Feeling a bit uninspired in the kitchen? Been there, felt that.
About 60 percent of Americans are cooking at home more due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the May 2020 Food and Health Survey conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC).
Coming up with new ideas — and the motivation to cook and clean up after — can be challenging, especially when you're whipping up three meals a day, seven days a week, for months on end.
Supermarket frozen meals can be a handy, quick fix, but they're often loaded with sodium and preservatives to allow for long shelf life.
Enter: These heat-and-eat meals that are fully-prepared but made with a keen eye on nutrition. Order a la carte or snag a meal plan for those weeks (or months) when you're super-busy or not in the mood to cook from scratch.
What to Look for When Choosing a Pre-Made Meal
Many of these heat-and-eat meal programs allow you to sort by diet type — for instance, gluten-free, vegetarian or high-protein. All of the brands clearly list every ingredient and complete nutrition info to allow you to select a macronutrient ratio that fits within your daily goals.
"The best way to make the healthiest choice is to do your research! Read the ingredients list and ask questions about how your food is prepared," Stewart says. Bonus points if the brand shares details about how and where they source their ingredients.
As a general rule, when evaluating if a heat-and-eat meal is well-balanced and nutritious, look for:
- At least 8 grams of fiber. That will get you about one-third of your daily dose in one meal. (P.S. Here's why fiber is so important for weight loss.)
- A dose of healthy fats. Olive oil, avocado and nuts will boost the satisfaction level and flavor of even lower-calorie meals.
- A source of lean protein. Beans and legumes, poultry, seafood, eggs, beef, pork and tofu are all strong options.
- At least three colors. "This will amplify the nutrient density since each color represents different nutrients, antioxidants and phytochemicals that will enhance your health," Stewart says.
“When visualizing your entree after you heat and plate the meal, aim for half to be vegetables, one-quarter whole grains and one-quarter lean protein with a sprinkle of healthy fats that measure about the size of your thumb,” Stewart says.
What to Watch Out For
"The average supermarket freezer meal has a laundry list of ingredients that likely won't support your health," Stewart says.
Many popular heat-and-eat meal brands are "cleaner," but there can still be some less-than-healthy options in the mix. Steer clear of:
- Added sugars. These can be hiding in sweet breakfasts, but many dressings, condiments and sauces, too.
- Trans fats from hydrogenated oils. By January 1, 2021, trans fats will be banned from food and they're being phased out now because of their link to everything from higher bad cholesterol levels to increased chronic inflammation.
- Preservatives, artificial flavors, artificial colors and any ingredients you can't pronounce. The more natural, whole foods, the better.
- More than 800 milligrams of sodium. "Salt is often used as a preservative, so it's not surprising that the sodium content in packaged products can be high," Stewart says. "Salt isn't bad for our health — it's actually essential — but the amount of salt you consume makes a difference," Stewart says. Since you should aim to get 2,300 milligrams of sodium or less per day, try to seek out meals that offer one-third or less of that.
7 Healthy Pre-Made Meal Delivery Services to Try
The rotating menu of meals always includes choices that are certified gluten-free and peanut-free.
"Every meal is free of processed sugars and excludes more than 85 'banned ingredients' that you might find in standard supermarket frozen meals," Stewart says.
The single-serving heat-and-eat dishes, such as Homestyle Chicken With Butternut Mac and Cheese and Super Pesto and Sausage Penne, will last for up to 5 days in the refrigerator, and most average around 500 calories.
Buy it: freshly.com; Price: Starts at $7.99 per one-serving meal
Vegetarians and vegans, this one's for you.
"Veestro is a 100-percent plant-based heat-and-eat meal company that uses colorful, organic ingredients, no preservatives and can easily be filtered by dietary preferences like high-protein, gluten-free, low-calorie, nut-free, soy-free and kosher," Stewart says.
Choose your chow either a la carte or subscribe to a "chef's choice" or "weight loss" weekly plan that's chosen for you. Recipes range from Golden Chickpea Stew and Eggplant Casserole to Pad Thai and Pasta Bolognese.
"Due to the focus on plants, these meals are full of fiber and antioxidants to support your health goals, immune system and gut health," Stewart says.
Buy it: veestro.com; Price: Starts at $9.90 per one-serving meal
3. Eat Clean Bro
Choose from more than 50 fresh, fully-prepared meals or snacks and have them delivered to your door tomorrow.
Sort by calorie level or choose recipes that are "lean" (such as the Buffalo Shrimp), "mean" (think: Salmon Burger Poke Bowl) or "clean" (such as the Turkey Taco Bowl) according to your health goals.
Just be sure to watch the portion size of the protein and the sodium content, as some recipes overdo it on both accounts.
"The amount of protein in one meal could be more than necessary depending on your unique needs. A good rule of thumb is to aim for 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day," which works out to about 55 grams of protein for a 150-pound person.
Buy it: eatcleanbro.com; Price: Starts at $8.99 per one-serving meal
4. The Good Kitchen
With responsibly-sourced ingredients from sustainable producers and farms, meals from The Good Kitchen can hang out in your freezer for up to six months.
Sort by diets including keto, Paleo, gluten-free, low-fat, Whole 30 or AIP (Autoimmune Protocol), and then select meals from their rotating menu. Take a quiz and they'll customize a subscription box for you, or select a sample pack of five meals — like Pulled Pork With Collard Greens or Beef Shepherd's Pie — to get a taste.
Buy it: thegoodkitchen.com; Price: Starts at $11.49 per one-serving meal
5. Territory Foods
Think you can't support local while ordering from a large meal delivery company? Not with Territory.
Helmed by nutrition consultants, this brand teams up with local chefs in each market they serve to create meals centered around local flavors, ingredients and inspiration.
All recipes are free of dairy, gluten and added sugars, and are ready to eat within 90 seconds of unboxing. Meals are delivered twice each week to ensure freshness, and with every order, Territory donates a pound of food to help combat hunger with Feeding America.
Buy it: territoryfoods.com; Price: Starts at $9.95 per one-serving meal
Designed to help you "eat like a world-class athlete," Trifecta is the largest all-organic meal delivery company in the U.S. Grass-fed meats, wild-caught seafood and lean vegetarian proteins ensure that each meal will help you maintain your muscle.
Choose from keto, Paleo, vegetarian, vegan, clean or classic meal plans or order a la carte. Regardless of what plan you choose, all recipes are free of soy, dairy and gluten. The classic option, with entrees like Salmon With Brown Rice and Mixed Vegetables, is a nice example of that plate breakdown that Stewart recommended.
Each meal comes with 4 ounces of protein, 4 ounces of meat or fish and 4 ounces of carbs.
Buy it: trifectanutrition.com; Price: Starts at $9.97 per one-serving meal
7. Kevin's Natural Foods
Each of Kevin's recipes, including Teriyaki Chicken and Cilantro-Lime Chicken, is a dream for most with food allergies and intolerances. Expect no preservatives, artificial ingredients, refined sugar, wheat, soy, legumes or dairy in any of the meals.
They come in portions that feed two, with about 8 ounces of food (6 ounces of meat and 2 ounces of sauce) per person. Since they're cooked sous vide, or via vacuum, they can last up to 55 days in the fridge before cooking.
Since Kevin's only supplies your protein, you'll have to whip up a few sides to round out the chicken. To make this a balanced meal, pair it with veggies (pop a pack of frozen broccoli into the microwave) and a whole grain (whole-wheat bread is a quick, healthy option).
Buy it: kevinsnaturalfoods.com; Price: $11.25 per two-serving meal