Nutrition of frozen dinners

Dear Alice,

Recently I've been eating a lot of frozen dinners. I like them because they are cheap (about $2.50), easy to make, and help me stick to a reasonable portion size. Are these dinners healthy? How processed are they? Are they considered a well-balanced meal? Thanks.

Dear Reader,

Frozen dinners are great for saving time and money! Just like with non-frozen foods, there are a variety of ingredients that could make up a frozen meal. For this reason, there are numerous ways to make these meals  more and less nutritious; there isn't a yes or no answer to whether or not they're healthy since they're much more complex than that. It’s all about choosing the frozen food to ensure you’re consuming the nutrients you need to maintain a well-balanced diet. And, it's worth considering that sometimes the nutritional value of a meal may not be the key consideration for decision-making because preparation time, cost, or flavor may be more of value to you at that time.

When health is your primary concern, it's helpful to understand that individually, some frozen foods are potentially more nutrient dense than some fresh foods. For example, flash-frozen vegetables maintain more vitamin content than fresh vegetables just a few days after purchasing. The concern for frozen meals having fewer nutrients arises when you add in sauces, seasonings, and sides. Flavors that make your meals “fun” may contain higher levels of saturated fats and sodium, while not containing what is needed to keep you full and satiated. The best way to ensure that you're consuming the a well-balanced meal, frozen or not, is by making mindful purchases to satisfy both your preferences and nutritional needs. You could consider buying individual frozen items and preparing them with your own seasonings. This will likely still save you on time and money, but give you more control over the ingredients that go into your body.

When looking for healthy frozen meals, check out the nutrition facts and ingredients on the box to look for vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, whole grains, lean meat, and low-fat dairy. When possible, choose meals that are low in saturated fat, salt, and added sugars and high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Additionally, be mindful of the serving size per container. Many frozen meals could easily be consumed by one person in one sitting, but are labeled as multiple servings. Similarly, labels such as “organic” or “low-calorie” may be deceiving. Through a trial-and-error process and by carefully reading the nutrition information, you may begin to identify the frozen meal options that best meet your needs. It may also be beneficial to discuss your choices with a health care provider or a registered dietitian who may provide individualized guidance to tailor your frozen food choices for your specific nutrient needs.

You may also find yourself making decisions based on cost, time, or other factors. While considering the nutrition value of foods may drive your decision making some of the time, at other times, time or money may be of larger value to you. Frozen foods can help you to prepare meals faster and in some cases, in a more cost-effective manner, even if they aren't always as nutrient-dense as a meal cooked from scratch. You may also just enjoy certain foods, regardless of how "healthy" something is, and enjoying those foods is also perfectly reasonable! Whatever your priority is at that moment in time, using those values to guide your decision-making is valid. Having a harmonious, healthy relationship with food in your life will set you up for holistic nourishment, frozen or not!

An additional concern to consider when determining the “healthiness” of frozen meals is the methods through which they're prepared. Improper preparation of frozen foods puts people at risk for developing foodborne illnesses that may become serious. To prevent this, first ensure that your frozen meals remain frozen until they're ready to be consumed. If your meal requires thawing, the safest way to thaw frozen foods prior to consumption is by doing so slowly in the refrigerator. Prior to preparing your meal, follow proper hand washing techniques to reduce the spread of bacteria and read the cooking instructions on the package carefully. Once cooked, a food thermometer is a great tool to check for the proper internal temperature of your food, especially for meats that were raw when frozen. Lastly, once heated, the meal needs to be consumed or refrigerated immediately. Otherwise, bacteria may grow in food that’s left out at room temperature. By practicing clean food preparation techniques and making a mindful effort to obtain a variety of nutrients through your frozen meals, you'll be able to save both time and money without paying the price in nutrients or flavor.

Happy eating!

Last updated Apr 22, 2022
Originally published Apr 21, 2006

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