If you’re in a pinch, warming up frozen pizza or a microwave dinner can sometimes be a quick and convenient option. However, these types of ready-made meals don’t exactly have a reputation for being the most healthy option out there.
But what is it about frozen meals that’s important to look out for while you’re perusing the frozen food aisle? From preservatives, to excessive calories or the presence of trans fats, what should you take into consideration before stocking up on frozen foods?
In this article, we answer this very question, plus share some healthy choices you may want to reach for the next time you’re in need of a quick meal.
Are Frozen Meals Healthy?
There are many types of frozen meals out there that make it easy to heat up anything from macaroni and cheese to chicken enchiladas within minutes. However, frozen foods are often highly processed, may be higher in calories and contain harmful additives that you may want to limit in your diet.
For example, as with other ultra processed foods, frozen meals can contain additives that may increase your risk of certain cancers. Some frozen foods like pizza or pizza pockets may also contain trans fats, which may have links with poorer heart health.
Many frozen meals and processed foods are often high in sodium, added sugars, and saturated fats, so you’ll want to carefully read the nutritional information of your chosen meal. Some studies also show a link between frozen and ready-made meals to an increased risk of obesity.
It’s important to note that the nutritional content of your frozen meal can also depend on the brand and the type of food. Some frozen meals may be high in protein or low in carbohydrates, which can be convenient if you’re following a ketogenic diet.
Other Factors to Consider For Healthy Frozen Meals
Our Nutrisense dietitian team recommends looking for frozen options that include whole grains, fiber, and protein is one way to help ensure that your frozen entree is on the healthier side. Meals with nutritious foods such as sweet potatoes, quinoa, brown rice, lean proteins such as chicken, and leafy greens or vegetables like zucchini or green beans can be a great place to start.
If you're regularly stocking up on frozen dinners, you may also want to identify brands that do not use harmful additives, trans fats, and low-sodium meals. Some good examples of these brands are found at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, which we will discuss later on.
What to Avoid in a Frozen Meal
As with any food you’re including in your diet, it’s good to be aware of what ingredients are in it. While not all frozen meals are necessarily unhealthy, the quality and the ingredients can also help determine the healthiness of a frozen food or meal.
When searching for some healthier frozen meal options, you will want to opt for brands that don’t include the following ingredients in their products:
Trans Fat and Partially Hydrogenated Oils
Trans fat is commonly found in frozen meals and fried foods. The Nutrisense dietitian team recommends avoiding or limiting your consumption of trans fat, as some research shows a possible link between this fat and high cholesterol, poor cardiovascular health, and heart disease. Check the package label of your frozen meal to make sure it doesn’t include this type of fat.
Low Fiber Content
Interestingly, increasing dietary fiber also has possible links with improved weight loss outcomes. Unfortunately, many frozen meals are low in fiber, though the type of meal you choose can also determine the fiber content.
Opting for frozen meals that include plenty of fiber in each meal or adding extra sources of fiber on the side can help you reap some of these health benefits.
Additives and Colorings
Some food dyes and colorings may be associated with negative health consequences. A paper on the toxicology of dyes found blue, red, and yellow dyes may lead to hypersensitivity reactions in some people, and some have tested positive for genotoxicity (or the ability of certain chemicals to cause damage to genes).
Some additives and preservatives may also interfere with levels of certain vitamins and minerals within your body. For example, consuming phosphoric acid, a common additive, can be a risk factor for hypocalcemia, or extremely low levels of calcium, in women who are postmenopausal.
Another common frozen food additive is butylated hydroxyanisole, which one rat study suggests can be a potential endocrine disruptor and may have other health risks. However, most research has been conducted on mice, and more studies are necessary to draw further conclusions.
High Sodium Content
It’s important to watch out for sodium content when you’re reading the nutritional information of your favorite frozen meal. Frozen meals tend to be higher in sodium, with some reaching up to 40 percent of your daily recommended intake in just one meal. High sodium intake has been linked to high blood pressure, which may be a precursor for heart disease and stroke in those who are salt-sensitive.
Five Healthier Frozen Dinners Recommended by a Dietitian
Now that we’ve uncovered some of the things to look out for when shopping for frozen meals, here are some healthier options recommended by Nutrisense dietitian Heather Davis MS, RDN, LDN that you may want to consider the next time you’re in a hurry.
Remember that you’ll want to have a look at the ingredients list of the food you are choosing. You can also consult a registered dietitian or nutritionist for further advice based on your individual health needs.
1) Frozen Wood-Fired Pizza from Whole Foods
Nutritional Info to Note:
- 490 calories
- 17 grams of fat
- 38 grams of carbohydrates
- 3 grams of fiber
- 8 grams of protein
A hand-crafted pizza with simple ingredients, lean protein, and veggie toppings can be a good option. There are a lot of different frozen pizza varieties to choose from, but you’ll want to look for one that doesn’t include trans fat.
One option is the Whole Foods Pizza and Hummus-Kale that contains sunflower seed oil and olive oil, plus veggies like kale and eggplant. This option also contains three grams of fiber and eight grams of protein per serving.
If you’re sensitive to gluten and/or dairy, you may want to go for another option like the Cauliflower Plant Based Cauliflower Crust. This thin crust has really simple ingredients, is gluten free, and vegan, and super easy to throw a sauce, cheese, and toppings on.
Pair your pizza with a healthy fat like avocado or snack on some extra veggies for added fiber on the side. You can also add some extra protein toppings such as grilled chicken to help blunt your glucose response. Going for a short walk after your meal can also be beneficial for blood sugar levels.
2) Stuffed Chicken Spinach & Artichoke from Real Good Foods Co
Nutritional Info to Note:
- 490 calories
- 30 grams of fat
- 4 grams of carbohydrates
- 1 gram of fiber
- 47 grams of protein
If you’re on the go, it’s always nice to have a high-protein meal on hand. Real Good Food Co’s Stuffed Chicken Spinach and Artichoke meal is loaded with protein, vegetables, fats, and delicious spices.
This dish is free of trans fats, high in protein, and contains 490 calories, which makes it a great frozen meal option. To make this dish even better, try adding more veggies on top or even on the side. It can be as easy as grabbing some frozen veggies at the grocery store and heating them up with the meal.
3) Keto Steak Chili with Refried “Beans” from 518 Kitchen
Nutritional Info to Note:
- 800 calories
- 68 grams of fat
- 18 grams of carbohydrates
- 8 grams of fiber
- 34 grams of protein
A frozen burrito or wrap is a classic frozen food item. Unfortunately, some wraps or burritos may come with more processed foods and can be high in carbs. Luckily, there are some options that may be slightly better in terms of nutrition.
One of these options is the Keto Steak Chili with Refried “Beans” from 518 Kitchen. This plate is similar to a deconstructed burrito and is keto friendly. It contains 34 grams of protein, eight grams of fiber, and sits at 800 calories.
While this type of meal can be quite satiating due to the protein, fat, and fiber content, it’s important to note that it is higher in fats, so you may want to be careful with your portion size.
4) Chicken Pesto from Primal Kitchen
Nutritional Info to Note:
- 460 calories
- 39 grams of fat
- 10 grams of carbohydrates
- 5 grams of fiber
- 18 grams of protein
This chicken pesto and cauliflower rice meal from Whole Foods is another great frozen meal with minimal ingredients. This recipe is also dairy free for those who are lactose intolerant, and contains 18 grams of protein and just 490 calories.
The meal also contains five net grams of carbs, making it a great option for anyone following a keto diet. The mix of protein, fats, and fiber make this dish a perfect go-to if you are looking for a blood sugar friendly option to keep on hand in your freezer.
5) Frozen DIY Meals
If you have a bit of extra time and enjoy meal prepping, another great way to make sure your frozen meal is on the healthier side is to DIY it. This can be as easy as throwing a few of your favorite ingredients in a storage box like Tupperware and storing it for the future.
To do this, start by grabbing your favorite veggies. To make it easier, you can opt for a frozen veggie medley from your local grocery store. Next, you can add in a carb source such as brown rice or precooked potatoes. If you’re eating low carb, omit this step and simply add more veggies or fats in.
Finally, choose a frozen protein source of choice, such as chicken, fish, or tofu, and finish your meal off by adding in a healthy fat source and any additional spices you like in. When you’re done, eating a quick meal on the go will be as easy as simply reheating your dish. Plus, you’ll know exactly what you’re getting every time.
Engage with Your Blood Glucose Levels with Nutrisense
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