The convenience of frozen food is a hard lure to resist, even among those of us who try to eat well. A million other responsibilities often take priority over planning nutritious, delicious meals, and food that requires merely unwrapping and nuking becomes much more appealing. Luckily, products made for the diet- and ingredient-conscious abound in the frozen-foods aisle. Some, like Lean Cuisine, come with calorie counts front and center on the box. Others, like Amy’s or Ethnic Gourmet, even have labels like “all natural” and “organic.”
But even though these brands have fewer calories or recognizable ingredients, every offering isn’t created equal. Most are decent enough nutritionally, at least for frozen food. However, looking beyond calorie counts and buzzwords reveals that some are nowhere near as healthful as their labels—or our own assumptions about their labels—imply.
Lean Cuisine Comfort Cuisine Roasted Turkey Breast
The first warning sign about this product is that apples are its first ingredient. Even odder, there are five sub-ingredients that make up whatever “apples” entails in this particular turkey dish. You’ll also find partially hydrogenated oils, MSG, and high-fructose corn syrup listed in the ingredients. The calorie and fat counts are far too low (260 and 2, respectively) to make this meal satiating on its own, but at least the 680 milligrams of sodium ensure that you’ll drink a lot of water while eating.
Lean Cuisine’s Thai Style Noodles with Chicken, from the Spa Cuisine line, boasts an impressive 5 grams of fiber, thanks to the whole-wheat fettuccini noodles, a more balanced ratio of calories, fat, and protein (310-7-20), and less sodium.
Ethnic Gourmet Chicken Biryani
You can find this frozen-food brand in organic-friendly stories like Whole Foods, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the best option. Chicken Biryani gets a thumbs-up for having the most natural ingredients I’ve seen on a frozen-food label thus far, but it also has way more sodium than any of them, too: a whopping 1,080 mg! That’s almost half of the recommended daily allowance in a single meal.
The Chicken Korma from the Taste of India line has only 720 mg, which is still a lot, but not nearly as much. It also has less sugar and fat, and more protein to keep you fuller longer.
Amy’s Rice Macaroni with Non-Dairy Cheeze
Some people mistakenly believe that all vegan and gluten-free foods are good for you. Amy’s specialized version of a classic comfort food proves that assumption wrong. It contains 520 calories, 22 grams of fat, and a measly 8 grams of protein.
In comparison, Amy’s regular macaroni and cheese is much more balanced, with 410 calories, 16 grams of fat, and 16 grams of protein. It’s one thing if you’re opting for the vegan and gluten-free version because of dietary restrictions, but otherwise, stick with the regular kind.
Kashi Frozen Entrées Mayan Harvest Bake
The nutritional profile of the Mayan Harvest Bake is not too shabby: it has a good amount of protein, fiber, and fat, and the sodium count is almost half of what you normally find in frozen entrées. But the flavored polenta, plantains, and ancho chili pepper paste all contain sugar, leading to a surprising 19 grams thereof in one savory meal.
The Black Bean Mango has similar numbers in the protein, fiber, and fat realm, but only 11 grams of sugar.
Birds Eye Streamfresh Meals Shrimp Pasta Primavera
“Streamfresh” sounds invigorating and nutritious, as does a meal option like Shrimp Pasta Primavera, but neither is the case when it comes to Birds Eye. One serving of this pasta has 14 grams of fat, which is 70 percent of the recommended daily allowance. It also offers almost half the RDA of cholesterol and 770 mg of sodium.
Shockingly, Grilled Chicken in a Creamy Alfredo Sauce (which sounds far less healthy) is the better bet, with half the amount of saturated fat and significantly less sodium and cholesterol.
MorningStar Farms Lasagna with Sausage-Style Crumbles
We learned earlier, with the Amy’s example, that labels like “vegan” and “gluten-free” aren’t necessarily synonymous with health, and the same is true of vegetarian food—especially when it involves fake meat. These products are usually filled with all kinds of chemicals, and MorningStar’s sausage is no exception. The ingredient list is the longest of the bunch and includes nasty stuff like MSG and potassium sorbate (a preservative).
But as a vegetarian, I fully understand the need to satisfy meat cravings, even when you know that substitutes aren’t healthful. In times like that, MorningStar Farms’ Sweet & Sour Chik’n has recognizable ingredients and a little less sodium.
In a perfect world, we could take all the time we need to plan and put together nutritionally stellar meals (or pay a professional chef to do the hard work instead). In the real world, the freezer aisle’s promise of a hot meal in minutes is sometimes too enticing to deny. Packaged food of any kind is hardly ever ideal, taste- or health-wise, but at least we can find somewhat better alternatives in the freezer aisle, depending on our dietary needs. But even supposedly low-calorie and organic brands have their pitfalls, so don’t assume that phrases like “Lean Cuisine” and “all natural” are always indicators of diet-friendly or healthier frozen products. Clearly, there’s more to a name or label than meets the eye, and it’s all revealed on the back of the box.