Did you know that the average American eats 6 frozen meals a month? The market is estimated at $9 billion in annual sales.
The first TV dinner was introduced to the public in 1953 under the Swanson brand. It was presented as a solution for busy moms who had begun joining the workforce and could no longer spend hours in the kitchen. The meal included turkey, corn bread and gravy, buttered peas and sweet potatoes. It cost $0.98.
This was the beginning of a revolution. Combining an entree and two sides in a three part aluminum container that could be heated, eaten from, and then discarded, proved to be of great convenience to consumers.
To this day, convenience is the top reason for frozen dinner purchases.
The "healthy" frozen meal trend began in the mid-80's when the CEO of Con-Agra suffered a heart attack. Upon returning to work, he could not find a frozen entree that his doctors would approve. Thus was born the Healthy Choices brand. Since the FDA regulates the use of the term "Healthy" in food marketing, these meals were required to contain less than 480mg of sodium.
At Fooducate, we encourage people to prepare their own dinners, but realize that frozen meals are not going away any time soon. If you are going to stock your freezer with some of these products, try to choose the least detrimental ones. This is how:
Start by checking the serving size and the calorie count. Some meals boast a low calorie count, until you realize that the meal is toddler-sized.
Next, check the sodium level. Anything higher than 1000mg is totally crazy (almost half the daily allowance of 2300mg). Seek sodium levels lower than 600mg, and ideally less than 480mg. For example, Hungry Man Classic Fried Chicken has 1600mg of sodium(!), while Lean Cuisine Shrimp and Angel Hair Pasta has 590mg.
Look at the fats and saturated fats values. The Hungry Man dinner has 59g of fat (90% of your daily value), 13 of which are saturated. Needless to say, if the trans-fats value is anything greater than zero, don't add the product to your shopping cart.
Most frozen dinners include a fair amount of additives such as BHT (possible carcinogen), polysorbate 8, artificial colors, and propylene glycol (used in your car's antifreeze). For example, a kid's favorite - Kid Cuisine Frozen Dinner, Bug Safari, Chicken Breast Nuggets - contains no less than BHT, Sodium Phosphate, Yellow No. 5 , Yellow No. 6, Red No. 40, Blue No. 1, Sodium Benzoate, Potassium Sorbate, and Disodium Phosphate. Try to avoid these preservatives.
Sugar is a very popular ingredient in frozen meals, often as a replacement for fat in low-fat dinners. Sugar will appear under many names and forms, but an easy way to get the total is to look at the nutrition label and see how many grams are reported per serving. Every 4 grams of sugar are equivalent to 1 teaspoon! As an example, the aforementioned Kid Cuisine Frozen Dinner contains 18 grams of sugar, or 4.5 teaspoons!
Frozen meals are not a great option, but if you are hard pressed, try to make the least harmful choice.
What to do at the Supermarket
If you're going to walk down that frozen dinner aisle at the supermarket, take a minute to look at the nutrition labels and choose something with a short ingredient list, sodium levels lower than 600mg, low saturated fats, and low sugar. Good luck!?