The Best and Worst Frozen Foods
Last Updated: Aug 13, 2013
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You get home from a hectic day at work, and you’re starving. A healthy, home-cooked meal would be fantastic, if you only had more time and energy. If you’d planned ahead on the weekend and taken the time to cook a bunch of chicken or shrimp and veggies for the week ahead and portioned everything in containers in your refrigerator, you could pull one of those meals out and heat it up. But, of course, last weekend you were so busy with family and friends. So, what’s your dinner option for tonight? In your freezer, you might have a few frozen meals. But, are any of them really healthy for you? Get ready to check your freezer, because we’ve gathered a list of some of the best and worst options.
WORST: CEDARLANE ROASTED CHILI RELLENOS
Most Americans go well beyond the American Heart Association’s recommended daily limit of 1,500 mg of sodium a day. And frozen foods can be a hefty contributor to our salt intake. CedarLane Roasted Chili Rellenos is a prime offender. The first two ingredients in this meal are cheese, and that contributes toward its 20 g of fat (12 of them are saturated, which is about 70% of what your total daily intake of saturated fat should be). While the dish does contain a fair amount of fiber (10 g per serving),one entree also adds 620 mg of sodium to your diet -- almost half your daily limit.
BETTER ALTERNATIVE: AMY’S ORGANICS LOW SODIUM BLACK BEAN ENCHILADAS
You don’t have to avoid frozen Mexican food to stay healthy. Amy’s Organics Low Sodium Black Bean Enchiladas contain valuable amounts of fiber and protein, both of which promote blood sugar and appetite control; and antioxidants, which enhance immune function. “With less than 300 calories, under 200 mg of sodium and 5 g of protein, this meal will satisfy you without excessive fat or calories,” said Colleen Hurley, a registered dietitian in the San Francisco Bay area. Seeking out items labeled “low sodium” is a useful strategy to keep in mind while shopping for frozen foods. To display a “low sodium” label a food must contain less than 140 mg of sodium per serving.
WORST: BOSTON MARKET'S BUFFALO-STYLE CHICKEN STRIPS WITH MACARONI AND CHEESE
If you’re craving comfort food, Boston Market's Buffalo-Style Chicken Strips with Macaroni and Cheese may seem appealing. If you also hope to keep your wellness in check, however, you’ll want to keep shopping. One serving of the chicken and cheesy pasta dish contains 31 g of fat, 680 calories and 1,500 mg of sodium -- the entire amount of the American Heart Association’s suggested daily limit of sodium! Out of the 31 g of fat, 11 are saturated which is more than half of the recommended daily maximum. A diet high in sodium and saturated fat is associated with an increased risk for heart disease, stroke and obesity.
BETTER ALTERNATIVE: ARTISAN BISTRO’S GINGER CHICKEN
Some frozen foods that sound healthy truly are. Artisan Bistro’s Ginger Chicken is a great example, according to Hurley. “Starting with antibiotic free chicken, this meal provides 5 g of fiber, 22 g of protein and only 7 g of sugar while offering potent antioxidants from Matcha green tea and phytonutrients from edamame.” The ginger in this zesty entree works as a natural digestive aid, making it a great option for heartburn sufferers. Ginger Chicken also other nutritious vegetables, including green beens, sugar snap peas and carrots.
WORST: HEALTHY CHOICE CHICKEN PARMIGIANA
At only 340 calories for an entire meal that includes an entree with a side of veggies and a dessert, the Healthy Choice Chicken Parmigiana seems great. Sure, it has 16 g of protein and 7 g of fiber, but with 9 g of fat and 17 g of sugars, there are a few red flags with this choice. The syrupy sweet peach dessert is filled with questionable ingredients such as caramel flavor and butter flavor (just the flavor, not the actual ingredient) that we hardly want to call it real food. You’d be better off with a turkey or chicken sandwich on whole grain bread, served with fresh veggies or fruit salad. Don’t let the low calories fool you.
BETTER ALTERNATIVE: KASHI MAYAN HARVEST BAKE
Whole grains are severely lacking from most Americans’ diets, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And, increasing your intake may make weight control easier. Whole grains are also lacking from frozen foods. Kashi Mayan Harvest Bake is an exception, providing a blend of seven whole grains, including amaranth, oats, brown rice and barley. “This meal packs 8 g of fiber and 9 g of protein -- and you can pronounce all the ingredients!” said Hurley. Whole, natural ingredients you can easily recognize and pronounce tend to be healthier than processed foods, which are laden with chemical additives and unhealthy fats. This dish is also moderate in sodium, providing 380 mg per serving, and naturally sweetened with sweet potato and plantains.
WORST: KID CUISINE CARNIVAL MINI CORN DOG MEAL
Corn dogs may be fun to eat, but this variety from Kid Cuisine is far from nutritionally uplifting. “If the impossibly long, difficult to pronounce ingredient list wasn’t enough to deter you, it provides 20 g of fat, more than 20 g of sugar, 790 mg of sodium and 25 mg of cholesterol,” said Hurley, who calls the item one of the worst foods she’s ever seen. “I would say this is a poor choice meal for an adult, let alone a small child.” The meal comes with French fries, corn and a dessert sweetened with sugar and corn syrup. The corn dog batter is made with refined grains, which are stripped of fiber and other nutrients during processing. Hydrogenated vegetable oil also makes the ingredient list -- a major sources of unhealthy trans-fats.
BETTER ALTERNATIVE: APPLEGATE ORGANICS TURKEY BURGERS
If you’re looking for a lean, protein-rich meal in a snap, Applegate Organics Turkey Burgers may be just the thing. “These lean 3-ounce turkey burgers are incredibly pure with only 2 ingredients -- turkey and rosemary,” said Lauren Schmitt, a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer in southern California. “Compared to other burgers with a lot of added salt and ingredients that you cannot pronounce, these burgers are a wise choice.” To create a balanced meal, cook a burger in your microwave or toaster oven then serve it on 100% whole-grain bread or leftover brown rice. Then add a handful of greens and a drizzle of healthy salad dressing. Or fill a romaine lettuce leaf with the diced up burger, and add other fresh ingredients of your choice for a hearty, healthy wrap.
WORST: WHITE CASTLE CHEESE BURGERS
These are small (and thus may seem fairly harmless), but the nutritional deficits in these small burgers are mighty. “White Castle burgers carry 9 g of total fat and 4 g of saturated fat. That is double what the [Applegate Organics] turkey burger hold, and the turkey burger is 1 ounce larger!” said Schmitt. “This small burger also contains 25% of the sodium limit per day, or 660 mg.” As a low-fiber food, the White Castle bun won’t satiate you the way a whole-grain equivalent would. Particularly if you’re watching your waistline, seek out a higher-fiber, lower-calorie entree to eat within a balanced meal. If you’re in a pinch, swap the bun out for whole-grain bread, and then add tomato slices and leafy greens.
BETTER ALTERNATIVE: HEALTHY CHOICE HONEY BALSAMIC CHICKEN
Eating balanced and healthy meals is a proven way to manage your weight and wellness. And meals like Honey Balsamic Chicken, from Healthy Choice, can make doing so easy. The white-meat chicken is a nutritious protein source. The red potatoes provide complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. The colorful veggies provide plentiful antioxidants. “It is actually so low in calories – there are only 210 calories in the package -- that I would suggest some people add a healthy side dish,” said Schmitt. It also contains only 3.5 g of fat and 4 g of fiber. While the sodium content is somewhat high (500 mg per serving), it fits well within an overall healthy diet, said Schmitt. Just make sure to limit high-sodium foods -- such as pretzels and canned soups -- throughout your day.
WORST: SWANSON’S CHICKEN POT PIE
Pot pie is a favorite American comfort food, but the nutritional profile of this one from Swanson’s could have the opposite effect on the health conscious. “This pot pie is 400 calories (which isn’t too high for most people), but it contains 23 g of total fat and 10 g of saturated fat per serving,” said Schmitt. “Protect your heart and avoid that level of fat in a meal if the primary source is saturated.” The entree is also high in sodium, providing 690 mg per serving, and the white-flour crust is virtually devoid of fiber. While it does contain a few vegetables, the main ingredients are “chicken filling” -- a mixture of ground chicken, salt and fillers -- and modified food starch, which is a chemically altered carbohydrate used as a thickener.
BETTER ALTERNATIVE: GARDEN LITE SOUTHWESTERN SOUFFLé
Easily as comforting and flavorful as a frozen pot pie, this veggie-loaded soufflé is significantly more nutritious. One soufflé contains only 180 calories and 2.5 g of healthy unsaturated fat. One serving also provides 4 g of fiber, 9 g of protein and 45% of adults’ daily recommended intake of vitamin C. The 4 g of sugar contained occur naturally in vegetables and whole grains, and are much healthier than added sweeteners, such as corn syrup. Each soufflé provides a hearty helping of tomatoes, zucchini, black beans and bell peppers, making it comparable to a mini salad. After heating it in the microwave or oven, serve your soufflé with a healthy side dish, such as mixed greens and balsamic vinegar in a whole grain pita.
WORST: DIGIORNO CHEESE STUFFED PIZZA
Frozen pizzas are some of the most popular grab-and-heat items in the U.S., with 84 new varieties launching in 2010 alone, according to IBIS World Industry Reports. Most frozen pizzas aren’t particularly healthy. While this DiGiorno Stuffed Pizza contains fair amounts of protein and calcium, the carbohydrates derived from refined grains and the fats contained aren’t of the healthy variety. “Saturated fat in this pizza is one of the main reasons I find it unhealthy, with 8 g in a 5.5-ounce serving,” said Schmitt. “The second reason is an incredibly high sodium level of 1,020 mg per serving, which is more than half of [the maximum that healthy people] are able to eat in a day.” One slice, or one-fifth of the pie, contains 380 calories.
BETTER ALTERNATIVE: AMY’S ROASTED VEGETABLE PIZZA
You can still enjoy frozen pizza without compromising your wellness. Amy’s Roasted Vegetable Pizza is topped with marinated organic shiitake mushrooms, sweet onions, marinated artichoke hearts and roasted red peppers. Since it contains no cheese or other animal products, it’s also suitable for vegans and those with lactose intolerance. The crust is made with organic flour with added whole-grain nutrients. “I like seeing things like wheat germ and wheat bran towards the top of an ingredients list to give people an extra punch of fiber,” said Schmitt. “For a 4-ounce serving of pizza, 280 calories is not too shabby.” Since the pizza only provides 7 g of protein per serving, which is low for many people, said Schmitt, serve it with an extra protein source for enhanced satiation.
WORST: SMUCKER’S UNCRUSTABLES
If Smucker’s Uncrustables sandwiches were made with natural nut butter, whole grain bread and all-fruit spread, they would be nutritionally friendly. Instead, they’re based on low-nutrient ingredients, including enriched flour and high fructose corn syrup -- a sweetener that’s been linked with excessive weight gain and triglyceride problems. One sandwich contains 210 calories, almost no vitamins or minerals and only 2 g of fiber. For a healthier option that takes little time, make your PB&J. Two tablespoons of peanut butter with 2 slices of whole wheat bread provides 5 g of fiber and valuable amounts of vitamins, minerals and protein. Make it healthier by swapping in fresh fruit, such as strawberry, pear or apple slices, for less sugar and increased nutrition.
Harvard University Health Services: Fiber Content of Foods in Common Portions
BETTER ALTERNATIVE: LYFE KITCHEN WHOLE GRAIN PILAF
Did you know that frozen vegetables can be equally or even more nutritious than fresh veggies? Frozen produce is flash frozen at its nutritional peak. This pilaf by Lyfe Kitchen contains kale, artichokes and zucchini, along with three nutritious whole grains -- brown rice, quinoa and red wheat berries. It also provides 90% of adults’ daily recommended intake of vitamin A and 60% of the RDI of vitamin C. Plus, the healthy fat from the toasted almonds ensure that the 360 calories contained in this meal are nutrient-rich and satisfying. To augment the 7 g of protein contained in this meal, you can top it with water-packed tuna or leftover baked chicken, or serve it with a glass of low-fat milk.
Lyfe Kitchen: Whole Grain Pilaf
WORST: STOUFFER’S MACARONI AND CHEESE
The labels on this Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese package proclaiming “no preservatives” and “100% real cheddar cheese” may make it seem somewhat healthy, or at least natural. A peek at the nutrition label proves otherwise. Based on refined grains and rich in artificial additives, this mac and cheese contains 16 g of fat, 7 of which are saturated, and 810 mg of sodium. The partially hydrogenated vegetable oil it contains is a major source of trans-fats, which do not need to be listed on the label unless the product contains a certain level. The amount of naturally occurring trans-fats people consume daily leaves virtually no room for any additional trans-fats from processed ingredients, according to the American Heart Association.
BETTER ALTERNATIVE: LIFESTYLE CHEFS CHANNA MASALA MEAL-IN-A-BUN
Chana masala is a flavorful East Indian dish made with spiced chickpeas. This “meal-in-a-bun” by Lifestyle Chefs allows you the nutritional advantages of the legume dish with the grab-and-go convenience of a pastry. “It is low in fat, and the sodium is manageable at 360 mg per serving,” said Schmitt. In addition to chickpeas, the entree contains whole-wheat flour, tomatoes and onions, seasoned with natural, healthy ingredients, including ginger, garlic, other spices and mango. It also has added flaxseeds that provide omega-3 fatty acids -- essential fats linked with positive heart-health and brain function. For a touch of sweetness, it contains a small amount of agave syrup, a plant-based sweetener that is considered safer and healthier than high fructose corn syrup.
WORST: HOT POCKETS PEPPERONI PIZZA
Little tantalizes like the smell of pizza. Sadly, the buttery garlic flavored crust advertised on the Hot Pockets Pepperoni Pizza package comes at a hefty nutritional price. “This hot pocket has twice the sodium and saturated fat of the Chana Masala on the previous slide,” said Schmitt. “It has only 2 g of fiber, and it’s also not very high in protein which may lead an individual to get hungry too soon after eating.” Like other unhealthy items, the lengthy list of unnatural ingredients indicates that the item is highly processed, she added, and thus, worth avoiding. As a processed meat, pepperoni itself tends to be high in sodium and trans-fats, and its surrounding crust is made with refined grains. A vegetable-loaded pizza or sandwich made with whole grains provides a much healthier option.
BETTER ALTERNATIVE: AMY’S SPINACH FETA IN A POCKET SANDWICH
Not all pockets are unhealthy. The main ingredient Amy’s Spinach and Feta In A Pocket is...organic spinach! As one of the most nutrient-dense foods around, spinach makes for a valuable dietary staple. The pocket’s crust is made with organic and whole grain flours, and the cheese contained is low in fat. The entree’s sodium content isn’t particularly low, at 590 mg per serving, but as long as the rest of your diet is devoid of salty foods, you should be fine. One pocket also provides 25% of adults’ RDI for calcium, 3 g of fiber and valuable amounts of vitamin C and iron. The 11 g of protein per pocket can help keep you satisfied between meals. Since one pocket is only 260 calories, consider adding a healthy side dish or two, such as fresh fruit and a glass of low-fat milk.
WORST: HUNGRY-MAN BONELESS FRIED CHICKEN
No matter how hungry or hefty in size you are, this frozen meal is far from ideal. While the chicken is white and boneless, it’s also been rolled in low-nutrient batter and deep fried. The oil used to fry the poultry contains trans-fats and the “potatoes” consist of reconstituted potato flakes, more trans-fats (in the form of margarine), salt and preservatives. The sauce also contains trans-fats. The meal provides 38 g of fat, 12 of which are saturated, and nearly 1,200 mg of sodium. The list of ingredients is as long as it is unpronounceable, containing a slew of artificial fillers, preservatives and flavor enhancers. The only way to make this meal healthy is to eat a few bites, along with larger amounts of healthy foods, or better yet -- opt for something else.
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