No Time to Cook? Frozen Dinners to the Rescue

Here's how to choose and use them wisely

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

It's one of those days: You get home late from work, the kids are starving and need to be at practice in 30 minutes, and you haven't a clue what's for dinner.

What to do? Just reach in the freezer -- that is, if you've planned ahead and kept it stocked with nutritious entrees. Frozen dinners can fill in wonderfully on no-time-to-cook nights -- and won't make anyone late for practice. They can be ready in 10 minutes flat, and there's no cleanup!

With the hectic pace of our lives these days, many people rely on frozen dinners for lunch and/or dinner some days of the week. In my office, there's a nonstop parade of frozen meals going in and out of the microwave throughout lunchtime.

These frozen concoctions are not only perfect for portable meals, but they're also great for anyone living alone. And for those with families, individualized meals allow everyone to eat what they like.

A World of Choices

Stroll down the freezer aisle in your neighborhood market and the choices seem never-ending. Frozen meals come in all forms: from light to supersized, ethnic to the traditional three-compartment trays.

One-third of the frozen-meals market belongs to lower-calorie meals. Nearly all come from the three industry leaders: Healthy Choice, Stouffer's Lean Cuisine, and Weight Watchers Smart Ones.

Most of these entrees contain less than 350 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 4 grams of saturated fat. To make these lighter meals satisfying, the manufacturers focus on offering a wide variety of foods, rich flavor, and visual appeal.

In my opinion, these meals have come a long way since their introduction years ago. They don't equal a home-cooked meal, but are certainly good enough to enjoy on occasion.

One thing to keep in mind: to keep calories down, portions tend to be small, and as a result, these dinners are not always satisfying. Most need a side dish or two to fill you up and meet your nutritional needs. To make your light frozen dinner a complete meal, complement it with a whole-grain roll, a side salad, and/or some veggies.

A Weight-Loss Tool

One of the best features of a prepackaged meal is that the portions are controlled. And that's one reason that eating frozen dinners can help people lose weight, according to a study published in The Archives of Internal Medicine in 2000.

The study monitored 302 overweight people with type 2 diabetes, high levels of blood fat, or high blood pressure for one year. Some ate frozen prepared meals; others followed a diet at home. The researchers found that those who followed the prepared-meal plans lost significantly more weight.

Researchers attributed this to the frozen meals' ease, variety, portion control, and nutritional completeness. Not only did the participants who ate prepared meals take off pounds, they also reduced their risk of heart disease.

Choosing and Storing Frozen Meals

When buying a frozen dinner, check the label to be sure it fits into your eating plan. We encourage you to stick to "light" frozen entrees with less than 300 calories and 10 grams of fat, and "regular" frozen entrees with less than 400 calories and 25 grams of fat.

Be sure to look for meals that contain plenty of vegetables and whole grains. And if you're watching the salt in your diet, look for frozen dinners with less than 1,000 milligrams of sodium. Healthy Choice is probably your best bet; its dinners generally have less than one-fourth of the government's recommended daily value of 2,400 milligrams.

Of course, with a little planning, you can lay in a supply of home-cooked frozen meals that taste delicious and are more economical than frozen meals you buy. Simply make a big batch of your favorite healthy chili, stew, pasta sauce, or whatever you like, and pack it into individual portions for quick microwave meals.

Once you've bought or made a batch of your favorite frozen entrees, you're set for a while. Frozen food can be safely stored in the freezer for several months, as long as it's tightly sealed and there's no evidence of thawing. First in, first out is the strategy to keep frozen food from becoming encrusted with ice or suffering from freezer burn.

My Family Favorites

What lurks behind the door of your freezer? If you looked in mine, you'd find bags of frozen veggies, whole-wheat dinner rolls, bagels, veggie and lean-meat burgers, an assortment of healthy frozen dinners, and individual portions of all kinds of home-cooked dishes, from soups to lasagna, ready for my son to take back to college.

Everyone in my family has their own favorite frozen meal. My daughter loves Weight Watchers Teriyaki Chicken and Vegetable Bowl, an easy-to-eat bowl full of flavorful chicken, rice, and veggies in a slightly sweet sauce. Paired with a side salad and a glass of skim milk, it makes a nutritious meal for an active teenager. She is also a fan of the Lean Pockets that satisfy her pizza urges.

One of my favorite frozen meals is Lean Cuisine Herb Roasted Chicken, while my husband loves Healthy Choice Beef Pot Roast. Another of my favorites is Lean Cuisine's Fettuccine Alfredo, which I doctor up with chopped veggies for a great family side dish.

Whatever varieties your own family prefers, frozen meals can be a lifesaver in our busy worlds. Take a little time to taste-test several and find your own favorites -- and always check those labels to be sure they meet your nutritional needs.

Published September 23, 2004.

SOURCE: Archives of Internal Medicine, 2000; vol 160.

©2004 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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