Posted on September 09, 2014 at 19:38 PM
I haven’t eaten a frozen TV dinner since Mom served the classic Swanson turkey, cornbread and gravy, and buttered pea’s variety. That was many years ago, and healthier brands have emerged.
Overall, I think frozen dinners are just plain bad for you. But I understand they’re a grab-and-go item when you’re famished, and you need to eat right away and don’t want to eat out. I’ve got my eye on the daiya dairy-free Margherita pizza made with a brown rice flour crust that I first tasted at the IDEA Fit annual convention in Anaheim in August. Sold at Whole Foods, the daiya pizza, which tasted better than I had imagined, meets the requirements for buying frozen food.
All this leads me to offer up some advice the next time you buy a frozen meal: Look for a short list of ingredients, and one that is low in sugar, sodium and saturated fats.
Let’s take each of these points to tease out what low means.
- Sodium level. Consume no more than 2300 mg (milligrams) of sodium a day. The best low-sodium frozen dinner options contain no more than 600 mg of sodium per serving. Take note—per serving. If you divide a frozen dinner into its servings, you may discover that they’re proportioned for a toddler, and eating twice as much doubles the sodium and other levels listed. The problem with consuming too much sodium means that you increase your risk for high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
- Sugar level. The American Heart Association recommends that men eat no more than 9 teaspoons of sugar a day; women 6 teaspoons. Every 4 grams of sugar listed on a nutrition label are equivalent to 1 teaspoon. Sugar, of course, occurs naturally in fruits and milk products. Added sugars, the kind in frozen dinners, are the ones to avoid. They are empty calories and go by a variety of names. For example, anything ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose) is a sugar.
- Fats and unsaturated fats. While fats make things taste better, they conspire to make us, well, fat. If you know your recommended daily intake, you can gauge whether the frozen dinner you’ve chosen will exceed what you need, given that this won’t be your only meal of the day. Choose meals with less than 4 grams of saturated fat per serving.
Pro Tip: How much fat do you need? Let’s get personal. Use this baseline established by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies: It recommends that 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories come from healthy fats. Got it? But how does that translate into calories? Take the number of calories you eat per day, say, 2,000. Multiply 2,000 by 20 or 35 percent. If we use 20 percent, we get 400 calories. That’s your limit for the day if you’re sticking to 20 percent. To translate that into grams, divide by 9 because one gram of fat equals 9 calories. Answer: 44 grams of fat. If the label says trans fats—skip it altogether. They’re the worst fats for raising cholesterol levels.