How to Choose the Best Frozen Dinners

Cruising the freezer aisles in your grocery store in search of dinner? Frozen dinners are convenient and have built-in portion control.

The downside: You'll need to sift through the options to find items that aren't too high in calories, fat, or salt.

Use these tips to find the healthiest options when you're shopping for these five types of frozen dinners.

1. Pasta

“The type of pasta in a frozen meal makes a big nutritional difference,” says Melissa Rifkin, RD, a dietitian at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. Whole wheat is best.

For instance, Macaroni and cheese made with reduced-fat cheese and whole-grain macaroni is better than the full-fat version with pasta made from white flour.

2. Pizza

A frozen pizza's nutritional value varies between brands, toppings, and crust styles, says Torey Jones Armul, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“Compare nutrition facts,” Armul says. “Find one that’s low in saturated fat and sodium, and high in fiber and protein, which takes longer to digest and provides you with more sustainable energy after the meal.”

Also check the serving size. “Some are listed as just 1/8 of the entire pizza, which usually isn’t representative of how much people eat,” Armul says.

A good choice is a thin-crust frozen pizza with veggie toppings. Steer clear of deep-dish pizza, cheese-stuffed crust, and “meat lovers” varieties, which can overload calories, sodium, and saturated fat -- all the things you don’t want, especially if you’re watching your weight or managing high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or heart disease.

3. Burritos

Burritos are a cinch to eat on the run and also offer plenty of vegetarian options. “Beans are a good source of fiber, which help you feel full after a meal and which have been linked to lower risk of some health conditions,” Armul says. Fiber can also help manage high cholesterol.

Choose a frozen burrito made with beans or lean meat, wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla. Skip extra-cheese varieties, which have too much saturated fat.

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4. Full-course meals

Frozen dinners that have a main course, side, and dessert can be high in sodium, “especially if they include preseasoned meat,” Rifkin says.

Choose one with less than 500 milligrams of sodium. If you have high blood pressure or heart disease, look for items with even less salt so that you stay within the diet guidelines your doctor gave you.

Keep an eye out for meals labeled “low sodium” or that have a “reduced sodium” version, but still check the numbers on the label, so you know how much you're getting and how it fits into your overall diet.

Meals with lean protein like beans, fish, chicken, or turkey, with a hearty helping of veggies, are a good place to start.

Also check on how much saturated fat you're getting. "Stay within 3 to 4 grams by avoiding fried items and choosing entrees in vegetable-based, not cream, sauces," says Angela Ginn-Meadow, RD, diabetes education coordinator at University of Maryland Medical Center.

5. Low-calorie entrees

These may sound good. Unfortunately, they’re so low in calories that they’re often lacking in fiber and healthy fats that can help manage cholesterol, Armul says.

“Dinners that contain salmon, nuts, or seeds all offer ‘good’ mono- and polyunsaturated fats,” Armul says. Bump up the fiber content by adding a side of green salad or steamed veggies that aren't starchy, which only tacks on another 100-200 calories.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on July 31, 2014

Sources

SOURCES:

Torey Jones Armul, MS, RD, CSSD, registered dietitian, nutritionist; spokeswoman, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Angela Ginn-Meadow, RD, LDN, CDE, diabetes education coordinator, University of Maryland Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology, Baltimore; spokeswoman, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Melissa Rifkin, MS, RD, CDN, CSO, bariatric dietitian, Montefiore Medical Center, New York.

Okarter, N. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, published online March 17, 2010.

FDA: “Sodium In Your Diet: Using the Nutrition Facts Label to Reduce Your Intake.”

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