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Frozen foods have come a long way since Swanson first introduced its meal-in-a-box in the 1950s. Bland staples like turkey and mashed potatoes have given way to tandoori chicken and lemon-buttered fish. Sure, they’re quick, convenient and actually tasty, but are they healthy? Well, the good news is that choosing the right frozen dinner, pizza or lasagna may hold the answer to your hurry-up life. But make the wrong choice, and you could get enough sodium and saturated fat that you’ll want a cardiologist on speed dial. To make sure you don’t sacrifice your health (and your six-pack) for convenience, follow our stoplight guide to your favorite frozen foods.
When frozen dinners were first introduced, they boiled down to nothing more than a few dishes of rubbery meat, bland starch and vegetables as fresh as an M.C. Hammer album. Now you choose a whole eating style. Will it be high-protein, low-carb or even vegan? Perhaps Thai, Indian or Italian rocks your world. Thanks to companies like Lean Cuisine, fat has steadily been reduced and replaced with whole grains, and Healthy Choice is leading the fight against salt licks. But for every good choice, there’s another that’s about as healthy as a Happy Meal.
With little effort you can find frozen dinners with more salt than Atlantic seawater. To stop your blood pressure from going through the roof, choose green-light frozen dinners that have less than 700 mg of sodium and stop saturated fat at 3 grams while throwing in at least 3 grams of fiber and 15 grams of protein. (See our top picks, above.) Desserts and sauces can really jack up the sugar, so keep an eye on the sugar content and cap it at 10 grams. We rated dinners that contain at least 250 calories. After all, this is supposed to resemble a meal, not a glorified snack that’ll have you raiding the fridge in no time.
Healthy Choice: Spaghetti with Meat Sauce, Mandarin Chicken
Lean Cuisine: Chicken Parmesan, Chicken in Peanut Sauce, Café Classics Teriyaki Steak
Mon Cuisine: Vegetarian Spaghetti & Meatballs, Vegetarian Salisbury Steak in Gravy
Seeds of Change: Penne Marinara
Whole Foods Whole Kitchen: Natter Paneer, Chana Masala, Pad Thai with Tofu
Ethnic Gourmet: Pad Thai with Tofu
Marie Callender’s: Beef Tips in Mushroom Sauce, Herb Roasted Chicken & Mashed Potatoes
Michelina’s: Homestyle Bowls
Stouffer’s: Hearty Portions
Swanson: Hearty Bowls, Hungry Man
Uncle Ben’s: Bowls
Healthy Choice: Beef Teriyaki, Sweet & Sour Chicken
Lean Cuisine: Roasted Turkey
Frozen dinners can be a little skimpy on calories, so serve them up with a protein shake for a better overall meal. And while you’re at it, toss in a cup of frozen vegetables for a fiber boost.
A good slice of frozen pizza has traditionally been hard to come by. If the artery-clogging saturated fat wasn’t bad enough, then the cardboard crust was enough to send you running back to the pizzeria. Now some companies are trying their best to reduce the fat while introducing hip toppings such as pine nuts and roasted chicken, and new rising crusts are doing away with the cardboard taste. However, it’s still buyer beware out there – if you’re not careful, you could easily end up with enough fat to turn those abs of steel into abs of flab.
Our green-light pizzas cap saturated fat at 4 grams and sodium at 700 mg per serving, which should be at least a third of a family-size pizza. Don’t settle for less than 12 grams of protein per serving. Lots of vegetables help the cause, while stuffed-cheese crusts and greasy meats detract from it. And keep an eye out for trans fat (partially hydrogenated oil or shortening) that can sneak into the crust or fake cheese. Food packaging laws no longer let companies hide this killer fat, so look for it on the Nutrition Facts label.
A.C. LaRocco: Tomato & Feta
Amy’s: Spinach, Cheese, Pesto, Soy Cheeze
DiGiorno: Thin Crispy Crust Grilled Chicken Tomato & Spinach
Healthy Choice: French Bread
Heavens’ Bistro: Chicken Sausage, Grilled Vegetable
Lean Cuisine: Roasted Vegetable
DiGiorno: Cheese Stuffed, Deep Dish, Rising Crust Freschetta
Tombstone: Original Sausage & Mushroom
Totino’s: Party Style
California Pizza Kitchen: Thai Chicken, BBQ Chicken, Crispy Thin Crust Margherita
Linda McCartney: Artichoke & Roasted Garlic, Cheese
If your favorite pizza is shy on protein, top it with smoked salmon. You’ll get extra muscle-building protein and a good dose of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Lasagna is true comfort food, but unless you’re a star on the Food Network, making your own might end with a call for takeout. Instead of giving up on this classic, you can simply pop a frozen lasagna in the microwave and have dinner in a few minutes. Unfortunately, you may have to spend more than a few minutes in the gym to undo the damage. “Like with any frozen food, reading lasagna food labels for things like sodium is extremely important,” says Chris Aceto, author of Championship Bodybuilding (Nutramedia, 2001). Saturated fat can really add up with beef, cheese, full-fat milk and cream.
Green-light lasagnas contain no more than 10 grams of total fat, 4 grams of saturated fat and 700 mg of sodium. Don’t overlook protein – you want at least 10 grams. Many of our green-light choices also provide a good dose of veggies.
Amy’s: Light in Sodium Vegetable, Tofu Vegetable
Healthy Choice: Lasagna Bake
Michelina’s: Four Cheese
Lean Cuisine: Cheese with Chicken
Amy’s: Vegetable, Cheese
Ian’s: Low Carb
Michelina’s: Lasagna Alfredo
Swanson: Lasagna Bowls
Whole Foods 365 Organic: Beef
Amy’s: Garden Vegetable
Boca: Meatless Chunky Tomato & Herb
Ordinary lasagna can be turned into a protein powerhouse when topped with cottage cheese. Don’t forget to have a salad on the side.
While omega-3- and protein-rich fish should be a part of every carnivore’s diet, battered fish and chips is no way to reap the benefits. “Often, fillets found in clear plastic bags are the best choice,” says Phil Lempert, food editor for NBC’s Today. Lempert advises buying fillets this way in order to avoid the artery-clogging trans fat in the crispy coating.
Green-light frozen fish are trans fat-free and keep sat fat and sodium to less than 2 grams and 580 mg, respectively.
Gorton’s: Grilled Fillets
Healthy Choice: Lemon Pepper Fish
Ian’s: Fish Sticks, Fillets
Whole Foods Whole Catch: Frozen Fillets, Frozen Fish Burgers
Gorton’s: Popcorn Fish, Beer Battered Fillets
Michelina’s: Homestyle Bowls Shrimp Alfredo
Van de Kamp’s: Popcorn Fish
Gorton’s: Lemon and Herb Butter Grilled Fillet Meal
Lean Cuisine: Baked Lemon Pepper Fish, Salmon & Basil
Is your fish on the bland side? Mrs. Dash Lemon Pepper will jump-start even the most rubberized fillet.