Nutritionists share the frozen foods you should avoid at all costs and which quick and healthy options they choose to eat instead.
Frozen foods to avoid at all costs
Frozen waffles or pasta are go-to favourites when you’re on a time crunch in the morning or evening. These guilty pleasures, like other frozen foods, allow you to eat without the hassle of cooking. However, the nutritional content can be lacking or leaning toward too much sodium or fat.
While there are good choices in the frozen food aisle, there are plenty of bad ones, too. These are the frozen foods nutritionists avoid, and the alternatives they recommend instead.
Smoothie base mixes
Smoothies can start your morning on the right foot with an immediate serving (or more) of fruit, but be careful when shopping for base mix in the frozen aisle. Those that are just portioned-out fruit and veggie mixes are A-OK, but others don’t deserve their health halo, says Susan Bowerman, RD, director of worldwide nutrition education and training at Herbalife Nutrition. “Some are just a ‘base mix’ for your smoothie, which means they have no fruit at all, but instead are loaded with sugars, gums, flavourings, etc.,” says Bowerman. She recommends skipping those mixes and hunting down another freezer aisle staple: whole, unsweetened fruits. Add some veggies if you’d like, along with protein powder and milk (dairy or non-dairy), for a healthier start to the day.
“I can’t understand why people would spend money buying frozen cooked brown rice—it’s so costly when compared to what it costs to cook it yourself,” says Bowerman. Keep it cheap by cooking a big batch of rice when you’re not in the dinner rush, then pop it into freezer bags so it’s ready when you need it, she suggests. Time and money saved.
Those ready-made spaghetti Bolognese and creamy pasta dishes are comfort foods at their finest, but they’re not the best for your body. Skip the frozen dishes, which tend to be loaded with sodium and fat, and throw your own together, suggests Jodi Greebel, RDN, pediatric dietitian and founder of Citrition. Not only is boiling pasta quick and easy, but you also have more control over what goes into the sauce and sides. Load yours up with nutritious veggies for a healthier twist on your guilty-pleasure pasta.
You don’t need to let go of your waffles entirely, but if frozen waffles are a big part of your diet, you’ll want to consider making an update. Whip up a big batch of homemade waffles with whole grain flour and protein powder, suggests Bowerman. The fibre-rich whole grain and protein boost make them more satisfying than your usual syrup-laden breakfast—and no less convenient. “Pop them in the freezer, then toast as needed—just as you would with the ones you buy in the box,” Bowerman says.
Don’t be fooled by the fruit in items like blueberry pancakes and strawberry waffles. “Parents think that because there is fruit in them they must be healthy,” says Greebel. Au contraire. The berries speckled through these carb-heavy breakfast items are far down the ingredient list—way below sugar—making these treats high in sugar and sodium, but low in the nutrients you were looking for, like fibre. You’re better off adding a healthy handful of fresh or frozen berries to the top of plain frozen pancakes and waffles, says Greebel.
Parenting is a 24/7 job, and sometimes you just don’t have the time and energy to cook dinner for your little ones. It’s tempting to pop a frozen kids’ meal in the oven and serve dinner 20 minutes later, but that meal probably isn’t something you really want in your child’s belly. “Some meals have more than half the amount of fat a child needs for the whole day,” says Greebel. With just a teensy bit more effort, you can dish up something you can feel confident feeding your kid. If you’re limited to the freezer aisle, Greebel recommends choosing baked chicken nuggets with frozen veggies like butternut squash or peas, but fresh food can be just as easy. Pick up a rotisserie chicken to serve with two vegetables, then save the leftovers for quesadillas tomorrow night, she suggests.
Low-protein veggie burgers
Skipping the traditional cheeseburger for a meatless option can be better for your belly and the planet, but there’s a catch. “A lot of people look at all plant-based burgers as healthy protein substitutes, but many of them are much higher in carbohydrates and fat than protein,” says Ilana Muhlstein, RD, creator of the 2B Mindset nutrition program. “Protein is important for keeping us full and preventing overeating.” Leave it on the shelf if the nutrition facts say just five grams of protein, and hunt down another veggie patty with 10 grams or more, she suggests.
Those frozen breakfast sandwiches and meat-and-hash-brown meals sure are tasty, but they’re not a good use of the most important meal of the day. Most are high-calorie and loaded with sodium and saturated fats. “I think many people make trade-offs when choosing these foods,” says Bowerman. “They probably are aware that they aren’t the healthiest foods to eat, but they’re exchanging that for convenience or immediate gratification.” If you’ve been sacrificing nutrition for the sake of a quick option, try a healthier grab-and-go breakfast. Bake a batch of breakfast muffins over the weekend, or toss some fruit in plain Greek yogurt on your way out the door. With protein-packed options like those, your waistline and energy levels will thank you.
Frozen Chinese foods like stir-fry or beef with broccoli are loaded with sodium, thanks in part to the sauces they come in. Luckily, a healthier version is just as easy and freezer-friendly. Buy a pack of plain frozen veggies—some stores even sell stir-fry vegetables without the sauce—and throw them in your pan with chicken or beef, suggests Greebel. Use just a bit of low-sodium soy or teriyaki sauce to keep the salt to a minimum.
Those pizza bites and egg rolls sure are tasty, but they shouldn’t be a part of your regular diet. Loaded with sodium and saturated fats, they could increase your risk of heart disease and obesity. Keep some healthier snack options on hand so you’re not tempted by the fried stuff. Throw together a pita pizza instead of frozen pizza bagels, or make pulled pork tacos instead of taquitos.
No matter how much time they save you at breakfast time, those frozen egg sandwiches shouldn’t be your go-to morning meal. You’re loading up on sodium and additives instead of some plain protein-packed eggs. Breakfast sandwiches are “almost as quick to assemble on your own and so much healthier,” says Greebel. If you don’t have a minute to spare in the morning rush, do your breakfast prep work over the weekend and make some egg muffin cups, suggests Bowerman. You can even freeze them for later, popping them in the microwave before you head out the door.
When you’re looking for a quick and healthy single-serving dinner, buyer beware: Some frozen foods look reasonable in calories, fat, and sodium at first glance, but they’re actually two servings disguised as one. Double-check the portion size before you dig in to make sure you’re not biting off more than you’d want to chew. Swap the poser out for a single-serving meal, or set half aside for leftovers.