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Illustration by Phuong Nguyen

Thinking about the golden age of TV dinners brings to mind scenes from a 1960s movie, with families sitting in front of their television sets, lounging in recliners, and eating dinners atop tray tables. Needless to say, we’ve come a long way since then. While the first official TV dinner came in an aluminum tray that was meant to be heated in the oven, the phenomenon rose to popularity for its convenience, budget-consciousness (the first one sold for just 98 cents) and the seemingly futuristic idea that you could have a fully cooked meal in half the time it would take you to make it yourself. Everything you need for dinner in one pre-packaged tray? At the time it was certainly revolutionary.

Now, with new developments in food preparation and preservation, you can get virtually any meal from the frozen aisle of your grocery store and heat it up within minutes in the microwave. Often, we are tempted to grab the meal that sounds the most exotic to us, the one we definitely wouldn’t be able to cook on our own or simply don’t have the time to. Meals such as chicken parmesan, Swedish meatballs, and meat lasagna jump out at us in the aisle, drenched in sauces, oozing cheese, ready to devour in five minutes or under.

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But here’s the thing: are any of these really healthy? According to the healthy frozen food company evol, “Nowadays, most packaging in the frozen food section reads like the periodic table of elements.” It’s time to take the guesswork out of what you’re eating.

Whether you’re looking for dinner ideas for yourself or your family on a busy weeknight, it’s important to know what exactly you may find in said convenience meals. Ahead we spoke to a few experts about what to look for, and what you should avoid when it comes to these tempting frozen meals.

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Illustration by Phuong Nguyen

Look for: Organic protein

When it comes to eating a fully balanced meal, holistic nutrition counselor and healthy lifestyle expert Natasha Uspensky, of NU Health and Wellness, encourages the importance of learning to cover all of your bases. These components (often referred to as “macros”) include good wholesome grains, a clean protein, vegetables, and healthy fats. The thing is— most frozen meals don’t provide all of that. While Uspeksky admits that we’ve come a long way in the types of frozen meals that entail said macros, you want to keep your eye out for the ones that skimp on important nutrients.

“Nowadays, most packaging in the frozen food section reads like the periodic table of elements.”

The number one thing you should definitely not compromise on? Organic proteins in your frozen meal.

“A lot of these frozen meals will use these really cheap factory-farmed animal proteins (for example this can be found in a lot of chicken dishes) and that’s just poor quality that’s not great for your body,” says Uspensky. “So, if you are going to go for an animal protein in these pre-prepped dishes, you really want to make sure it’s organic, and it’s the highest quality.”

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Dietitian Kylie Bentley, the Product Compliance and Nutrition Analyst for Whole Foods Market’s Exclusive Brands team, agrees. As a Certified LEAP (lifestyle, eating and performance) Therapist—with over a decade of experience in the supermarket dietetics and integrative functional nutrition–she says she personally looks for things like whole grains and whenever possible, products that are USDA Certified Organic or have a high number of organic ingredients.

“Ideally the meal will have 18-21 grams of protein (plant or animal-protein) and anywhere from 3-8 grams of fiber, coming from whole grains or vegetables,” says Bentley.

 “If you are going to go for an animal protein in these pre-prepped dishes, you really want to make sure it’s organic, and it’s the highest quality.”

Protein is what gives your body the energy it needs to function throughout the day, so it makes sense that this is one of the top elements Uspensky encourages you to look for on your meal’s packaging. An organic protein will break down slower, giving you more longer-lasting energy. While meals featuring non-organic proteins will still manage to fill you up, you’ll be hungrier sooner.

However, in addition to better-quality foods, Rachel Begun, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics said in an article for Today’s Dietitian“It’s important to note that the terms ‘organic,’ ‘non-GMO,’ and ‘gluten-’ and ‘allergen-free’ don’t necessarily equate to an improved nutritional profile. The improved nutritional profile comes from using high-quality, all-natural ingredients, and forgoing highly refined and artificial ingredients.”

If you can find a frozen food item that focuses on sustainability (i.e. sustainably caught fish and seafood and grass-fed beef) you’re even better off in terms of origin and quality.

Try:

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evol’s balance bowl

With a commitment to only using proteins from locally owned, U.S. farms, you can trust evol’s meals to be healthy, high-quality, and ethically sourced. Their balance bowl features cooked red rice, white meat chicken, sweet potatoes and asparagus, covering all your important dietary categories. 

Saffron Road’s Sesame Ginger Salmon Bowl

Proof that frozen fish can still taste fresh, Saffron Road’s clean proteins will keep you full. This wild-caught Alaskan salmon with white rice and veggies is a well-rounded option for lunch or dinner.

Beetnik’s Peruvian Seasoned Chicken Stew

Organic, gluten-free, and paleo-approved, beetnik is a lesser-known frozen foods brand whose simple, unadulterated ingredients speak for themselves. While you may have to trek to specific healthy food markets for this one, it’s worth stocking up on.

LoveTheWild Frozen Seafood Meal Kits

These frozen meal kits are ready in 15-20 minutes and come in three flavors; Rainbow Trout with Salsa Verde, Striped Bass with Roasted Red Pepper and Almond Sauce, and Salmon with Coconut Red Curry. As an added bonus, each one is packed with healthy fats and vegetables.

“It’s important to note that the terms ‘organic,’ ‘non-GMO,’ and ‘gluten-’ and ‘allergen-free’ don’t necessarily equate to an improved nutritional profile.”

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Avoid: Heavy sauces and cheeses

Uspensky explains that the process of freezing and reheating these dishes causes them to lose a lot of flavor, especially when the cooking time is sped up to make them microwave-friendly. Because of this, extra fat, salt, and cheese is often added to maintain the flavor and keep it interesting.

“Additives can really increase the caloric content on these and makes it a poor quality meal that really isn’t going to be giving you the most bang for your buck.”

Uspeksy advises looking for meals that skip the dairy in them and don’t have a high sodium content. Look out for items that are drenched in sauce or really creamy and full of cheeses, because although that’s where a lot of these dishes are going to get their flavor, that’s also where most of the problems lie.

Instead, look for more well-rounded meal options like grain or protein bowls that give you all of those necessary dietary macros, and still remain tasty because of their quality ingredients.

Try:

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Amy’s Teriyaki Bowl

With farm fresh veggies and grass-fed proteins, Uspensky believes Amy’s line of healthy frozen food products are some of the healthiest on the market. Try their variety of bowls which feature organic whole grains, assorted vegetables and flavor pairings that are delicious, without those harmful additives. Plus, every recipe is hand-made.

Luvo’s Mighty Masala & Greens Power Bowl

Max out your vegetable serving size with this mighty vegan dish from the responsibly-sourced frozen food brand Luvo. Featuring a garden-full of greens, plant-based protein, and a healthy dose of whole grains, it’s basically balance in a bowl—no cheese or sauce required.

Healthy Choice’s Adobo Chicken

Made with all natural chicken raised without antibiotics, this meal will provide you with lots of fiber and 40% of your daily protein. A wholesome mix of kale, spinach, red quinoa, and whole grain rice provide a well-rounded option, all-in-one convenient bowl that’s easy to find in almost any large grocery store.

“Ideally the meal will have 18-21 grams of protein (plant or animal-protein) and anywhere from 3-8 grams of fiber, coming from whole grains or vegetables.”

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Look for: Small frozen components instead of a full meal

Uspensky’s best advice? If you have to go frozen for you or your family, try picking up a few separate frozen items, and putting them together yourself.

Tons of reputable brands make frozen vegetables, rice, and proteins that aren’t covered in sauce or cheese and filled with sodium. They’re still microwavable and a fast option for a busy week, but give you a little more control over what’s going into your body.

Try grabbing some microwaveable brown rice or riced cauliflower from Whole Foods and pair it with frozen veggies you can steam in the microwave. Add a can of kidney beans and you have yourself an instant healthy meal. Plus, it gives you a bit more satisfaction, knowing you put a meal together on your own.

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Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods 365 Organic Brown Rice

One box of this includes two bags of organic brown rice, a great whole grain to include in any meal. Steamed in the bag, the grains become so tender that it’s just as good (if not better) than brown rice you’d taken the time to cook yourself.

Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value Frozen Organic Riced Cauliflower

Here is another example of simple ingredients conveniently packaged and ready to be steamed in its original packaging. Saving you the time and effort of making this healthy replacement yourself, grab a bag or two and pair it with your favorite protein.

Whole Catch Frozen Cooked Shrimp

This frozen shrimp is very easy to defrost in a colander under running water and is already cooked, peeled and deveined. Combine Whole Foods Market Vegetable Fried Rice and 365 Everyday Value Frozen Broccoli Florets with the shrimp for an easy one-pan dish.

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PHUONG NGUYEN

Avoid: Eating frozen every day

“I definitely am not going to tell people “never eat anything frozen,” notes Uspeksky. Just because something is frozen and pre-prepared, doesn’t mean that it can’t be healthy. Bear in mind, there are healthy options out there, as long as you know where to look and what to look for.

 “Would I say eat these every night? No,” she says. “You want to have control over the amount of salt, sugars, and oil that’s going into your body, but as a backup option these can be a really great, healthy alternative.”

More healthy ideas:

Eat Dessert for Breakfast With These 10 Healthy Recipes

Healthy, Healing Ice Cream? It’s Officially A Thing