University of FloridaSolutions for Your Life

Download PDF
Publication #FSHN12-02

Shopping for Health: Guide to Frozen Meals1

Sarah A. Glenny and Wendy J. Dahl2

Imagine a plate of steaming spaghetti and meatballs topped with grated cheese, or perhaps grilled herb-flavored chicken with zucchini and mashed sweet potatoes. For most people, these meals might seem like a lot of work to prepare. Busy schedules, limited cooking space, or a lack of kitchen equipment may limit what you eat at meals. However, with the large variety of frozen meals that are now in grocery stores, it’s possible to expand your food options and still eat tasty and healthy meals. The key is to know what to look for when you are shopping. To learn how to choose delicious meals that meet your taste preferences and your health needs, read on.

Frozen Meal Basics

Figure 1. 

Frozen


Credit:

Sebastiano Pitruzzello. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. http://flic.kr/p/tqGsf


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

The Benefits of Frozen Meals

Frozen meals are convenient and can be helpful for people who have minimal cooking skills. Also, preparing meals from scratch may be difficult for people who don’t have enough cooking space or kitchen utensils. Frozen meals, however, give you the chance to enjoy a delicious meal with a minimal amount of work and time.

Another benefit of frozen meals is that freezing retains much of the food’s vitamin and mineral content, so eating frozen meals on a regular basis can be healthy as long as you make good choices (1). The use of effective freezing methods helps to maintain the original texture and good taste of foods.

Frozen meals may also offer health benefits. Because frozen meals are controlled portion sizes, some brands may aid in weight management. The Dietary Guidelines 2010 recommendations for weight loss suggest that consumers “focus on the total number of calories consumed” and “monitor food intake” (2). Choosing healthy frozen meals may help consumers learn portion sizes (3). Healthy frozen meals can be used as a tool to reach weight-loss goals (3).

Frozen meals can be used to achieve nutritional goals, such as those associated with high-fiber or low-fat diets. Since the nutritional content for the entire meal is listed on the food label, you can easily check calories, fiber, fat, sodium, and other important nutrients to make sure you are staying on track.

Frozen Meals and You

Choosing the best option for you and your specific health needs is simple. Remember these three basic messages to help you select the healthiest meal for you:

1. Choose a well-balanced meal. Select whole grains, lean sources of protein, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. USDA’s MyPlate offers a good example of how a typical plate of food should look (4).

Figure 2. 

ChooseMyPlate.gov


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Many manufacturers of frozen meals offer a variety of meal options that include whole grains, lean protein sources, vegetables, and occasionally fruits.

2. Keep your health in mind. Many meals contain high levels of sodium and fat. Reading the food label can help you select a healthy option for your nutritional goals and needs. Keep these suggested values in mind when you select frozen meals (Table 1, based roughly on a 2000 kcal diet):

Look for meals with lower amounts of sodium and fat, especially saturated fat, and more than two grams of fiber for added nutritional benefit.

3. Healthy eating starts with smart shopping. Cost can be a barrier to purchasing frozen meals regularly. Using coupons and stocking up during a sale are great money-saving options.

Now It’s Your Turn!

Many options can be found in stores—from vegan to Asian-inspired. Companies have researched the specific needs and preferences of consumers like you. Many companies hire a team of chefs, dietitians, and food scientists to develop their recipes. Listed below are some common brands of frozen meals.

Lean Cuisine®: This brand contains numerous lines of entrées based on taste and meal style. Most meals are around 300 calories and contain Diet Exchange values and Weight Watchers® points as listed on the package. Lean Cuisine® includes many different product lines including the Spa Collection™ and Simple Favorites™. Most of these lines contain vegetarian options.

      • Selections from the Spa Collection™ include whole grains, 1 serving of a fruit or vegetable, and 3–6 grams of fiber. Examples include Apple Cranberry Chicken, Hunan Stir Fry with Beef, and Butternut Squash Ravioli.

      • The Simple Favorites™ product line provides consumers with the chance to enjoy some of their favorite foods while staying within their desired calorie range. Examples include Macaroni and Cheese, BBQ Chicken Quesadilla, and Swedish Meatballs with Pasta.

Healthy Choice®: Most entrées in this brand include a lean source of protein, whole grains, a serving of vegetables, and some fiber. The variations in the entrée types are based on preparation methods and flavor preference.

      • “Steaming Entrées” – Simply steam the meal in the bag. No stirring or puncturing is needed to make these products, so there are fewer steps. Examples include Garlic Herb Shrimp, Chicken Romano Fresca, and Portabella Parmesan Risotto.

      • “Complete Meals” boasts a full serving of vegetables and a fruit-based dessert, making a complete meal. Examples include Fajita Steak with a caramel-apple multigrain crisp or Golden Roasted Turkey Breast with cherry-blueberry crisp.

Amy’s®: This brand offers vegetarian meals made with organic ingredients. The meals are labeled with symbols making it easy for consumers to spot choices that are vegan, low-fat, certified Kosher, dairy-free, soy-free, tree-nut free, or cholesterol-free. Products are divided into a variety of unique types, including the following:

      • Indian dinners, such as Mattar Paneer and Vegetable Korma

      • Pot pies, such as Broccoli Pie and Shepherd’s Pie

      • Pocket sandwiches, such as Cheese Pizza orTofu Scramble

      • Whole meals, such as Chili and Cornbread or a Southern dinner

Many frozen meals like these are available in your grocery store. Having choices allows you to experience food with unique flavors and from different cultures that also match your dietary needs. Now that you know how to select healthier choices, all that is left to say is Bon appétit!

Figure 3. 

9 Minute Pasta


Credit:

Photo by alachia. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. http://flic.kr/p/7ZTKV2


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

References and Resources

(1) Hunter K & Fletcher J. The antioxidant activity and composition of fresh, frozen, jarred, and canned vegetables. Innov Food Sci Emerg. 2002; 3(4):399–406.

(2) U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. (7th ed.). 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

(3) Reimers K, Pardo S, Kawiecki D & Rippe J. Portion controlled frozen meals at lunch are associated with high compliance and perceived benefits during a weight management program. J Am Diet Assoc. 2011; 111(9):SA83.

(4) U.S. Department of Agriculture. Current Graphics. 2011. Retrieved September 1, 2011 from Choose MyPlate.gov website. http://www.choosemyplate.gov/global_nav/media_resources.html [14 September 2012].

Recommended Websites

University of Florida IFAS Extension EDIS - http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_nutrients

The EDIS website is a comprehensive, single-source repository of all current UF/IFAS numbered peer-reviewed publications, including a large collection, sorted by topic, that provides research-based information on Health and Nutrition for consumers in Florida. Learn more about specific nutrients and making healthy food choices.

Tables

Table 1. 

Nutrient on the

Food Label

Suggested Amount

per Meal

Calories

250–400

Fat

5–20 g

Saturated Fat

0–7 g

Trans Fat

0 g

Fiber

2–5 g

Sodium

400–600 mg

g = grams; mg = milligrams

Footnotes

1.

This document is FSHN12-02, one of a series of the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Original publication date January 2012. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Sarah A. Glenny, MS-DI student, and Wendy J. Dahl, assistant professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.

The use of trade names in this publication is solely for the purpose of providing specific information. UF/IFAS does not guarantee or warranty the products named, and references to them in this publication do not signify our approval to the exclusion of other products of suitable composition.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.