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Frozen Entrees-- Are They Nutritional Heroes or Zeroes?

They're like little restaurant meals in a box. In the 1970's we knew them as "TV dinners," nice little packages of entrees that look like a homemade goodness ready in just two to five minutes.  But whether it was Chicken Parmesan or Beef Tips with a prudent side of veggies, or even a tangy Tofu Lasagna, you've probably wondered - Are these little boxes of tasty convenience healthy? And are the ones crying out, "light!" really helpful towards weight loss? With them passing by the food powers that be, you would think so. Well, browse these pointers to make up your own mind:

Pros


  • Frozen vegetables and fruit retain much of their original nutrients and are a healthy second alternative to fresh produce.  

  • Many frozen entrees these days are including more meatless options for those watching cholesterol and saturated fat. You can find Mushroom Ravioli, Veggie Lasagna, Tofu Pad Thai and much more.

  • Frozen entrée manufacturers are adding more creative types of vegetables than ones so we aren't stuck with just peas and carrots.

  • There are many frozen entrees now targeting dieters such as Lean Cuisine trying to reduce calories and fat.

Cons

  • Most manufacturers are still adding MSG or MSG-like flavor enhancers such as "autolyzed yeast extract" or even "flavor enhancers" or "natural spices," among the many additives.  If a food makes you feel like "hey, how come my homemade food can't taste this good?" it's usually because a manufacturer is using a flavor enhancer. What's wrong with these? Food sensitivities such as migraines, tiredness, are just a few of the proven negative effects. Also, flavor enhancers can make you want to rip into another box, causing you to (at least want to) eat more than you normally would have without them.

  • If you are trying to lose weight, you may have noticed that many of the entrees still use white rice or pasta. These starches have been stripped down of their fiber. Since fiber is what helps you stay full, you can see the problem.

  • Frozen entrees are notorious for pouring on the salt. Try to look for entrees that are marked low-sodium or have less than 500 mg of sodium.


Tips

  • Look for frozen entrees that have the least amount of ingredients that are not directly food.   The shorter the ingredient list, the better it is for you.

  • Look for entrees that are low in fat, sodium and sugar and high in protein.  You probably would want less than 10 grams of fat, sugar that is less than 5 grams, and more than 10 grams of protein. High fiber would be another plus, preferably more than 5 grams.

  • There are food manufacturers who are trying to raise the bar with frozen foods such as Amy's Kitchen, Kashi's and Trader Joe's, for a few examples. Amy's uses organic ingredients and every single ingredient is something you can identify. Trader Joe's also have entrees with fewer flavor enhancers and additives.  Kashi's and Amy's Kitchen are more expensive than other entrees but some may feel this is worth it.

  • Most frozen entrees are notoriously high in sodium. Look for meals that have less than 500mg sodium (the less the better).

  • Until frozen dinner manufacturers can offer more fiber, choose a low-calorie entrée and take along some fresh (raw) fruit and veggies to give you the extra fiber and nutrients you need to stay full so that you won't be grabbing a donut or chips just a little while later.

With such a busy world, it's obvious that frozen entrees are here to stay. But what good is this if the meals are hurting our health in any way? Paying the extra amount for frozen entrees that are actually good for you may be what is needed for this industry to change as a whole.

Catherine S. Hains, MS RD has been interested in health and nutrition since she was a young child. Growing up in Fort Worth, TX, she earned a Bachelor's Degree in Broadcast Journalism from Texas Christian University and wrote for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for 12 years. Her life-long interest in nutrition and disease prevention never waned, and she went on to earn her Master's Degree in Nutrition from Eastern Michigan University. Cathy, now a Registered Dietitian, owns Lighthouse Nutrition and Wellness in Gig Harbor, WA where she enjoys inspiring people of all ages to make losing weight and living a healthy lifestyle easy, fun and permanent. She enjoys good food, cooking and food preparation, and showing others how healthy this can be. Her other pastimes include traveling, art, music and family life. She also likes staying fit with tennis, bicycling walking and jogging, researching nutrition and helping clients be at their best. For more information on Cathy, visit www.lighthouse-nutrition.com or write to Catherine at info@lighthouse-nutrition.com.

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