Consider this your frozen food shopping guide.
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Credit: CRAIG CUTLER

There's no doubt that frozen foods make getting a dinner with multiple sides on the table much easier, and take the hassle out of your morning smoothie prep, but just because these items are convenient, it doesn't mean they're automatically good for you. In fact, we talked to several registered dietitians about what to look for when purchasing items from the freezer section, and the consensus was simple—not all frozen foods are created equal.

Whether you are wandering the frozen aisle for fruits, vegetables, or a microwaveable entrée you can make in minutes after a long day at work, there are certain things you should always keep an eye out for, both in terms of what to avoid, as well as what's good for you. "Frozen food gets a bad reputation, but frozen produce can actually be a healthy staple to add to your grocery list! Not only are frozen fruits and vegetables more convenient and longer lasting than their fresh alternatives, they're frozen at peak ripeness, so they taste amazing and have excellent nutritional value," says Allison Gross, RDN, founder of 4Q Method. "However, it's important to read the ingredient list to make sure that there are no additional ingredients such as oil, salt, sugar, or additives."

Still, the convenience of frozen foods can't be denied. "Frozen foods can be incorporated into any diet, and benefit so many individuals in terms of cost-savings, availability, and increasing nutrient intake," says Alyssa Burnison, MS, RD, LN, of Profile. "They provide a convenient way to incorporate foods from every food group into our diet, and allow us to save time without the extra clean up."

How to Shop for Frozen Fruits and Vegetables

When it comes to shopping for frozen produce—think broccoli florets, string beans, raspberries and the like—simplicity is key. Look for as few ingredients as possible, and be wary of products with added seasonings or sauces.

1 Keep it simple

"When possible, opt for frozen fruits and vegetables that simply list the fruit or vegetable on the ingredient list and that's it. That way you can avoid unnecessary added sweeteners and/or sauces," says Katie Cavuto MS, RD, executive chef for Saladworks. "You can always add your favorite herbs, spices, and flavorings at home. Buying just the fruits and vegetables will save you money, and allow you to customize the ingredients to fit your personal flavor and nutrition preferences." 

2 Pay attention to the price

"Choosing frozen fruits and vegetables often allows you to save money, and it can help make produce more readily available and affordable no matter what the season is where you're living," says Casey Seamon, RD, LDN, and Noom coach manager. "Additionally, the items that tend to be in the higher price range are the options that have additional ingredients. When choosing frozen fruits and vegetables, keep it simple. Less is more." 

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3 Go for color

"We often hear 'eat the rainbow,' and frozen veggies, already washed, peeled, and chopped, are the simplest way to follow this advice," says Kasia Burton, RD, registered dietitian for Conagra Brands. "Do the colors mean anything? Yes, for example, yellow and orange veggies like carrots or peppers offer vitamin A—an important nutrient that supports healthy vision and immunity. My favorite freezer essentials include veggie mixes because they offer a variety of colors (and vitamins) in one bag."

4 Note the packaging

When shopping for frozen fruits and veggies, the packaging makes a difference. "Look for simple whole fruit that is in a resealable package or in individualized serving size packages," says Melissa Mitri, MS, RD, of FinvsFin. "This will ensure it stays fresh for longer and also retains its nutritional profile."

5 Know when to buy frozen vs. fresh

As Burnison points out, there are instances in which frozen fruits (or vegetables) are actually preferable to their fresh counterparts. "Fruits and veggies are picked at the perfect ripeness and then frozen soon after, locking in all the goodness including nutrients and flavor," she says. "Frozen produce can often have higher concentrations of nutrients compared to its fresh counterpart, including antioxidants, phytonutrients, fiber, vitamin C, and B vitamins. A study from South Dakota State University found the antioxidant compound, anthocyanin, which gives blueberries their rich color, is more bioavailable from frozen blueberries. This means your body reaps more antioxidant benefits from frozen blueberries than fresh." 

RELATED: The Ultimate Guide to Picking Only the Best Produce

6 Learn the labels

According to Julie Harrington, RD, the different labels on packages of frozen fruits and vegetables can clue you in to what's inside. "Some packages have U.S. grade standards printed on them," she explains. "For veggies, Grade A has the best color and tenderness, Grade B has a more mature taste, and Grade C are lower quality, but are fine for soups. For fruits, Grade A is near perfect, Grade B still has good quality, and Grade C is not as sweet and is less uniform."

7 Make sure the bag feels firm

"The bag of frozen fruits or vegetables shouldn't feel limp or soaking wet, as this can point to thawing or improper storage," says Gaby Vaca-Flores, RD, a registered dietitian based in Los Angeles. "Staining on the outside of the bag can also be a sign that the produce was thawed and refrozen." The contents should also feel like individual pieces, as opposed to one large mass.

8 And is correctly sealed

"You also want to make sure the packet is sealed properly," notes Wendy Lord, RD, and a consultant for Sensible Digs. "If air can enter the packaging, the fruits or vegetables may spoil or suffer freezer burn. The food then becomes dry, gray, and leathery."

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How to Shop for Frozen Entrées

Sometimes you just want a hassle-free frozen meal for lunch or dinner. When it comes to purchasing these easy entrées, look for a balanced meal with important nutrients, such as protein and fiber. Conversely, steer clear of meals that contain unhealthy fats.

1 Whole foods for the win

"When buying frozen entrées, try to look for products with a simple ingredient list that is primarily whole foods, not additives or preservatives," explains Cavuto. "I often recommend asking the question, 'Can I buy this ingredient in the grocery store?' or 'How would I make this myself?'. It's an easy way to weed out unnecessary ingredients. Perfection isn't necessary, and nutrition recommendations are not one-size-fits-all, but this simple question will help you keep more whole food ingredients in your cart." A good rule of thumb here is to stick with meals that contain ingredients you can pronounce.

2 Beware of too much sodium

"The number one thing I look for when it comes to frozen meals is sodium. I always flip the box over and take a peek at the nutrition facts panel," shares Seamon. "It is recommended that the average person consume approximately 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. If your freezer meal is more than that for just one meal, then it is something I would put back on the shelf." Instead, aim for a meal with less than 600 milligrams of sodium per serving.

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3 Limit your saturated fat intake

"Saturated fat is another nutrient to be aware of. A high saturated fat intake has been shown to cause an increase in cholesterol levels, especially LDL, or 'bad cholesterol,'" says Lord. "Cholesterol may block the arteries when it is deposited in the artery walls, making it more difficult for the blood to flow unhindered. When you purchase a frozen entrée, try to make sure the saturated fat content is lower than three grams per 100 grams of food."

4 And avoid trans fats entirely

The Food and Drug Administration banned the use of trans fats in 2018, but according to Harrington, these harmful fats may still be present in some foods, such as frozen meals, and listed as "partially hydrogenated oils." Since the body doesn't digest trans fats well, it's best to avoid them altogether.

5 Pile on the protein

"Look for entrées that provide a solid protein source—like lean beef, chicken, salmon, or turkey—or plant-based protein options such as vegan 'meats', tofu, or beans," advises Burnison. "Aim for 10 to 20 grams of protein per serving. This will provide you with a higher concentration of nutrients—think B vitamins, zinc, and iron—and help you stay satisfied."

RELATED: 15 High-Protein Vegetables and How to Incorporate Them Into Your Diet

6 Don't forget the fiber

"Fiber is an essential nutrient to look for on the food labels of frozen entrées. Aim to buy meals that contain about five grams of fiber per serving. The recommended daily intake for fiber is 20 to 25 grams for women, and 30 to 38 grams for men," Lord says. "Checking to see if the carbohydrates in the meal are whole grain carbs, such as brown rice, barley, and whole-wheat pasta, and seeing if your meal contains plenty of vegetables, will help you meet your fiber requirements."

7 Watch the added sugar 

"You may be surprised how many frozen entrées contain added sugar. It's recommended that total added sugar intake be less than 24 grams per day, so look for frozen meals that only have a couple of grams or so at the most," says Brittany Lubeck, RD, a consultant for Oh So Spotless.

8 Find a balanced meal and pay attention to the serving size

"I suggest looking for meals that are balanced, meaning they provide 3 to 4 ounces of lean protein, 1/2 to 1 cup of whole grains, and 1/2 cup of vegetables or fruit," says Vaca-Flores.

As Seamon notes, the serving size is important too. "Keep an eye on serving sizes," she warns. "Often the entire meal will be more than just one serving." 

RELATED: What Does Eating a Balanced Diet Actually Mean? Breaking Down the 'Good' to 'Bad' Diet Ratio

How to Shop for Frozen Desserts

There's nothing wrong with having a little something sweet after a meal. When buying frozen desserts, look for options with minimal added sugar, and beware of harmful ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup. And just because something is dairy-free or non-dairy, doesn't mean it's healthier. 

1 Get that calcium

"A nutrient of interest when buying dairy-based frozen desserts is the calcium content. The daily value for calcium is 1,300 milligrams per day, so look for those options with 150 milligrams of calcium or more per 100-gram serving," suggests Burnison.

2 Plant-based isn't always best

If you follow a vegan diet, dairy-free desserts are a must, but if not, don't simply assume that plant-based sweets are better for you. "Just because it's plant-based, doesn't mean it's necessarily healthier. Many plant-based milks are high in saturated fat and sugar, and in some cases, lower in calcium—a mineral that's important for bone health," explains Vaca-Flores. "So while [vegan sweets] are a great option for people who prefer plant-based foods, they may not be a completely guilt-free dessert."

RELATED: 11 Tips for Making Tastier Plant-Based Meals, According to Professional Chefs

3 Stick to single-serving sweets

"If you struggle with portion control, I recommend looking for single-serving desserts instead of buying the larger size," Vaca-Flores says. By sticking to single-serving desserts, instead of digging into a pint of ice cream, you have more control over exactly how much you eat.

4 Be mindful of the sugar content

"While it's OK to have a little something sweet each day, it's important to keep your sugar intake within [the daily recommended limits]," says Jacqueline Gomes, RDN, who works at Foodtown Stores. Gomes is partial to low-fat Greek yogurt bars, which typically have up to 7 grams of protein a piece, with probiotics and no artificial sweeteners.

5 Give sorbet a shot

"The two biggest concerns for frozen desserts are the sugar content and the fat content," shares Lord. "Frozen desserts, such as ice cream, are often made with vegetable fat rather than milk or cream. That means that your fat intake can potentially get out of control when you eat a big bowl of ice cream. Try to limit your fat intake by choosing low-fat options, such as sorbet instead of ice cream."

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6 Stay away from certain ingredients

"Avoid highly processed forms of sugar, like corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup," says Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, founder and director of Real Nutrition, who also notes that you should steer clear of dyes and coloring agents. "Pick desserts with ingredient lists that are on the shorter side," she says.

7 Enjoy it!

"In all honesty, if I'm buying a frozen dessert, I'm looking for something I'm going to enjoy! It's important to honor your sweet tooth and find room in a balanced eating style for all foods to fit," Seamon says. "You can make smarter choices here, like swapping full-fat ice cream for low-fat frozen yogurt, but if what you really want is the double chocolate fudge pie, then just go for it! If you are enjoying the choice you're making at that moment, it is less likely to demand your attention the next time you're walking down the frozen aisle."