Even dietitians call in reinforcements from time to time to get dinner on the table.
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But instead of preheating the oven to crisp up a sodium-laden frozen pepperoni pizza, Bremer often turns to a high-protein, plant-based meal. According to the experts, there are plenty of frozen entrées you can buy that offer the nutrients your body needs.
"When searching for the best vegetarian heat-and-eat meals, I keep in mind three things: taste, calories and nutritional balance," Bremer says. "While it's always great to have quick and easy options, satisfaction with the meal itself is vital in having a positive relationship with food, and I thoroughly believe that we should enjoy what we eat!"
If you agree, keep scrolling for seven veggieful heat-and-eat meals you can be proud to chow down on.
- Best Overall: Sweet Earth Cacio E Pepe Bowl ($4.99, Target)
- Best Vegan: Trader Joe’s Vegan Pasta Bolognese ($3.49, select Trader Joe’s stores)
- Best Comfort Food: Life Cuisine Vermont White Cheddar Broccoli Bowl ($4.39, Target)
- Best Gluten-Free: Tattooed Chef Enchilada Bowl ($4.99, Target)
- Best Breakfast: Trader Joe’s Tofu Scramble with Soy Chorizo ($3.99, Trader Joe’s)
- Best Just-Like-Homemade: Amy's Vegetable Lasagna ( $5.29, Target)
- Best From Meal Delivery: Veestro Golden Chickpea Stew ($14.25, Veestro)
How We Chose
We tapped five registered dietitians from across the country to help us find the best vegetarian heat-and-eat meals. These options all fit their nutritional criteria and are widely available at supermarkets or via meal delivery service.
All of the foods on our list have important nutrients like:
- Lean protein
- Whole grains or starchy vegetables
- Non-starchy vegetables
- Healthy fat
The amount of calories and macronutrients you need differs from person to person. Focusing on protein, our dietitians recommended choices with at least 15 grams per serving. This is the equivalent to the amount of protein you'd score from about two and a half eggs or 1 cup of beans.
But it's important to remember that eating healthfully isn't all about one nutrient.
"More so than macronutrients, I like to focus on the ingredients. The hardest thing with heat-and-eat meals is they tend to be higher in saturated fat and sodium," says Alex Caspero, RD, a St. Louis-based registered dietitian and the founder of Delish Knowledge.
"This is not to say that y0u can't enjoy high saturated fat or sodium foods occasionally, but this is important if you eat packaged foods often."
We know not everyone wants to shop for fresh or frozen foods online. You can also find all of these products at various, nationwide grocery stores.
1. Best Overall: Sweet Earth Cacio E Pepe Bowl
Per meal: 420 calories, 16 grams protein, 19 grams fat (4 grams saturated fat), 490 milligrams sodium, 46 grams carbohydrates (7 grams fiber, 5 grams sugar, 0 grams added sugar).
The meal is a vegan and gluten-free blend of chickpea pasta, peas, broccoli, plant-based "Parmesan" and black pepper. Fairly low in sodium and high in fiber, this Italian-inspired entrée is a nutritional winner. It even offers 25 percent of your daily value (DV) of iron — a mineral that's notoriously challenging for plant-based eaters to get enough of.
"I like this brand because it has a really great nutrition profile and most importantly, it tastes amazing! I love that it's dairy-free because my son who has allergies to dairy can enjoy it with me," Shaw says.
Buy it: Target.com; Price: $4.99
2. Best Vegan: Trader Joe’s Vegan Pasta Bolognese
Per meal: 430 calories, 30 grams protein, 10 grams fat (1.5 grams saturated fat), 690 milligrams sodium, 55 grams carbohydrates (13 grams fiber, 10 grams sugar, 0 grams added sugar).
You'll almost feel like you're digging into a meaty home-cooked Sunday supper after you warm up this lentil-based pasta bowl. Even though it's fully vegan, this choice has the highest protein of the bunch at 30 grams. The tomato sauce is supplemented with ground beef-like wheat protein crumbles, garlic, onion basil, carrot, mushrooms and fresh herbs. The result is an Italian-inspired meal full of flavor and fiber.
"I do not consider myself vegan, but I do enjoy this meal — and the Trader Joe's Vegan Pasta Bolognese sauce from the jar," Bremer says. "I would pair this with a baguette sliced down the middle and topped with butter and garlic!"
Buy it: Trader Joe’s stores; Price: $3.49
3. Best Comfort Food: Life Cuisine Vermont White Cheddar Broccoli Bowl
Per meal: 420 calories, 20 grams protein, 15 grams fat (9 grams saturated fat), 790 milligrams sodium, 49 grams carbohydrates (3 grams fiber, 6 grams sugar, 0 grams added sugar).
Think of this meal, courtesy of the rebranded company you might remember as "Lean Cuisine," as the grown-up version of the classic blue box mac and cheese you loved as a kid.
"Life Cuisine's Vermont White Cheddar Broccoli Bowl is mac and cheese with amped nutrition. This creamy dish gives you 20 grams of protein as well as 30 percent of the DV of calcium, 25 percent of Vitamin A and 20 percent of Vitamin C," says Lauren Harris-Pincus, RDN, founder of Nutrition StarringYou and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.
Buy it: Target.com; Price: $4.39
4. Best Gluten-Free: Tattooed Chef Enchilada Bowl
Per meal: 290 calories, 15 grams protein, 14 grams fat (7 grams saturated fat), 800 milligrams sodium, 30 grams carbohydrates (9 grams fiber, 5 grams sugar, 0 grams added sugar).
For a low-calorie, gluten-free, Mexican-inspired meal, go for this one from Tattooed Chef, which comes highly recommended. "I was sent some samples of the Enchilada Bowls and loved them so much, I went out and bought more for myself," Shaw says. Beyond the restaurant-copycat flavor, the bowl is super nutritious. "It has 17 grams of protein, 9 grams of fiber and no added sugar."
This meal leaves plenty of room to add low-sodium sides like crudités with salsa and guac. In addition to plenty of zesty spices, peppers and chiles, it includes 1 full cup of vegetables. Riced cauliflower and tomatoes lead the line-up, and black beans, salsa, corn, corn tortillas, cilantro, garlic, olive oil and other seasonings round out the mix.
Buy it: Target.com; Price: $4.99
5. Best Breakfast: Trader Joe’s Tofu Scramble
Per meal: 370 calories, 25 grams protein, 21 grams fat (7 grams saturated fat), 980 milligrams sodium, 26 grams carbohydrates (5 grams fiber, 5 grams sugar, 0 grams added sugar).
If a hot breakfast sounds much more tempting than a bowl of cereal or a granola bar (again), but you just don't always have the time, microwave this pick from Harris-Pincus. It features scrambled tofu, a common vegan egg substitute, paprika-spiced soy protein "chorizo," plus a bit of spinach, bell peppers, vegan "cheddar cheese" and spices.
"A serving gives you an impressive 25 grams of plant-based protein, lots of veggies and 5 grams of fiber," Harris-Pincus says. And you can enjoy it for any meal as-is. I often add some to a high-fiber tortilla with extra beans, avocado and cilantro for a nutrient-rich, flavorful meal."
Just note that this is the highest-sodium selection on our list, so be sure to pair it with plenty of water and aim for a low-sodium menu the rest of the day. Most adults should take in no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, with an ideal limit of fewer than 1,500 milligrams, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Buy it: Trader Joe’s stores; Price: $3.99 for 10 ounces
6. Best Just-Like-Homemade: Amy's Vegetable Lasagna
Per meal: 370 calories, 17 grams protein, 14 grams fat (6 grams saturated fat), 670 milligrams sodium, 45 grams carbohydrates (4 grams fiber, 8 grams sugar, 0 grams added sugar).
If you're a fan of homemade lasagna, this boxed version from Amy's will give you both the comfort and nutrition you need at the end of the day. "Amy's has a great line of heat-and-eat meals filled with what I typically look for: A generous amount of both protein and fiber to help with satiety," Caspero says.
Harris-Pincus is particularly fond of this comfort food casserole, too. "Amy's veggie lasagna is a tasty meal that's filled with zucchini, spinach, onions and carrots as well as 16 grams of protein," she says. "With just 370 calories, you also have an excellent source of calcium from the ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, plus some potassium from the spinach."
This one can also be served alongside other foods for more nutrient power. "For even more protein, serve it with a side salad topped with beans," Harris-Pincus suggests. (We recommend this Tomato and White Bean Salad With Herbs!)
Buy it: Target.com; Price: $5.29
7. Best Meal-Delivery: Veestro Golden Chickpea Stew
Per meal: 370 calories, 16 grams protein, 5 grams fat (0 grams saturated fat), 330 milligrams sodium, 66 grams carbohydrates (14 grams fiber, 10 grams sugar).
If your schedule allows no time to shop, turn to a meal delivery service like vegan Veestro. You can sort the current entrée options by high-protein, low-calorie, gluten-free, seasonal favorites and more. Select 10 to 30 meals to have delivered to your door at a time; the more you order, the less each meal will cost.
The Golden Chickpea Stew ranks as one of the best high-protein vegetarian heat-and-eat meals for all diet styles; it's soy-free, dairy-free, nut-free, gluten-free, kosher and vegan. But that certainly doesn't mean this Indian-inspired recipe lacks flavor.
Even though it's the lowest-sodium product on this list, the quinoa, tomato and chickpea stew is spiced nicely with ginger, curry powder, turmeric, jalapeño peppers, chili powder, mustard seeds and lemon juice. (A couple of these ingredients happen to deliver anti-inflammatory benefits, too!)
Buy it: Veestro.com; Price: $14.25 for 12 ounces (for a discount, subscribe to a meal service)
What to Look For in the Best Vegetarian Heat-and-Eat Meals
If you'd like to fill your freezer with options outside of those featured above, our dietitians have some tips for what to seek out — and what to limit — to ensure you're fueling wisely.
Look for heat-and-eat meals that have 15 grams of protein or more, and consider the suggestions below.
Getting enough calories from your meals is important, as you need these calories for energy. About 600 calories or so should be a good sweet spot, depending on your body size, activity levels, goals and the amount of meals and snacks you eat in a day.
As we mentioned earlier, you'll want a mix of fats, protein and carbs for maximum satisfaction and an overall nutritionally-balanced meal. "Meals that are balanced help keep blood sugar levels from rapidly rising and falling, which ultimately keeps our energy and mood stable," Bremer says.
Fiber is an important nutrient for things like our heart and gut health, and most of us don't get enough of it, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Shaw suggests that when choosing vegetarian heat-and-eat meals, look for options that have 5 grams of fiber or more. Ideally, you should be eating between 25 and 38 grams of fiber per day, per the Mayo Clinic.
What to Watch Out For
As with most pre-prepared foods, there are a few things you'll want to look out for if you're trying to pick the healthiest heat-and-eat meal.
While fat is an important macronutrient, limiting the amount of saturated fat in your diet is important. "These fats are considered unhealthy when you eat them often or in high amounts," says Roxana Ehsani, RD, a registered dietitian and national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The AHA recommends eating no more than 13 grams of saturated fat per day, so adjust the rest of your day's meal plan accordingly if your vegetarian meal has more than 5 grams.
Packaged foods are notoriously known for being high in sodium, so it's important to read your food labels when you're buying frozen meals.
Aim for heat and eat meals that fall below 800 milligrams per entrée, Harris-Pincus says. That's about a third of the daily recommended amount suggested by the AHA.
Don't be afraid to add to your vegetarian heat-and-eat meal with a side dish or topping to cover your nutrition bases. "It's often tough to find vegetarian meal options with sufficient protein, especially because frozen meals are portion controlled," Harris-Pincus says. "Sometimes it's necessary to balance out the meal."
So if you find yourself still hungry after chowing down on your vegetarian heat-and-eat meal of choice, consider another protein-rich food. "Get creative with sides like bean salad, roasted chickpeas, soybeans or broad beans, or serve up a dessert that include Greek yogurt," Harris-Pincus says.
Fiber-rich foods can also help you feel more full and add nutrition to your meal. "To crank up the fiber and the volume of the meal, heat up a serving or two of frozen veggies or add a salad or cup of soup on the side," Ehsani adds.
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