As Americans seek to limit the number of trips to the grocery store due to the coronavirus pandemic, they’ve been giving frozen meals a closer look.
Along with filling their cupboards with long-lasting staples like canned beans, fish, and soup, consumers have been stocking up on frozen meals. Sales increased by 48 percent in April this year compared with the same month last year, according to the American Frozen Food Institute.
That coincides with a growing interest in packaged foods that have healthier, less-processed ingredients—as well as a willingness to sample a wider variety of cuisine. “Manufacturers of frozen meals have been hitting the reset button and changing a lot about their product offerings in order to meet consumers where they are,” says Dewey Warner, senior food and nutrition analyst at Euromonitor International, a market research company. These kinds of meals are largely what’s driving the growth in sales. “Salisbury steak and potatoes may be a tough sell, but consumers may be interested in a fire-grilled sriracha steak bowl,” Warner adds.
As a result, we decided to check out the newer offerings in the freezer case. There are still plenty of old-school dishes—lots of meat-and-potatoes “man dinners” and petite, bland diet meals. But we found just as many that feature global flavors, plant proteins such as beans and tofu, and fewer processed ingredients.
“Consumers see frozen meals as an easy way to experiment with these trends,” says Ellen Klosz, the CR nutritionist who oversaw our testing. “So we opted to evaluate 30 meals that fit into these categories rather than ‘classic’ frozen meals.”
Our food experts found plenty of choices that are healthier and much tastier than you may have imagined. And while none of the meals in our tests received our highest taste rating, 18 were rated Very Good. Here are the changes we noted.
(See below for tips on bulking up a dish or adding a side.)
More Grains and Fiber
Portion sizes for frozen meals in general are still pretty small. The total amount of food in the entrées we tested ranged from ¾ to 2 cups. And the calorie counts for this newer generation of frozen entrées are, in some cases, similar to those for old-style favorites. Stouffer’s Chicken à la King, for instance, has 360 calories and Marie Callender’s Chicken Parmigiana has 440, while Evol Vitalize Grilled Chicken with Grains and Vegetables (in our ratings) has 410.
The difference is in the nutritional quality of the ingredients. The new breed of frozen dinners includes high-fiber whole grains, beans, vegetables, and even nuts and seeds. The Vitalize Grilled Chicken, for example, has plentiful brown rice, lentils, and vegetables—and 8 grams of filling fiber. In fact, when we measured and weighed the amount of vegetables, legumes, and whole grains in the meals, we found that most of them had 1 to 1½ cups of those healthy ingredients, and about half of the meals had 8 to 20 grams of fiber. (Daily fiber needs range from 25 to 31 grams.) In contrast, Stouffer’s Chicken à la King is mostly white rice with chicken chunks in a cream sauce and has no fiber whatsoever.
A healthier frozen meal should have “mostly whole-food ingredients like quinoa, veggies, legumes, lean beef, chicken, and seafood,” says Nancy Farrell Allen, R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. While technically speaking, frozen meals are processed foods, many of the ones in our ratings wouldn’t be considered ultraprocessed. “Ultraprocessed means the ingredients are far from their natural state—think soy protein isolate instead of tofu,” Klosz says. They also tend to be loaded with added sugars, sodium, and ingredients that you wouldn’t use at home, such as phosphates, flavorings, and gums. The distinction is important; eating too many ultraprocessed foods may raise the risk of obesity, heart disease, and other health problems. “We took these factors into consideration in calculating our nutrition score,” Klosz says.
American palates have become more adventurous, and the offerings in the freezer case read like menus at Asian, Indian, Mediterranean, and other international restaurants. Flavorful ingredients that are standard in global cuisines, such as serrano peppers, tahini, tamari, tomatillo, fenugreek leaves, and turmeric, are now regularly featured. The vegetable choices in the meals we tested were nicely varied, too, including butternut squash, chard, and sweet potatoes, in addition to tried-and-true carrots and broccoli.
And while grains in the old-style meals are limited to white rice or pasta, you can now find brown rice and other whole grains, such as quinoa, red rice, farro, or wheatberries, and legume pasta.
The plant-based trend is well-represented in the frozen meal category, and meals made only with vegetables, whole grains, and beans tended to score the highest in our ratings, especially if the vegetables were flavorful and had a firm texture, and the seasonings tasted fresh (not dried) and were well-blended.
But meals with chicken were more likely to get lower taste scores. “The meat was often dry and chewy,” Klosz says. “Possibly this is because chicken’s texture may be affected when it’s processed and reheated.” What’s more, the best-tasting chicken dishes—Saffron Road Chicken Pad Thai with Rice Noodles and Good Food Made Simple Chicken Black Bean—scored only a Fair for nutrition.
Spices, Not Sodium
While frozen meals have traditionally been high in sodium, we found several lower-sodium options. “In many of the dishes,” Klosz says, “the combination of ingredients and spices added so much flavor that you didn’t need all the salt.”
Of the 18 that got a rating of Very Good for taste, 13 had 600 mg of sodium or less. (The U.S. Dietary Guideline for sodium is less than 2,300 mg per day.)
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the August 2020 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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