The Frozen Food Aisle, Demystified: What to Eat and Avoid
Rare is the person who hasn't thanked their lucky stars that the frozen food aisle exists. When you're in a bind, when you need a break, when you just don't have time to do anything more than microwave, the frozen food aisle comes through. The only problem is that without a little guidance, these packaged meals can quickly turn from friend to enemy, both in terms of your waistline and overall health. Because many busy working women depend on a frozen bite or two to get through the week, we thought it would be helpful to provide some guidance on what to pick up—and what to leave on ice. Keep scrolling for the skinny!
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Whenever possible, reach for frozen food items that can be healthy components to well-rounded meals, rather than pre-made meals themselves. The longer the ingredient the list, the more potential for preservatives, chemicals, and fat. On the other hand, a bag of peas, is just that (ingredient list: peas), i.e. infinitely better for you than frozen lasagna, even when the aforementioned food is organic and low-fat. Frozen single-item bags of vegetables, like peas, brussels sprouts, spinach, kale, green beans, sweet potato, and broccoli, make for delicious and filling sides or snacks when you don't have the time to wash, slice, and dice. All you have to do is steam or microwave them and toss with olive oil, salt, or spices. Frozen edamame is a particular all-star of the frozen food aisle: It's nutrient-dense, high-protein, and low-calorie, and it makes for a delicious and filling snack without any additives. Plus it's a bit more exciting and exotic than say, broccoli, when you want a mid-day nosh.
Even better? The frozen food aisle has pre-cooked bags of brown rice, barley, farro, and quinoa, and more. With a frozen bag of whole grains as your base, you can engineer a multitude of dishes involving other frozen veggies and seasoning (think: stir fries, pilafs, and salads), all while skipping the cooking process—and saving on the calories and unnatural ingredients of most packaged meals. At the office, you can microwave a bag of frozen quinoa and throw in some pantry staples like raisins and almonds for a healthy lunch that beats its calorie-laden freezer-aisle alternatives (see the next slide for more on those).
Frozen fruit, like bags of strawberries, pineapple, blackberries, mango, peaches, and blueberries are another fantastic freezer-aisle option to reach for. Fruit is frozen when the it's at its peak nutrient level, so you reap the maximum benefit from its vitamins and antioxidants for use in smoothies, thawed over oatmeal, or as the topping to a frozen waffle. Just check the bag to make sure you're choosing fruit that's frozen alone, not with any sugar or additional ingredients.
Other good freezer aisle items to reach for include frozen veggie, black bean, and quinoa burgers, plain seafood without any sauce (frozen bagged shrimp, or cuts of halibut and salmon), frozen whole wheat waffles, and frozen sprouted bread. Because freezing preserves the bread, it lacks many of the preservatives needed to keep bread fresh while on the shelf.
We know it's not always possible (we're guilty of falling for frozen tikka masala), but you want to avoid frozen foods that come in sauces, which contain added calories, sodium, sugar, and artificial ingredients. Like in non-frozen life, meals that come in creamy dairy-based sauces or even red sauces, which usually have sugar, are calorie bombs.
You also want to avoid meat or seafood that has been pre-seasoned, which is pretty much synonymous with being sodium-rich, as well as meat or seafood that has been breaded, like frozen chicken nuggets and fish fillets.
It's best to avoid things like frozen pizza, burritos, enchiladas, and casseroles altogether, but if you're reaching for a frozen carb-heavy meal, make sure it doesn't contain heart-harming trans fat in the form of hydrogenated oil, and check the portion size to keep calories and fat intake in check. For instance, the portion size for even some smaller, "healthier" frozen pizzas is 1/3 of the pizza. Eat the whole thing and you could be at upwards of 40 percent of your daily saturated fat limit.
Though bagged frozen fruit is great to reach for, you should avoid canned frozen fruit juice, which usually comes in concentrate and contains heavy amounts of sugar.
What do you reach for and avoid when you hit the frozen food aisle? Anything we left off this list? Sound off in the comments below!