Are frozen dinners actually healthy? They're an easy go-to when I don't have time to cook, but they seem too good to be true...
I have to come clean here: There was a time in my life, long ago, where I basically lived off of frozen dinners. I was working crazy hours, on a shoestring budget, and couldn't even cook rice without burning it. (Okay, that still happens pretty regularly.)
It seemed like a no-brainer to grab a bunch of frozen "healthy" dinners during my weekly grocery runs. But no matter which meal I tried—pepperoni pizza, “spa-inspired” peanut chicken satay, soba noodle salad—I was always starving after I finished my meal. Sure, some of them actually tasted kind of okay. But they definitely weren’t doing much to keep me full, nourished, or happy. And that’s what food should do, right?
Now, to get down to your question: Are frozen dinners really healthy? Keeping a few of these kinds of meals in the freezer for when you’re in a pinch is definitely a better solution than ordering pizza or going through the drive-thru for a quick meal. But I don’t recommend relying solely on frozen, packaged meals for dinner every evening.
For those nights when you must resort to a frozen entree, here's how to pick the healthiest option.
First thing to know: Not all frozen dinners are created equal. Most of them—the ones drenched in cheese, breaded and fried, or covered in mysterious gravy—you should stay far away from. And many frozen dinners don't source the best quality ingredients, so you may not be getting organic, GMO-free veggies you'd typically buy on your own. But not all of them are so terrible, and if you do your due diligence, you can even find some that are pretty well-balanced.
Typically, frozen meals that tout a “healthy” label have a very low calorie count for a full meal. The reason they’re low in calories? They are t i n y. Like, are-you-sure-this-isn't-food-for-a-small-child tiny. Less food equals a lower calorie count, and to many people, something low in calories automatically registers as a nutritious option.
But a lower calorie count doesn’t necessarily mean a meal is healthy. A Snickers bar has 280 calories, the same amount as many of these meals, but you wouldn’t eat one of those and call it a balanced meal, right? If you’re going to buy frozen dinners, pay less attention to the calories and take a closer look at the ingredients list. If you see any fillers, funky chemical names, or added sugars like dextrose or malt syrup, put the frozen meal down and slowly back away. You don’t want that stuff in your body, trust me.
Then take a look at the daily values of what’s in your food. Choose meals with sufficient amounts of protein (20 grams is a good goal), healthy fats, and fiber (these will help you feel more full), and minimal sugar, carbohydrates, and trans fats. Packaged food is often brimming with sodium to help keep things flavorful, so be wary of the daily value of that nutrient.
Finally, look at the picture on the box. Is what you're about to eat mostly veggies and chicken, or is it a lot of noodles and sauce? Even though it may be higher in calories, that veggie-chicken combo is going to give you far more macronutrients and keep you much fuller than pasta.
If you're going to opt for a frozen chicken dinner, make your meal more substantial, filling, and beautiful by adding greens and spices to your meal. And definitely don't eat it out of the plastic container. Try serving it on your own dishes, adding a some fresh herbs, and then make sure that 75 percent of your plate is veggies. You'll feel better about what you're eating—those plastic cartons are a little depressing—and you'll load up on fiber that will help you feel more satisfied.
Bottom line: If you're picky about what's in your frozen dinner, it can be a good choice every once in a while. Just garnish that microwaveable meal with some fresh greenery for a more wholesome (and tasty) feast!
Photo credit: Paul Delmont