Not all heroes wear capes.

By Betty Gold
September 24, 2020
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Since the onset of the pandemic, many Americans have begun cooking more than ever before. We started strong—the scent of fresh-baked bread, cacio e pepe, coconut curry, and mini pancake cereal (if you know, you know) filled our homes for weeks as we whisked away hours in the kitchen to kill time and feed our families. Around mid-May, however, the exhaustion had justifiably set in. Summertime started, and we pressed pause on the stress baking—we just wanted something simple.

Credit: Getty Images

Other than pasta, smoothies, and the occasional takeout order, there’s one lifeline many have looked to for fuss-free dinners: frozen meals. We get it—they’re A+ in the convenience department. But when it comes to preservatives, saturated fat, and sodium (and a minimal amount of nutrients and fiber) many frozen meals aren’t doing us any favors. “Although they’re convenient choices, most options will do little to protect your family from illness,” says Margie Saidel, MPH, RD, LDN, the vice president of nutrition and sustainability at Chartwells K-12. Saidel actually deemed frozen meals one of the top three foods that may weaken your immune system.

That being said, frozen meal options have come a long way since the TV dinner days; there are a number of nutritious options on the market that can serve as part of a healthy diet. To break it down, we spoke with Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, and founder of Real Nutrition, about what exactly we should look for—and what we should avoid—in the frozen food aisle.

“For starters, when consuming frozen foods, you should always read the ingredient and nutrition labels,” Shapiro says. “For complete meals, I recommend products with less than 600 calories per meal, depending on your needs and goals. Sodium should be under 600 milligrams as well. Saturated fat should always stay under 7 percent of your total daily value. And always keep added sugar at a minimum—aim for as low as possible here, ideally under 10 grams. If your meal includes a packet of sweet sauce, like teriyaki or barbecue, this is likely going to be a sugar bomb.”

When it comes to the nutrients we want see, Shapiro recommends looking for an adequate about of fiber, as this will ensure you're consuming whole grains, fruits, and veggies. “Ideally no less than 5 grams of fiber per meal,” she says. “And finally, remember the freezer is a natural preservative, so look for products without preservatives (especially artificial colors and items like BHT).

Easy enough, right? Here are Shapiro’s top recommendations for frozen meals that deliver both health benefits and uber-convenience.

Credit: dailyharvest.com

Think frozen pizza wasn’t going to make the list? Not possible.These ‘pizzas’ from Daily Harvest are not only delicious—they are also vegan, organic, and free from soy, gluten, added sugar, fillers, and thickeners,” says Shapiro.  The crusts are grain-free, made from cauliflower, sweet potato, and cassava. Pop them in the oven for 18 minutes and you have lunch or dinner without any cleanup. Plus, the herbs, spices, and veggies used are delicious—and the variety of flavors to choose from means you'll never get bored. “Sustainably sourced and small farm-friendly, this product does a body, the environment, and the world good.” Read our full review of Daily Harvest’s Flatbreads here.

Credit: Whole Foods

When I can't find wild caught, responsibly farmed is the next best thing,” explains Shapiro. “Keep frozen shrimp in the freezer for a healthy protein-packed meal that cooks up in a flash. It is also low in calories, contains no additional ingredients, and is a great source of iodine, which can prevent thyroid dysfunction.”

Credit: Trader Joe's

Nope, not dreaming—this cult-favorite "pasta" is a real winner. “It’s made from five ingredients, and it is dairy-free, gluten-free, high in fiber, lower in calories than traditional gnocchi, made mostly from cauliflower, and it actually tastes delicious,” says Shapiro. “Whether you’re cutting back on refined carbs or trying to find fun ways to sneak veggies into your or your family's diet, give this a try.” Stock these in your freezer for an easy and healthy one-pot dish, any time.

Credit: Dr. Praegers

Veggie burgers are a great grab-and-go meal, but not when they’re filled with processed ingredients. Dr. Praeger's Veggie Burgers are easy to cook, taste great, and are fantastic on a salad or on a whole wheat bun topped with cheese or avocado. According to Shapiro, these are “non-GMO, full of veggies you can actually see, gluten-free, and delicious.” What more can you ask for?

Credit: Green Giant

“Filled with veggies and whole grains (including quinoa and brown rice), this bowl allows for a hefty dose of nutrition and fiber that anyone can cook up,” Shapiro says. They're vegetarian, so they can make for a seamless Meatless Monday meal, or you can treat 'em like a side dish and top one with your protein of choice. “This quick dish will satisfy the hungriest of bellies with the healthiest of ingredients."