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How to Choose a Healthy Frozen Meal

    • July 2, 2024
    • Eat Well
    • 5 minute read
  • Laura O'Hara MS, RD/LD

Yes – you read that right! Coming from a Registered Dietitian, it is OK to eat a frozen meal. Whether you are in a pinch on time, don’t cook a lot anymore, or it is all that fits in with this month’s grocery budget – the frozen meal aisle does not need to be completely off-limits when learning to eat a healthier diet. Since the 1950s, when TV dinners were originally created, frozen meals have come a long way. Today, many options exist for those who need a quick, easy, and healthy meal.

Frozen meals are great to have on hand in your freezer as they last a long time, and they are conveniently portioned out to help reduce food waste. While it is true that some frozen meals are not the best for us due to a higher amount of unhealthier ingredients than others, there are some that are healthier than others. A frozen meal is a quick and easy way to satisfy hunger and will help you meet some of your daily nutritional needs, especially when you know how to choose the right one for you.

In general, there is nothing wrong with frozen foods. For example, buying frozen vegetables and fish is just as healthy as buying them fresh. When buying frozen and ready-to-eat meals, though, there is a higher risk of them being very high in nutrients like sodium (salt), which we need to keep an eye on for blood pressure control, and saturated fat, which is the type of fat we want to limit in our diet to keep our hearts healthy.

So, what should you look for in a frozen meal?

It is a good idea to look at Daily Value (DV) percentages and keep sodium at 20% or less. The recommended amount of sodium an adult should have per day is 2,300 mg, and 20% of 2,300 mg is 460 mg.  However, the Centers for Disease Control says 600 mg is the max amount of sodium a meal can have to be called “healthy”, so any frozen meal that has less than 600 mg of sodium is a good choice. If you have any heart-related medical diagnoses or kidney disease, your sodium needs may be more restricted. Be sure to monitor the rest of your sodium intake throughout the day when consuming these higher sodium foods.

Meals with plenty of colorful vegetables for fiber and lean protein sources like turkey, beans and seafood are great. Fiber and protein are easy ways to help keep you fuller longer. Many frozen meals are low in calories likely making them low in protein and fiber. Aim for the meals with whole grains and vegetables, and protein. 

Tip: You can make the frozen meals your own. If you’re having fettuccini alfredo, add chopped broccoli and chicken for protein and fiber. Or pair your macaroni and cheese with a side salad with vegetables and nuts or seeds for additional protein, fiber, and heart-healthy fats. Balance is key to overall health and helps to calm any unwanted cravings.

    Keep the saturated fat, or unhealthy fat, at 3 grams or less per meal. This is the same as keeping it at 20% Daily Value (DV) or less per serving. This type of fat causes high cholesterol levels and can increase the risk for strokes and heart attacks.

    Limit added sugars. Some meals may have sauces that raise the added sugar content. Also try to keep this at under 20% Daily Value (DV).

    Key Takeaways:

    • Watch the sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars.
    • Look for high amounts of protein (look for 15-20 g) and fiber (5 grams) per serving. If it is easiest to remember the 20% rule, aim for 20% or more of protein and fiber per serving when you can.
    • Fill in any nutrient gaps with easy staples. Add a side of veggies, chicken, ground turkey or beef to your pasta when the frozen meal itself is lacking. This helps to keep you full which can help with weight management and can also help with blood sugar balance for those with prediabetes or diabetes

    The article provides information designed to complement your personal health management. It does not provide medical advice and not meant to replace professional medical advice. Linking to other websites does not imply any endorsement of the material on such websites.

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    About the Author

    Laura O'Hara MS, RD/LD, Nutrition Education Program Manager

    Laura was born and raised in Dallas, Texas and landed in Oklahoma City after graduating college at Oklahoma State University (go pokes!) She obtained a master's degree in nutrition, and officially became a Registered Dietitian in 2019. Since then, Laura has worked with people of all ages and all conditions, from neonates to seniors. Laura says, "My passion for the senior population grew immensely when I heard of and learned about ArchWell Health and their value-based care model, and I quickly realized the growing need for and importance of nutrition education in this specific population."

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