For many people frozen meals have become a way of life. Hectic lifestyles mean people have less and less time to cook, let alone shop for fresh ingredients on a regular basis. Eating out or grabbing takeaway can be expensive, so frozen meals provide a quick, cheap alternative that is ready to eat just minutes after you walk through the door.
Not only are they fuss free, generally it is possible to buy a complete meal in one packet. There is no need to even reheat foods separately, and all parts take an equal amount of time to be ready to eat. Another positive aspect for many is that no cooking skill and very little equipment is required. All that is needed is a microwave and perhaps a fork to eat with (although some meals often come with this thoughtfully included).
Are frozen meals diet friendly?
So frozen meals are a quick, easy food option that is affordable and often a necessity in our busy lifestyles, but are a diet of frozen meals detrimental to our health and diet? The answer to this question depends largely on the frozen meal you choose. Traditionally, frozen meals were often high in fat, salt and preservatives and low in nutrients, however, now there is a huge range of diet friendly frozen meals, catering for every imaginable food requirement. Low calorie, low fat, high fibre, high protein, low carb…..the list of tailored frozen meals goes on and on.
Modern advances in freezing techniques have vastly improved over the years, meaning that fresh foods such as fruit and vegetables can be snap frozen almost as soon as they are picked.
This ensures that maximum nutrients are retained. In some cases, frozen vegetables may be more nutrient rich than fresh ones that have been transported, and then sat around on supermarket shelves. Taste and texture of frozen foods have also improved with more efficient freezing techniques and advances in preservatives and flavours.
A huge advantage of frozen meals for dieters is that they come in a portion controlled pack. So as long as you only eat one, you can’t pop back to the kitchens for seconds, or keep the rest in the fridge to nibble on later on.
How to choose healthy and diet friendly frozen meals?
In the past a diet of frozen meals probably meant a few slices of soggy pizza, often dripping in fat, clogged with cholesterol raising cheese and processed meats and not a vitamin in sight. This does not need to be the case in this day and age; however it is still important to make the right choices when faced with a sea of frozen meals in your supermarket. It is essential to choose the right type of meals if frozen meals are going to be a part of your everyday life.
Firstly you are aiming for a balanced meal. Look for meals in bowls that feature, carbohydrates such as rice, pasta or potato, a source of protein such as fish, meat, chicken, beans or a vegetarian alternative such as tofu and plenty of vegetables.
If the meal you choose has a disappointing amount of vegetables on opening, throw in a handful of frozen peas, carrots or beans whilst cooking. This adds very little extra effort, but increases the nutrient value of the meal.
In order to further increase the nutrient value of your meal, serve it with a side salad and finish your meal with a low fat yogurt for calcium and protein and fresh fruit for added vitamins and fibre.
Fat and Calorie Targets for frozen meals
Fat and calorie content are also very important. Whilst there are thousands of healthy diet frozen meals available, there is an equal number of unhealthy high calorie, high fat options. These are not always obvious, using packaging tricks like small serve sizes or phrases like ‘low sugar’ or ‘high fibre’ to draw attention away from the high calorie or fat options.
Be aware that if a food that is usually high in calories and fat, such as macaroni cheese, is labelled as a low fat, low calorie product, it is either a very small portion, or it is likely to be a disappointing chemical sauce that often hasn’t seen any real cheese or milk.
Try to choose meals that look as if they are naturally low in fat and calories such as stir fries, steamed fish and rice, or tomato based pasta. A lot less intervention is needed with these types of food to make them low fat and low calorie, so they are likely to be a more natural product.
Ideally look for meals which contain no more than 300-400 calories, of which less than 30% should come from fat, ( i.e. about 10-14 grams). Obviously the less calories the better if you are trying to lose weight so spend some time reading the food labels, always be careful to check the serving size on the label and the weight of the meal are the same!
Saturated fat content can also be high in frozen meals so look for meals with less than four grams per serve. This will generally mean steering clear of frozen pizza, particularly those with added fat bonuses such as stuffed cheesy crusts, pastry based products and creamy sauces (unless they are the previously mentioned artificial type reduced fat sauces).
Salt and additives
Sodium can be very high in frozen meals, as in any packaged meal as it is such an effective preservative. High salt can be detrimental to our health, particularly for those with salt sensitivity or with high blood pressure. Aim for less than 600 mg of salt per serve.
Other chemicals such as flavour enhancers, colors and preservatives can also be high in frozen foods. Try to choose all natural varieties and check labels for enhancers such as MSG, monodosium glutmate on labels. MSG may also be a common ingredient in autolyzed yeast, maltodextrin, hydrolyzed pea protein and sodium caseinate, so look out for these ingredients too.
Choose frozen meals with 4-5g of fibre per serve. This helps to you to stay full for longer, which is important for dieters. Choose meals with lots of vegetables and brown rice or pasta where possible.
Which ones to choose
The healthiest frozen meal options tend to be those produced by companies targeting the weight loss and diet market specifically, such as Weight Watchers, Lean Cuisine and Healthy choice. Weight Watchers Smart Ones for example all contain less than 300 calories per serve, and less than 5g of fat, making them the ideal choice for dieters.
Amy’s Asian Noodle Stir Fry is also a good choice, with 240 calories, 4.5 g fat, 680g sodium and 4 grams of fibre, as is Trader Joe’s Chicken Tandoori with spinach which comes in at 360 calories and 5 grams of fibre.
There a literally thousands to choose from so spend some time reading labels to find the best choices, and try a few to find out which suit your tastes. It is also worth remembering that possibly the healthiest frozen meal of all is a home-made one.
Although it takes a little more planning than buying pre-made meals, you know exactly what is going into your food. Cook a large pan of your favourite healthy dish, such as a vegetable based pasta or bean stew or the weekend and freeze in individual portions, for a quick defrost tasty meal during the week.