This Is What a Nutrition Expert Looks for in the Frozen-Food Aisle

Here's what you need to know

Updated 06/18/19
Grossmann.Schuerle/USA Stock Food

Perusing the freezer aisle at the market is almost inevitable. The thought of popping a plastic tray in the microwave and having a whole dinner ready in 60 seconds flat is just so alluring. But as time-saving as the frozen meal has proven to be, there is still the internal struggle over whether it’s as healthy as a home-cooked meal.

While one dish won’t undo all your healthy habits, it’s important to know what to look for when eyeing a frozen meal. Deciphering the labels on packaged foods claiming to be healthy, low-carb, low-sodium, gluten-free, low-calorie, natural, and any other health buzzword you can think of can be challenging.

In fact, a 2010 study shows that this kind of “nutrition marketing” is found on 49% of all products, and it’s commonly used on products with high levels of saturated fat, sodium, and sugar. That’s why Thumbtack personal trainer and wellness coach Kaitlyn Noble advises to look closely at what you're buying. She explains, “We worry so much about grams of fat and calorie counts without knowing what’s in our food.”

Always read the ingredient list when going for pre-made meals.

Noble points out that while calories help us understand portion sizes, they don’t provide much perspective on what we’re consuming. “Our bodies care about quality (like choosing organic) and the micronutrient content of our food.” In addition to scouring the ingredients list for organic vegetables, it’s important to pay attention to protein and fiber content. The numbers to look for, according to Noble are 15 to 20 grams of protein per meal and a total of at least 35 to 40 grams of fiber a day. This ensures proper hormone production, stable energy, and staying full for four to five hours.

With all this in mind, we put seven common frozen meals to the test. Unaware of the brand, Noble analyzed the nutrition label and ingredient list to provide an unbiased opinion. You don’t have to feel guilty: This is what a nutrition expert would choose from the freezer aisle.

Healthy Choice Mediterranean-Style Lentil Bowl

Healthy Choice Mediterranean-Style Lentil Bowl $3
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The First Impression: “I love that the ingredients are all organic and recognizable. The fiber content is superb.”

The Red Flag: “Sugar and canola oil are listed here, but in this case, I wouldn’t obsess about it because they make up less than 2% of the sauce ingredients.”

The Expert Tip: “This meal is just short of my protein recommendation. Eating it with a hard-boiled egg, hemp seeds, or a handful of nuts could easily get it to that 15-gram mark.”

Kashi Sweet Potato Quinoa Bowl

Kashi Sweet Potato Quinoa Bowl $5
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The First Impression: “The ingredient list is extremely clean.”

The Red Flag: “I wish we could ensure the quality of the ingredients with an organic stamp, but I love how much product you get in this dish. The fiber content is also great.”

The Expert Tip: “This is low calorically and in protein for an entire meal. Adding chicken breast, fish, or another vegetarian protein source like chickpeas would amplify this to a full meal.”

Love the Wild Barramundi with Mango Sriracha Chutney

Love the Wild Barramundi With Mango Sriracha Chutney $9
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The First Impression: “I love that the ingredients list is short, and the protein content is fantastic. This is a dish that will sustain you for hours.”

The Red Flag: “I don’t love that sugar is listed in the ingredient list, but when you go to the sugar content in the nutrition label, only 5 grams per serving is not too bad. If you made this dish at home, you’d have more control over ingredients, but for a frozen option, I think it’s great.”

The Expert Tip: “This is more of a meal protein than a whole dish. Sautéed veggies and quinoa (even from the frozen section) would be excellent additions to make this meal whole.”

Amy's Black Bean Vegetable Enchilada

Amy’s Black Bean & Vegetable Enchilada, Light in Sodium (Pack of 12) $74
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The First Impression: “Loving all the organic vegetables, low sugar content, and high fiber content in this dish. I recommend eating two for a full meal.”

The Red Flag: “The low protein content is the main issue with this dish. If you double the portion like I recommended, that does bring the protein up to 10 grams, which is better.”

The Expert Tip: “You have great carbohydrate sources and fiber content happening in this meal. By doubling the portion size and adding protein from a side of beans, a spoonful of greek yogurt, or quinoa, you’ll add amino acids and protein to keep you satiated longer.”

Stouffer's Lasagna with Meat & Sauce

Stouffer’s Lasagna With Meat & Sauce $3
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The First Impression: “I love how high the protein count is, but it is majorly lacking in vegetables.”

The Red Flag: “The dish contains a lot of dairy, so be sure you’re not sensitive to lactose if you’re choosing this meal.”

The Expert Tip: “Adding leafy greens to this meal would increase the fiber content and bulk up the vitamins and minerals.”

Trader Joe's Thai Sweet Chili Veggie Burger

Trader Joe’s Thai Sweet Chili Veggie Burger $4
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The First Impression: “Since we can’t see the source of produce in a frozen meal, seeing organic is crucial in understanding the quality. This meal doesn’t pass that test for me.”

The Red Flag: “This product contains soy and wheat, which cause sensitivities in many people, and soy has been linked to breast cancer and other issues. It also lists canola oil, which is not organic, meaning it has a good chance of being GMO.”

The Expert Tip: “If this is an entire meal, definitely eat two portions since the protein, fiber, and calorie count are too low for an entire meal. It would suffice as a snack, however.”

Lean Cuisine Marketplace Sesame Chicken

Lean Cuisine Marketplace Sesame Chicken $3
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The First Impression: “The dish is labeled ‘sesame chicken,’ but the protein count is insufficient, meaning the dish is probably more focused on the carbohydrates like breading and sugar.”

The Red Flag: “This dish contains 15 grams of sugar! Way too high for a chicken dish.”

The Expert Tip: “I’d recommend bulking this dish up with leafy greens and other veggies. A quick steam could be an easy way to add them in without spending hours at the stove.”

Which expert tip are you going to try next time you grab a frozen meal on the go?

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