Fantastic Frozen DinnersGo from Diet Disaster to Diet-Friendly!
-- By Becky Hand, Licensed & Registered Dietitian
Frozen TV dinners weren’t served often when I was growing up in the 60’s. However, on rare, extra-busy nights, I remember eating my meal out of that small, compartmentalized aluminum tray. They were always heated in the oven (since microwaves were not yet staples in every home). Watery mashed potatoes, tough corn, and greasy fried chicken—in no way was it the finest of cuisines, but the novelty made it enjoyable. Eating in front of the TV was always off limits at my house. “We eat as a family,” my mom would preach.
“But mom,” I whined, “Why do you think they call it a TV dinner?” When we were finished, my mom would wash those little aluminum trays to use when freezing her own leftover meals. Back then, our recycled trays held craft paints and rock collections, germinated seeds, and fed every stray dog and cat in the area. Out of necessity, we were all craftier, more resourceful and conservative back then.
Today, frozen dinners make up a $6 billion industry. As a dietitian you may expect me to tout all the horrors and tragedies of using frozen entrees. WRONG! I am here to share the possibilities as well as ways to make the healthiest choices even tastier. While eating in front of the TV is still a no-no in my house, the ole TV dinner has come a long way. It is now more kindly referred to as the frozen dinner. You can heat it in your own microwave in less than 5 minutes, and choose from selections that are varied and superb. No one had ever heard of “chicken parmesan” when I was a kid!
The Perks of Frozen Dinners
- Quick & easy. Being a practical mom, I know that there are nights when heating a frozen dinner can be the key to getting everyone in the family fed quickly and efficiently, with very little clean-up. Your family can eat in 15 minutes or so and spend some time catching up on the events of the day.
- Built-in portion control! In the age of biggie-this and over-stuffed that, the frozen dinner is a portion-controlled delight! Few people will actually heat another dinner, and there's no temptation of going back for seconds.
- Vegetable servings. Green beans, corn, carrots and more, there is at least one (sometimes two!) veggie servings on that tray.
- Perfect for the single scene. Very few people like to cook for themselves. Whether you're 18 or 80, living in a college dorm or senior citizen apartment, frozen dinners offer great variety for those eating meals alone.
- Easy prep for all. For anyone who has difficulty in the kitchen due to joint pain, a physical constraint, balance problems, or post-op healing time, frozen dinners can be the trick for easy-yet-nutritious meals.
- When the cook's away, dinner still stays. When your family's "head cook" needs to take care of business or is gone for a few days, frozen dinners come to the rescue.
- Economical. Frozen dinners are less expensive than dining out.
Selection and Serving Strategies
So how do you make the best choice, faced with hundreds of frozen dinners and entrees that are readily available?
- Frozen meals have gotten tastier over the years, but you still must buy and try before you find your favorites.
- Beware of potpies with crust, Hungry Man dinners, and stuffed-crust or extra-cheese pizzas.
- Select dinners that are balanced and contain a lean source of protein, such as Lean Cuisine, Healthy Choice, and Weight Watchers brands.
- Choose dinners or entrees with no more than 300-400 calories.
- Choose meals with no more than 30% of the calories coming from fat. This would be about 10-14 grams of total fat if the meal contains 300-400 calories.
- Select meals with no more than 6 grams of saturated fat.
- Aim for a sodium content no higher than 600 milligrams.
- Add on a side salad with low calorie dressing, a serving of fruit, and a glass of low-fat milk to round out the meal. This will help you boost the fiber, calcium and nutrient contents of your meal.