How to Shop: Frozen Dinners

Where else can you get a hot meal, with three wholesome food groups, in less than five minutes? From healthy frozen dinners, of course. Think of frozen dinners as portion-controlled mini-meals, or as the base of a complete dinner when you add salad, whole grain bread, fruit, and milk or yogurt.

While today's frozen dinners are often healthier than those introduced more than 50 years ago, many are still loaded with sodium, saturated fat and calories. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants to help you find the healthy ones by following their criteria for a food to be labeled as "healthy." A "healthy" food must be low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. A healthy frozen entrée must limit its sodium to 480 milligrams per serving, and provide at least 10 percent of two more of these nutrients: vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, protein, and fiber.

To translate these recommendations into hard numbers, several nutrition experts have established additional criteria.

  • At least a cup of cooked vegetables
  • Fewer than 500 calories
  • Fewer than 15 grams of fat
  • Fewer than 5 grams of saturated fat
  • Fewer than 700 milligrams of sodium
  • More than 4 grams of fiber
  • Fewer than 15 grams of sugar

Use Your Judgment

Sometimes food manufacturers skimp on portions to meet the definition of "healthy." When the calories in the frozen dinner are closer to 250 than 500, make a downward adjustment to the upper limits for sodium, fat, saturated fat, and sugar. For example, if a frozen entree has only 250 calories in one serving, then the upper limits for nutrients would be closer to 7 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, 350 milligrams of sodium, and 7 grams of sugar.

Cook Your Own

If you don't want to use pre-packaged frozen dinners, they are easy to make on your own for a fraction of the cost. With home cooking, you can be sure your food isn't loaded with ingredients you don't want. The trick is to have the right containers on hand (see Glad and Ziplock), and to cool the food completely in the refrigerator before freezing it to prevent freezer burn. Write the date on the container, and eat the meal within a few weeks for the best taste. Reheat in the microwave or oven depending on your container, and resist the temptation to reuse microwave-safe, disposable containers. Sometimes the corners of the containers are so tight that food debris can collect and can be a food source for microorganisms. In addition, the plastic used to make some containers can breakdown with repeated exposure to microwave, possibly making the food unsafe.


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