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Freezer burn: Taking today's diet frozen dinners out for a 'taste drive'

My stomach has threatened to organize a gastrointestinal coup if I choke down one more turkey sandwich, carrot stick or pretzel. It wants cheese ravioli! Chicken strips! Something with sauce or gravy, for Pete's sake. Because of time constrai...

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My stomach has threatened to organize a gastrointestinal coup if I choke down one more turkey sandwich, carrot stick or pretzel.

It wants cheese ravioli! Chicken strips! Something with sauce or gravy, for Pete's sake.

Because of time constraints and lethargy, cooking's often out. Restaurant portions are killer on the waistline. So, frozen diet dinners give me infrequent relief from the humdrum world of low-cal sack lunches.

There's always plenty of company in the freezer section. The American Frozen Foods Institute estimates yearly sales of these low-calorie dinners in the United States exceeds $2 billion, nearly half of all frozen dinner sales.

We did some research, taste-testing pizzas, lasagnas and chicken-and-rice dishes from the most readily available brands: Stouffer's Lean Cuisine, Weight Watchers Smart Ones and Healthy Choice. Results are in the accompanying graphic.

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But the question remains: Can frozen dinners really be healthy?

"They're not bad for you, especially in moderation," says Kristi Cassola, a licensed registered dietitian with MeritCare in Fargo.

"All foods can fit into your diet, whether you're trying to lose weight or not. Definitely, these diet frozen meals are better choices than skipping lunch, eating a candy bar out of a vending machine or significantly overeating at a restaurant."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest's research agrees. However, CSPI still pinpoints four main beefs with low-fat, low-calorie frozen dinners:

-Portions. If a 250-calorie lunch is truly a third of your daily caloric intake, that's not even close to enough calories, dieters included. Almost everybody needs at least 1,200 calories or they will suffer insufficient mineral, vitamin, calcium and iron intake, as well as a slowed metabolism.

Fast fix: Choose frozen meals with at least 300 calories, or supplement with veggies, fruits and yogurt.

-Fat. Although fat grams in many meals look low, a few (especially those with cream sauces) are still disproportionately high in fat for the amount of calories in the dish.

Fast fix: Choose dinners in which fat accounts for less than 30 percent of the total calories. Those percentages are listed right next to the fat grams on nutrition labels.

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-Sodium. Often, fat is replaced in diet foods with sugar and salt. Therefore, sodium content becomes a concern.

Fast fix: Choose meals that contain no more than 200 milligrams of sodium for every 100 calories of food to keep under the 2,400 mg daily limit.

-Veggies. (Or lack thereof.) Some dinners contain just a tablespoon of vegetables, a serving for a 1-year-old.

Fast fix: Choose dinners with at least one cup of veggies, or mix in extra veggies.

If meals don't exactly meet these nutrition requirements, they're often not too tough to doctor up. Cassola tells her MeritCare patients that balancing these meals out often requires simply fleshing out the vegetable, fruit and/or dairy categories.

This could mean adding a side salad (bagged salads are quick) or pre-cut veggies and fat-free dressing. Also easy: Throwing frozen veggies into the microwave along with the rest of lunch.

Also try fresh or single-servings of canned fruit in light syrup for 80 calories, and 1 cup skim milk or fat-free yogurt for about 100 calories. (Frozen yogurt is more of a treat at ½ cup for 95 calories.)

"When trying to lose weight, adding a large salad, an apple and some milk to that slice of frozen, low-calorie pizza will not just provide balance, but also add variety and make you feel more satisfied," Cassola says.

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"Then, you're less apt to raid the vending machine a couple hours later."

Coup averted. Until dinner, anyway.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sarah Henning at (701) 241-5538

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