyone on a sodium restricted diet. They can also contain high amounts of fat and sugar.
Many meals are loaded with artificial preservatives and other chemicals that allow the meal to be microwaved and taste relatively fresh. While all of these chemicals have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, it doesn't mean that people should be eating large quantities of them.
Most frozen dinners also have a problem with vegetables. Many are lacking to say the least. Nutrition experts and the federal government recommend eating at least 2-3 cups of vegetables per day, and making fruits and vegetables half of the total volume of a meal. Most frozen dinners don't contain this much. In addition, they don't always contain fruits and if they do, they are usually loaded with sugar and other additives. This means that in order for a person to be meeting their nutritional needs they still need to consume additional fruits and vegetables aside from what's contained in the frozen meal.
There are some healthy options available to those who are looking for frozen dinners, but you likely won't find most of them in the average supermarket, though this is slowly changing. They are specialty brands that cater to a health conscious market, and they will cost a bit more than the $1.99 varieties.
Here are six brands that are relatively healthy options:
What makes these meals relatively healthy is that they contain more fruits, vegetables and whole grains compared to other brands. In addition, some are lower in sodium, are organic and contain decent portion sizes.
When it comes to choosing a frozen dinner, it is essential that consumers read the nutrition labels carefully. Look for the amount of fat, sodium and sugar, the serving size, and then carefully look at the ingredients. If it contains things like brown rice and whole wheat and you don't need a degree in chemistry to read the label, it's probably a good choice. Also the shorter the ingredient list, the better. This means that there aren't a lot of additives.
Of course, people could always make their own frozen dinners and have complete control over what goes into the food. There are a number of tools available to help with portion sizing, and by spending time making meals ahead of time, someone could always come home to a home-cooked meal at a fraction of the price. While it may not be an option for everyone, it could help some people transition from eating store-bought meals (especially if they are trying to lose weight) to eating more home cooked foods and learning what they should be eating along the way.