How to Choose Healthy Frozen Dinners
What to Watch Out for in Frozen Dinners
A healthy lifestyle can take some work. Most of us are looking for ways to make it easier and more convenient to fit healthy meals into our day. Meal prep is one of the sure-fire ways to keep wholesome food on hand for the week—whether it’s a maximum prep or a basic prep. But, not everyone meal preps, sometimes there’s no time to prep, or we’re just busier some days than others. This is when we reach for quick, convenient options, like frozen dinners. It’s a simple way to get a hot meal, no cooking required, and there are tons of choices.
But, store-bought frozen dinners aren’t always the healthiest. They’re often small meals that are loaded with calories, sugar, or sodium, and sometimes they’re just not the best fuel. Making our own food, we have more control over the ingredients and the fuel that we’re putting into our bodies. (I even share how I make DIY freezer meals in my Summer Meal Prep video!) But, we can still make healthy choices if we do choose frozen dinners. The key is to make informed decisions, and to do that you need to know what to watch out for when you’re in the freezer aisle:
READ the Nutrition Label!
It sounds simple, but it’s usually much easier said than done. Some people just trust the branding and health claims on the box and don’t read the label at all. Others skim through the label, just scanning for ‘the basics’ (usually calories, fat, protein, carbs). But even this isn’t enough to make a real assessment about the health value of a frozen meal. The nutrition label is loaded with important information that allows us to understand what exactly we’re eating. Beneath those macronutrients, what other nutrients does the meal offer?
- Does it contain vitamins and minerals? Fiber? Those are certainly important.
- Or what about trans fats? We want none of those, if possible.
- And what food items are actually providing us with those nutrients? Not all foods are created equal in terms of the quality of fuel they provide. Carbs from a whole grain like quinoa are different than carbs from a refined grain like white pasta, and both of these types of carbs are different than the carbs that added sugars provide.
- Are there ingredients that make it less fuel-filled, like flavor-enhancers (like salt, sugar, MSG, or high-fructose corn syrup) or other additives (like preservatives or artificial colors/flavors)? Because we don’t cook these meals ourselves, there are often many ingredients added that we wouldn’t use in our own cooking—and some ingredients we’ve maybe never even heard of or seen in the store.
Take the time to actually pick up the package, turn it over, and really read the nutrition label and ingredients list. Then assess whether or not a particular frozen meal fits into your healthy lifestyle.
Check the Serving Size
Is the entire box 1 serving, or does one box contain more than one serving? Some frozen dinners contain 2 servings in one package, but the package is still so small you can be deceived into thinking it’s just one serving. If it does contain 2 servings, that means the nutritional information listed on the package needs to be doubled if you plan to eat the entire meal.
Calories Are Important, But They’re Not Everything
Whether you regularly count calories or not, you do want to take a peek at the calories on a frozen dinner. Some meals are very small (under 250 calories), and won’t provide us the fuel that our bodies need—and it likely won’t fill you up. If you choose meals with this low calorie range, it’s best to treat them like a snack, or to build a wholesome meal around your frozen dinner by using healthy sides and add-ons. Others frozen meals are loaded with calories (some up to 1000 calories or more).
Of course, how many calories you need will depend on you, your body, lifestyle, activity levels, genetics, health conditions, etc. But, frozen meals look small which can deceive us into thinking they contain fewer calories than they truly do. Some may also look like a healthy, well-rounded meal on the package and turn out to be itty-bitty when you open it. Don’t assume or guesstimate the calorie count based on how the box or your plate looks. Take a look at the label and assess for yourself. But, the calories only tell part of the story—don’t stop there!
Marie Callender’s Chicken Pot Pie:
Though this pot pie looks tiny, it’s 16 ounces (454g) of food, which is an entire pound. It’s a fairly large meal for one person, that’s dense in calories, carbs, and fat. First thing to pay attention to is that the nutrition label reads “Calories: 430,” which is per serving, but the serving size is only 200 grams! So there are 430 calories in just 200 grams of this pot pie, but the entire pot pie is 454 grams. Though this is sold as a single-serving dinner, you’ll see “Servings Per Container: about 2” at the top of the nutrition panel on the box. This is a very tricky marketing tactic, and it’s why we need to look carefully at nutrition labels! So we need to multiply the nutrition info given on the label by 2.27 (454 grams divided by 200) to get the nutritional info for the entire pot pie:
- 976 calories
- 57g fat
- 1703mg sodium
- 477mg potassium
- 89g carbs
- 9g fiber
- 6g sugar
- 27g protein
Lean Cuisine Herb Roasted Chicken:
This entire package is 1 serving of 8 ounces or 226 grams (half that of the pot pie). But it’s extremely low in calories—lower than most protein bars). It’s marketed as a frozen ‘dinner,’ yet 170 calories isn’t nearly enough to fuel most people’s bodies or satisfy their hunger. And, this dish is basically chicken breast in a sauce with added sugar, along with a host of other additives we’d never use at home. It’s not providing much fuel. The 4 grams (1 teaspoon) of sugar is actually a lot for a 170-calorie meal. It’s high in potassium, but still has lots of sodium for such a small meal. And, there’s very little fiber because the nutritious veggies are all at the end of the ingredients list, meaning they make up very little of the dish.
- 170 calories
- 4g fat
- 520mg sodium
- 770mg potassium
- 17g carbs
- 3g fiber
- 4g sugar
- 16g protein
Consider the Macronutrients
When you look at the macronutrients on a label—the carbs, fat, and protein—what’s healthy for you will of course depend on what kind of diet and lifestyle you follow. You’ll often see protein content advertised on the front of the package, but frozen dinners likely aren’t the best high-protein meals. If you are on a low-fat diet, beware of frozen dinners with high fat content—not because fat is “bad,” but because fat is not your main source of fuel. It’s especially important to watch out for trans fats (man-made fats)! (We want to eat as few trans fats as possible, ideally none.) Fat is often added to many sauces or dressings, and that can add up quickly in a small meal. If you’re on a low-carb diet, you won’t have as wide of a frozen dinner selection.
Most frozen dinners are higher in carbs, and we want to look for carbs coming from more wholesome choices, like veggies and whole grains. These provide better fuel than carbs coming from added sugar and refined grains, which don’t provide as many nutrients. Look for frozen dinners with more fiber content—aim for at least 5 grams of fiber or more. Fiber comes from plant parts, which means more veggies and whole grains. It’s good for our digestion and keeps us feeling full.
Per 1 bowl (255g):
- 270 calories
- 6g fat
- 350 mg sodium
- 39g carbs
- 8g fiber
- 3g sugar
- 18g protein
This meal is still fairly low in calories and may not fill you up, but it has a solid macro profile: good protein content, low-fat, and high in wholesome carbs (brown rice, black beans, & veggies). This could be a healthier choice on a low-fat diet, if you’re looking for convenience on a busy night. It’s also lower in sodium with NO added sugars! Plus, the ingredients list is made up entirely of real food!
Most Frozen Dinners are Loaded with Sodium
One of the major things to watch out for in frozen dinners is the sodium content. For some people, sodium isn’t a big concern. Others need to watch their sodium intake, and frozen dinners are typically LOADED with it. Some frozen meals have 800mg to 1,000mg, or more! It’s used to add flavor, but we really don’t need that much salt for taste, or for our bodies.
The generally accepted ideal limit is 1,500 mg of sodium per day. Some people can handle more sodium, or need more. But, if you’re watching your sodium intake, look for frozen dinner options that are under 700 mg of sodium—ideally 300-500 mg. Some brands have begun to recognize concerns about sodium content and have lowered the sodium in their meals significantly. If you look for potassium on the nutrition label, you’ll find some brands have made efforts to balance the sodium content with potassium to help counteract its negative effects.
Marie Callender’s Spaghetti with Meat Sauce: 1,060mg sodium
This Marie Callender meal is slightly smaller than the pot pie (by about 30 grams), but it’s about half the calories. Still, that doesn’t excuse the major problem with this dish: over 1,000mg of sodium! If you’re watching your salt intake, this is not an ideal choice. There are also 12 grams of sugar—some of which is from the tomatoes, but sugar is also listed in the ingredients list. Spaghetti and meat sauce is a simple dish, yet the ingredients list is a mile long. Between the sodium, the carbs from refined grains, and the additives in this meal, it’s not a great source of fuel.
Per 1 meal (425g):
- 540 calories
- 18g fat
- 1060mg sodium
- 600mg potassium
- 75g carbs
- 8g fiber
- 12g sugar
- 20g protein
Kashi Chimichurri Quinoa Bowl:
Kashi’s quinoa bowl is a much more wholesome choice, with less than ⅓ of the sodium content in the spaghetti and meat sauce meal! Granted, it is about half the size of the Marie Callender dish, and 240 calories might not be filling enough as a dish on its own. But, it is possible to find frozen dinners with a more reasonable sodium content. This meal is also a winner because it’s got loads of healthy fiber, NO added sugars, and wholesome carbs from whole grains and veggies. The ingredients list is also fuel-friendly, full of healthy ingredients we’d use in our own cooking.
Per 1 entree (9oz/255g):
- 240 calories
- 7g fat
- 330mg sodium
- 500mg potassium
- 41g carbs
- 12g fiber
- 5g sugar
- 10g protein
Pay Attention to Added Sugars
Sugar is the other sneaky element in frozen dinners. Yes, there are natural sugars in some foods, like fruits (including tomatoes) and dairy products (like milk and cheese). If a frozen meal contains these foods, they contribute to some of its sugar content. The real problem is added sugar, typically used for flavor, in both sweet and savory dishes. It’s especially common in dishes with sweet and sour, teriyaki, or pasta sauces. But, really, how much sugar do we need in a dinner plate?
Be sure to look at the sugar content on the nutrition label, and look for sugar in the ingredients list. And it’s not just the word “sugar” you’re looking for, there are LOADS of other forms of sugar: brown sugar, cane sugar, coconut sugar, honey, maple syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, evaporated cane syrup, fruit juice concentrates, and plenty more. Though some of these are sticky sweeteners or natural sweeteners, they are still sugar and their effect on our bodies in large quantities is the same. There’s sneaky sugar in so many food products today, which is why it’s so important that we read nutrition labels and monitor our added sugar intake! (Check out my Sugar & Sweeteners 101 video to learn more about sugar, artificial, and natural sweeteners!)
The general recommended limits for daily added sugar intake are 25-35 grams, but even that can be high. And some frozen meals—like several of Lean Cuisine’s options—have up to 25 grams of sugar. For perspective, 1 gram of sugar is ¼ teaspoon. So 25 grams of sugar is more than 6 teaspoons, or more than 2 tablespoons! Added sugar isn’t providing fuel. Look for dishes with less than 10 grams of sugar, and it’s certainly possible to find meals with even lower sugar content, like 2-3 grams.
Healthy Choice Café Steamers Sweet & Sour Chicken: 22g sugar
Here’s a frozen dinner that’s a bit more substantial, almost 400 calories, but the brand name here is misleading. It’s not quite a “healthy choice.” It’s moderately high in sodium, has very little fiber, and has a whopping 22 grams of sugar. Some of this is natural sugar from the pineapple pieces, but sugar is listed in the ingredients list before pineapple—which means there is more added sugar by weight in this dish than there is pineapple. Added sugar isn’t good fuel for our bodies, nor are the battered “chicken breast fritters” that make up the bulk of this dish with white rice. Plus, there are close to 50 additional ingredients listed. Seems like a bit much!
Per 1 meal (10oz/283g):
- 390 calories
- 8g fat
- 550mg sodium
- 350mg potassium
- 65g carbs
- 3g fiber
- 22g sugar
- 12g protein
Healthy Choice Simply Steamers Unwrapped Burrito Bowl: 3g sugar
Although the sweet & sour chicken isn’t so fuel-filled, this burrito bowl from Healthy Choice is more of a healthy choice! Again, this frozen dinner is fairly low in calories and may not be sufficient as a stand-alone meal. But, it’s loaded with nutritious beans and veggies, fiber, and whole grains from the brown rice. The most drastic difference is that this meal has only 3 grams of sugar—almost 20 grams less! Some is from tomatillos in the sauce, and sugar is listed in the ingredients list, but it’s clearly far less added sugar than in the chicken dish. Even better, the ingredients list is about half the size, with pretty similar ingredients to what we might use to make this dinner ourselves.
Per 1 meal (9oz/255g):
- 270 calories
- 4g fat
- 350mg sodium
- 320mg potassium
- 50g carbs
- 12g fiber
- 3g sugar
- 9g protein
Investigate the Ingredients List
The nutritional information on the package is important, but we’ve got to look beyond that to see what’s truly in that frozen dinner. Just like the ingredients list tells us what we need for a recipe, it lets us know what exactly is in the packaged foods we eat. Ingredients are listed in order by weight, from the most-used ingredients to the least. A big problem with frozen dinners (and packaged, processed foods in general) is that the nutrition stats can seem deceivingly “healthy,” but many of the ingredients aren’t great fuel, or even real food.
Remember, look at the sugar content, but also look for sugar (and its many different names!) in the ingredients list. If some form of added sugar is listed near the beginning of the ingredients list, it’s likely not a very fuel-filled choice. Also look out for those not-quite-real-food foods:
- Preservatives: like butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), sodium benzoate, sodium nitrate/nitrite, and so many more.
- Partially Hydrogenated Oils: these are trans fats (man-made fats). Even if a label says “0g trans fats,” look for “partially hydrogenated” or “shortening” in the ingredients list. These are trans fats, and the FDA allows manufacturers to label a product as “trans-fat free” if it has 0.5g of trans fat or less.
- Flavor Enhancers: monosodium glutamate (MSG) or its many other sneaky names, artificial flavors, and even natural flavors.
Some of these items may seem unavoidable when choosing certain packaged foods or frozen dinners. But, we still don’t know the long-term effects of consuming some of these ingredients, and they’re just not ingredients we would use in our own cooking. You can find frozen meals with ingredients you can pronounce—you just have to take the extra time to look for them. Look for veggies, whole grains, and lean meats listed in the ingredients. These are real foods, with more fiber, more nutrients, and more fuel for our bodies.
It’s also important to look beyond the brand, too. Just because I’ve listed a healthier frozen meal from Kashi or Evol in this article, that doesn’t mean that ALL meals made by those brands are healthier choices.
Lean Cuisine Turkey & Vegetables:
This meal might look decent at first glance: low-calorie, low-fat, decent protein, and even fairly low-carb. But, if a meal is low in most everything, it’s not much of a meal… This is another too-lean cuisine, with less than 200 calories in the entire meal and not enough nutrients to qualify as fuel-filled. Plus, it’s a small meal that’s pretty saturated with sodium and sugar.
Per meal (8oz/226g):
- 190 calories
- 6g fat
- 580mg sodium
- 560mg potassium
- 18g carbs
- 4g fiber
- 10g sugar
- 15g protein
What’s worse is the long ingredients list, full of questionable additives:
Evol Fire Grilled Steak:
In contrast, this Evol frozen dinner is more substantial, with 400 calories. It’s still relatively high in sodium, but packed with protein, veggies, and healthy fiber. This meal has more fat due to the steak and cheese, which is worth noting if you’re restricting fat intake. But, fat isn’t “bad,” we all need some, and this can be a great, fuel-filled option with ZERO added sugar!
Per 1 bowl (225g):
- 400 calories
- 18g fat
- 520mg sodium
- mg potassium
- 40g carbs
- 8g fiber
- 3g sugar
- 20g protein
Plus, this meal is proof that frozen dinners don’t have to be loaded with artificial ingredients, preservatives, and unpronounceable additives. It lists fewer than 20 simple ingredients!
Beware of Branding
Frozen dinner brands like “Lean Cuisine,” “Smart Ones,” and “Healthy Choice” market themselves as easy, healthy meals, but that branding can be misleading. These meals aren’t always ‘lean,’ and many are not a ‘smart’ nor a ‘healthy choice.’ These are pretty broad, general terms that suggest the meals are healthy, but we have to make that decision for ourselves. Some of these brands that market themselves as healthy frozen dinners do have healthier options, but that doesn’t meal all of their choices are healthy.
Lean Cuisine Chicken with Almonds
Per package (8.5 oz/241g):
- 290 calories
- 5g fat
- 490mg sodium
- 260mg potassium
- 44g carbs
- 4g fiber
- 8g sugar
- 16g protein
This option has good protein and fits well into a low-fat diet. It’s not too high in sodium, has some potassium, and it has some fiber. It’s light on calories, but it’s a very small meal that would likely need some accompaniments to flush it out, like a salad or some extra veggies. This dinner has 8 grams of sugar, which is a decent amount, especially for just 290 calories. But, it’s still better than many other frozen meals with 10 to 20 grams of added sugar or more. Overall, this could qualify as a healthier frozen dinner choice for some. (Just be aware: Lean Cuisine’s ingredients lists in general tend to be long and often difficult to pronounce.)
Lean Cuisine Grilled Chicken Primavera
Per package (9.4oz/265g):
- 260 calories
- 7g fat
- 690mg sodium
- 480mg potassium
- 34g carbs
- 5g fiber
- 5g sugar
- 16g protein
This option also has good protein and relatively low fat content. It’s a bit higher in sodium, but also higher in potassium, and it has more fiber. It’s even lighter on calories than the last meal, and would need some significant additions to be a real meal rather than a snack. (Seems ironic it’s called Lean Cuisine Comfort, yet so low in calories.) It has only 5 grams of sugar, which is a pretty good find in the frozen-dinners world. Both this meal and the Chicken with Almonds have some health benefits and could be healthier choices (albeit with some bulking up), but that doesn’t mean all Lean Cuisine meals fit the bill.
Lean Cuisine Pomegranate Chicken
Per package (7.5oz/212g):
- 180 calories
- 3g fat
- 450mg sodium
- 420mg potassium
- 20g carbs
- 3g fiber
- 13g sugar
- 17g protein
This has the most protein, lowest fat, and lowest sodium we’ve seen! What’s the catch? It’s significantly lower in calories (by about 100). Now, this isn’t a good thing—too few calories means too little fuel and not enough nutrients. This isn’t even close to a frozen ‘dinner,’ but more like a snack. We see lots of veggies on the box, but it has the least fiber and the most sugar by far! When we read the ingredients, we see this dish is mainly chicken coated in sugar sauce (brown sugar is the 3rd ingredient listed). This may look like the ‘leanest’ cuisine choice, but its few calories are loaded with added sugars and it doesn’t offer real fuel!
Some frozen meals are packed with more calories than we need in a meal, yet the serving size can seem small or not fill us up enough. Other frozen meals are too low in calories and nutrients to really serve as a wholesome, balanced meal. (Like much of the Lean Cuisine brand, for example. It’s arguably too lean of a cuisine, with many of their frozen “dinners” under 300 calories!) But, on either side of the spectrum, plenty of frozen dinners will still advertise health claims on their packages. Be wary of these claims on a frozen dinner package:
- “Gluten-Free,” “Whole Grain,” or “Vegan”—while these labels give us information about whether or not frozen meals fit into our lifestyles, they are not a guarantee that it’s healthy!
- “Natural” or “Organic”—it’s good to be aware of the artificial ingredients that many frozen dinners use, and these labels allow us to choose options that suit our lifestyle preferences. But, a brand that advertises “natural” or “organic” on their label is not necessarily healthy.
- “No GMOs”—similarly, we each have a right to know how our food is grown and sourced, but “non-GMO” does not say anything about the nutritional profile of a food product.
- “No Preservatives”—again, it’s smart to watch out for preservatives in the ingredients list, but this claim on the package doesn’t mean a frozen dinner is healthy. Also, this claim doesn’t mean there aren’t other additives used in the product. (Plus, preservative-free freezer meals should be pretty standard, since freezing prevents spoilage.)
- “Less” or “Light Sodium”—these sodium labels can be helpful if you’re looking for lower salt options, but they are relative terms. “Light in sodium” only means a product has 50% less salt than the regular version. If the regular version has 1000+ mg, then the “light” version has 500+ mg.
Per package (10oz/284g):
- 280 calories
- 13g fat
- 590mg sodium
- 26g carbs
- 5g fiber
- 13g sugar
- 13g protein
This brand markets itself strategically: all-natural, gluten-free, low-calorie. This isn’t an awful choice for a frozen meal, but it doesn’t advertise some of its drawbacks: the high sugar content (some naturally-occurring in the tomatoes, but some added) and high sodium content in this relatively small meal.
Don’t assume a frozen dinner is healthy without reading the nutrition label first. Do your own investigating! You won’t find out if a frozen dinner is truly a healthier choice just by trusting the flashy packaging and health claims on the box. You’ve got to turn the box over and take a look.