Sales of frozen meals—call them TV dinners if you must—have been cooling off over the past few years. More than half of Americans said they preferred fresh foods, according to a 2012 industry report, and 10 percent said they avoid frozen meals because they aren’t healthy.
Even frozen vegetable sales are down with the rise of the fresh juicing trend. Is there any leafy green that hasn’t been blended by someone with a Ninja?
But nutritionists say we shouldn’t be skipping the frozen food aisle altogether. In fact, we’d be foolhardy to do so.
“How many times have you purchased fresh broccoli and had it sit for a week in your refrigerator turning yellow and wilting before you finally got around to using it?” asked Boston University nutrition professor Joan Salge Blake.
Guilty as charged.
“You’d have been better off nutritionally using frozen broccoli instead because it was cooked and frozen and at the peak of ripeness,” said Blake who writes a nutrition blog for Boston.com. I might even save a few pennies buying frozen broccoli considering how much of the stalk I slice off and throw away.
Blake’s dirty little secret: “I buy frozen cubed mangoes,” she tells me. “Defrost them and put them on some cottage cheese since who has the time to peel and slice a fresh one? It’s like having Rachel Ray in your freezer!”
Frozen meal entrees have also gotten a recent makeover as health magazines like Self have entered the meal-making business. (Cooking Light keeps its prepared meals in the refrigerator section.)
Here are some meal ideas Blake recommended looking for in the freezer:
1. Nutritious, all-natural meals.
Self magazine’s new Healthy Kitchen frozen meals feature eight different dishes ranging from cheese lasagna to chicken enchiladas. All are fairly high in fiber and protein and low in sodium, sugar, and saturated fat—which helps them stay under 350 calories. The products tout “all-natural” ingredients, and use beef or chicken raised without the use of antibiotics. The use of these drugs in farm animals has become a growing health concern with the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections in people. Luvo frozen meals make the same claims with their entrees, which are also sold in local supermarkets. Lean Cuisine’s Honestly Good line boasts “100 percent natural wholesome ingredients” with plenty of vegetables, but no mention of using antibiotic-free meat.
2. Pre-cooked whole grains.
Who has time to stand over a stove for 45 minutes stirring grains until they’re cooked?
Trader Joe’s sells organic, cooked brown rice in the freezer section that can be microwaved in three minutes. Pre-cooked frozen black barley, wild rice, and wheatberries can also be found in the freezer section. Pop them in the microwave and toss with defrosted mango, broccoli, and shelled edamame beans (also in the freezer section) along with olive oil and vinegar—and you have dinner.
Buying fresh fish may seem sacrosanct in New England, but that shouldn’t be with all the great new options in the supermarket freezer that have left processed, frozen fish sticks in the dust. You can find wild-caught salmon, halibut or tuna that’s sustainably sourced with no additives. Defrost when you’re ready to eat, and sprinkle on a little olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic before throwing the filets or steaks on the grill or in the oven. Pair with the frozen rice you cooked above and some frozen cooked vegetables.