There's a Place for Frozen Foods in Your Life

The frozen food section is healthier than it used to be. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

"Isn’t a frozen dinner just a meal-kit that costs less without the work?"

That question, quoted in The Washington Post, came from an RDC Capital Markets report about the recent growth of frozen food. The report also noted that while consumers are increasingly looking for convenience when cooking at home, not many meal kit services have been profitable.

Meal kits deliver pre-portioned ingredients for personally selected meals to your door, eliminating the need to shop and the danger of buying too much and wasting food. Most of these meals take under an hour to prepare and cook, yet analysts are questioning if meal kits are too "laborious and time consuming" when weighed against how much they cost.

Last year, when Sun Basket sent me a couple of weeks' worth of their meal kits as media samples, I didn't find them laborious or time consuming. There was some chopping of fresh vegetables that needed to be done, but a good deal of the food was recipe-ready. I found the meal kits very convenient.

I also in no way found these meal kits to be the equivalent of a frozen dinner. The foods were fresh and flavorful. The ingredients were healthy. Frozen dinners are usually high in salt and fat, and frequently have sugar added in places you wouldn't expect. A frozen lasagna, for instance, can have 9 grams of sugar (a little over two teaspoons) in a one-cup serving.

Frozen foods of yesterday

frozen lasagna
Frozen lasagna generally has much more sugar per serving than homemade. (Photo: mikiledray/Shutterstock)

Frozen food companies, perhaps encouraged by the fact that meal kits have shown people are willing to cook if the meals are healthy and convenient, have started offering frozen foods that are healthier than the frozen lasagnas and Salisbury steaks of yore.

For the first time in five years, the frozen food market is growing. In the first 12 weeks of this year, it grew 1 percent. Those who are cooking at home — whether they're millennials looking for nutrition and convenience or families who aren't eating out much — are reaching for frozen foods.

Some of the frozen meals of yesterday are getting makeovers. Healthy Choice has "nixed artificial ingredients and hard-to-pronounce words on its packaging and highlighted protein and fiber contents." Still, frozen meals often have high sodium content or added sugar.

Always look at the nutrition information — and not the front-of-package marketing claims — when choosing a frozen food if healthy is your goal. Take a look at the ingredient list as well as the nutrition information so you can decide if the item meets your standards.

Frozen foods of today

mahi mahi burger
Frozen mahi mahi burgers are a much healthier option than a traditional beef burger. (Photo: Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock)

There are frozen foods, however, that are very close to the fresh version. Some of these foods come in steamable packaging — meaning they can be put in the microwave and steamed inside the bag. (And if you don't want to cook anything in plastic in the microwave, simply take the items out the bag and cook them in a non-plastic container.) Here are some easy frozen options:

  • Rice: Whole grain, brown rice is the best choice.
  • Quinoa: Look for plain quinoa or quinoa mixed with other healthy foods like kale or brown rice.
  • Grain mixes: Mainstream brands like Birds Eye have blends like Barley & Kale with broccoli, carrots, brown rice, red beans and a light garlic sauce with no artificial ingredients or preservatives.
  • Beans: Frozen beans heat up quickly and usually have a lot less sodium than canned. Companies like Path of Life are making steamable bags like Garbonzos and Lentils with natural ingredients like tomato, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, basil, sea salt and black pepper.
  • Frozen fruit: Berries freeze wonderfully and can be used in smoothies or thawed to top oatmeal and yogurt.
  • Frozen vegetables: A super easy way to get the traditional side of vegetables on the dinner table is to cook up a bag of frozen vegetables like broccoli, green beans, peas, cauliflower, carrots or a mixture of several.
  • Sweet potato fries: Yes, these are fried, but sweet potatoes provide all the health benefits of sweet potatoes in fried form. Frozen ones will often have a little sugar added, so making your own is still the healthier choice, but frozen sweet potato fries are healthier than frozen traditional French fries.
  • Burgers: Frozen fish-based burgers like mahi mahi or salmon burgers are a good freezer option. Vegetarian and vegan burgers are popular, too, like Aldi's Kale Veggie Burger.
  • Riced vegetables: Ricing vegetables — or turning them into small pieces that look like rice — is trendy right now. You can find riced vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, sweet potatoes, and carrots from various brands. These vegetables can be eaten as-is or substituted for rice in dishes like risotto, burritos and fried rice.
  • Spiralized vegetables: Vegetables like zucchini, butternut squash, carrots and beets that have been cut into long spirals are often touted as a low-carb alternative to pasta. Many brands are taking the work out of spiralizing by offering them pre-cut and frozen.

Although this isn't an exhaustive list of healthy frozen foods, it may lead you back to the frozen food aisles to try a few new things. It may lead you to discover other healthy frozen foods that can make your meal prep less laborious and time consuming.