Perusing the freezer aisle at the market is almost inevitable. The thought of popping a plastic tray in the microwave and having a whole dinner ready in 60 seconds flat is just so alluring. But as time-saving as the frozen meal has proven to be, there is still the internal struggle over whether it's as healthy as a home-cooked meal.
While one dish won't undo all your healthy habits, it's important to know what to look for when eyeing a frozen meal. Deciphering the labels on packaged foods claiming to be healthy, low-carb, low-sodium, gluten-free, low-calorie, natural, and any other health buzzword you can think of can be challenging.
In fact, a 2010 study shows that this kind of вЂњnutrition marketingвЂќ is found on 49% of all products, and it's commonly used on products with high levels of saturated fat, sodium, and sugar. That's why Thumbtack personal trainer and wellness coach Kaitlyn Noble advises to look closely at what you're buying. She explains, вЂњWe worry so much about grams of fat and calorie counts without knowing what's in our food.вЂќ
Always read the ingredient list when going for pre-made meals.
Noble points out that while calories help us understand portion sizes, they don't provide much perspective on what we're consuming. вЂњOur bodies care about quality (like choosing organic) and the micronutrient content of our food.вЂќ In addition to scouring the ingredients list for organic vegetables, it's important to pay attention to protein and fiber content. The numbers to look for, according to Noble are 15 to 20 grams of protein per meal and a total of at least 35 to 40 grams of fiber a day. This ensures proper hormone production, stable energy, and staying full for four to five hours.
With all this in mind, we put seven common frozen meals to the test. Unaware of the brand, Noble analyzed the nutrition label and ingredient list to provide an unbiased opinion. You don't have to feel guilty: This is what a nutrition expert would choose from the freezer aisle.
Healthy Choice Mediterranean-Style Lentil BowlHealthy Choice Mediterranean-Style Lentil Bowl $3Shop
The First Impression: вЂњI love that the ingredients are all organic and recognizable. The fiber content is superb.вЂќ
The Red Flag: вЂњSugar and canola oil are listed here, but in this case, I wouldn't obsess about it because they make up less than 2% of the sauce ingredients.вЂќ
The Expert Tip: вЂњThis meal is just short of my protein recommendation. Eating it with a hard-boiled egg, hemp seeds, or a handful of nuts could easily get it to that 15-gram mark.вЂќ
Kashi Sweet Potato Quinoa BowlKashi Sweet Potato Quinoa Bowl $5Shop
The First Impression: вЂњThe ingredient list is extremely clean.вЂќ
The Red Flag: вЂњI wish we could ensure the quality of the ingredients with an organic stamp, but I love how much product you get in this dish. The fiber content is also great.вЂќ
The Expert Tip: вЂњThis is low calorically and in protein for an entire meal. Adding chicken breast, fish, or another vegetarian protein source like chickpeas would amplify this to a full meal.вЂќ
Love the Wild Barramundi with Mango Sriracha ChutneyLove the Wild Barramundi With Mango Sriracha Chutney $9Shop
The First Impression: вЂњI love that the ingredients list is short, and the protein content is fantastic. This is a dish that will sustain you for hours.вЂќ
The Red Flag: вЂњI don't love that sugar is listed in the ingredient list, but when you go to the sugar content in the nutrition label, only 5 grams per serving is not too bad. If you made this dish at home, you'd have more control over ingredients, but for a frozen option, I think it's great.вЂќ
The Expert Tip: вЂњThis is more of a meal protein than a whole dish. SautГ©ed veggies and quinoa (even from the frozen section) would be excellent additions to make this meal whole.вЂќ
Amy's Black Bean Vegetable EnchiladaAmy's Black Bean & Vegetable Enchilada, Light in Sodium (Pack of 12) $74Shop
The First Impression: вЂњLoving all the organic vegetables, low sugar content, and high fiber content in this dish. I recommend eating two for a full meal.вЂќ
The Red Flag: вЂњThe low protein content is the main issue with this dish. If you double the portion like I recommended, that does bring the protein up to 10 grams, which is better.вЂќ
The Expert Tip: вЂњYou have great carbohydrate sources and fiber content happening in this meal. By doubling the portion size and adding protein from a side of beans, a spoonful of greek yogurt, or quinoa, you'll add amino acids and protein to keep you satiated longer.вЂќ
Stouffer's Lasagna with Meat & SauceStouffer's Lasagna With Meat & Sauce $3Shop
The First Impression: вЂњI love how high the protein count is, but it is majorly lacking in vegetables.вЂќ
The Red Flag: вЂњThe dish contains a lot of dairy, so be sure you're not sensitive to lactose if you're choosing this meal.вЂќ
The Expert Tip: вЂњAdding leafy greens to this meal would increase the fiber content and bulk up the vitamins and minerals.вЂќ
Trader Joe's Thai Sweet Chili Veggie BurgerTrader Joe's Thai Sweet Chili Veggie Burger $4Shop
The First Impression: вЂњSince we can't see the source of produce in a frozen meal, seeing organic is crucial in understanding the quality. This meal doesn't pass that test for me.вЂќ
The Red Flag: вЂњThis product contains soy and wheat, which cause sensitivities in many people, and soy has been linked to breast cancer and other issues. It also lists canola oil, which is not organic, meaning it has a good chance of being GMO.вЂќ
The Expert Tip: вЂњIf this is an entire meal, definitely eat two portions since the protein, fiber, and calorie count are too low for an entire meal. It would suffice as a snack, however.вЂќ
Lean Cuisine Marketplace Sesame ChickenLean Cuisine Marketplace Sesame Chicken $3Shop
The First Impression: вЂњThe dish is labeled 'sesame chicken,' but the protein count is insufficient, meaning the dish is probably more focused on the carbohydrates like breading and sugar.вЂќ
The Red Flag: вЂњThis dish contains 15 grams of sugar! Way too high for a chicken dish.вЂќ
The Expert Tip: вЂњI'd recommend bulking this dish up with leafy greens and other veggies. A quick steam could be an easy way to add them in without spending hours at the stove.вЂќ
Which expert tip are you going to try next time you grab a frozen meal on the go?