I have good intentions. I often plan to cook nutritious, healthy, and (hopefully) tasty meals. Then life gets in the way. A work deadline takes longer than I thought; a long-lost friend calls; an overdue urge to go to the gym surfaces; or, OK, I'm just not in the mood to stand over a hot stove.
To the rescue come my old friends: Uncle Ben's, Lean Cuisine, and Healthy Choice. Or any number of other frozen, low-fat, low-cal dinner brands that I've popped into my microwave over the years. Sometimes, as I stand counting down the seconds, I wonder: Are these dinners as healthy as their manufacturers claim? Or am I kidding myself?
These are important questions, since Americans spent about $2 billion on low-fat, low-calorie frozen dinners in 1999, according to estimates by the American Frozen Foods Institute. As sales of these convenient meals have mushroomed, nutrition experts have taken a closer look, weeding out the healthy from the not-so-healthy -- and advising how to pick and choose the dinners to meet our nutritional and weight control needs.
The problem with frozen dinners
Low-fat, low-calorie frozen dinners, alas, are not all created equal. When the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) evaluated these products and published the findings in its July/August 2000 Nutrition Action Health Letter, it found some products to be better than others. Among the criticisms:
- Portion size. Some low-cal, low-fat dinners provide only about 250 or 300 calories. And if that's truly a third of your daily caloric intake (given three meals a day), that totals less than 1,000 calories -- not nearly enough food even if you are trying to lose weight. Among the true lightweights mentioned in the center's report: Budget Gourmet's Low-Fat Beef Stroganoff and Weight Watchers' Smart Ones Creamy Rigatoni with Broccoli & Chicken, each amounting to just 240 calories.
- Fat. Sometimes the amount of fat, expressed in grams, doesn't look bad -- but consider total calories. The CSPI, for instance, singled out the four grams of saturated fat in one portion of Lean Cuisine Everyday Favorites Stuffed Cabbage as too much. The whole dish has only 210 calories, with fat accounting for a hearty 17%.
- Sodium. Ideally, says the CSPI, a frozen dinner should deliver no more than 200 milligrams of sodium for every 100 calories of food, to keep you within the 2,400 milligram daily limit for healthy people recommended by the American Heart Association. So the Healthy Choice Traditional Salisbury Steak, with 330 calories, should have no more than about 600 milligrams of sodium. In fact, it has 470, so it passes the CSPI test.
- Skimping on the veggies. Few frozen dinners provide large enough servings of vegetables. Singled out by the CSPI food cops was Budget Gourmet's Low Fat Rigatoni in Cream Sauce with Broccoli & White Chicken. It has only about a teaspoon and a half of broccoli, the food cops say.
All is not lost
Still, the CSPI gave many of the dinners its "best bites" rating for keeping fat and salt to a minimum. Among the ones that made the "best bites" list that I've personally tried: Uncle Ben's Sweet & Sour Chicken Rice Bowl, Lean Cuisine Café Classics Chicken a l'Orange, Healthy Choice Traditional Turkey Breast, and Healthy Choice Sweet and Sour Chicken. You also can identify good choices on your own by shopping smartly and knowing which foods to add to round out the dinners.
For starters, choose dinners that provide at least 300 calories. They're more likely to satisfy your hunger and keep you from inhaling a high-calorie snack later on. Supplement those with a salad and a steamed vegetable to remedy the vegetable deficit and achieve your daily veggie requirement, says Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, RD, adjunct nutrition instructor at Northwestern University Medical School. Or just nuke some frozen vegetables along with your dinner, suggests Netty Levine, MS, RD, a staff dietitian at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Adding vegetables also can boost your fiber intake, which, if you're like most Americans, falls short of common recommendations. Whole grain bread or crackers are also excellent -- and convenient -- fiber-rich choices.
At the same time, minimize the fat and salt. CSPI nutritionists recommend dinners that get less than 10% of their calories from saturated fat and no more than 30% from total fat. And follow the sodium rule mentioned earlier -- no more than 200 milligrams of sodium per 100 calories of food.
Once you round out the frozen dinner, Moag-Stahlberg says, you can have a good, balanced meal. Still, moderation is best. "I would just recommend that people not eat these frozen meals more than two or three times a week," she says. But if the alternative is high-fat, high-calorie fast food, Levine says, more than three during the week is a better option.
But remember -- a frozen dinner is just one meal, Levine tells her clients. If you choose one that's a bit high in sodium, "you can balance it out with the food you eat the rest of the day."
Time to shop
All this talk and excellent advice is making me hungry. On my next excursion through the frozen food aisle, I'm slowing down a bit, stopping to read labels, check fat grams and percentages, and eyeball the sodium. I also have the best of intentions to grab a few bags of frozen vegetables or to swing by the produce aisle to be sure my frozen, low-cal, low-fat dinner -- if not gourmet -- is an asset to my quest for healthier eating.
Originally published Nov. 20, 2000
Updated Jan. 4, 2001
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