A recent video posted to TikTok revealed that Panera's beloved creamy Mac & Cheese comes from frozen bags. Fans of the restaurant chain claimed to be shocked. But if you think frozen foods are an unhealthy choice, flavorless and always ultraprocessed, nothing can be further from the truth.
In fact, sometimes foods are frozen to ensure freshness and to avoid having to add preservatives.
Frozen foods can be a nutrient-rich, economical, and convenient part of daily eating. Using frozen foods also avoids food waste because a single serving or two can be prepared. And for most foods, the taste is comparable — when heated correctly. With the right wrapping, and slow thawing, frozen foods are as delicious as fresh.
It's worth noting that while frozen food never spoils, the seasoning might need to be corrected, depending on how long it's been frozen.
Frozen fruits and vegetables are nutrient rich — most are flash-frozen at the time of harvest — but do have a different texture from fresh. Still, it’s better than having a whole head of broccoli rotting in the fridge from good intentions.
It’s not surprising to see that some restaurants find frozen foods equally convenient. The frozen macaroni and cheese at Panera is a great example of a simply prepared food, frozen to maintain the integrity of the freshest product. The main problem with many frozen mac and cheese products is they can be loaded with sodium and hidden saturated fats.
But if you’ve ever made mac and cheese at home, you’ll know that the cooled off remains of your originally creamy pot are gloppy and gluey. At restaurants like Panera, with a slow thaw of a packaged flash-frozen freshly made mac and cheese, each serving is prepared as ordered. Taste and flavor are consistent — and the re-heating method is taken from the French “sous-vide” used in the fanciest of restaurants. This simply means the slow heating of a cooked food in hot water for a number of minutes.
What could be easier and fresher?
Baked goods get a real life extension when properly wrapped in the freezer. Cookies, muffins and breads —frozen before or after baking — both have the fresh taste of “right from the oven”.
How would the legions of cookie bakers create their multiple favorites for the holidays without their freezer for support? And for purchased goods, it can avoid the additives used to keep them counter-fresh for a longer time.
Careful label reading is a must-do when it comes to frozen foods. Look for pure food ingredients and no added fillers or preservatives. And you should be able to recognize the ingredient list.
All that said, there are times when fresh is best.
Here's a closer look at some go-to food favorites to see if it’s better to go fresh or frozen.
Fish fillets: FROZEN
You might be surprised to know most fish sold in supermarkets — even when presented on ice in a case — is previously frozen. It’s “fresh frozen” when caught so taste and nutrients are maintained. You’ll be paying a lot more for the perception of fresh-caught fish. Some restaurants and specialty fish stores DO have fresh fish for sale, but the price is eye-popping and the nutrients are the same.
• Look for ready to eat, unseasoned, uncooked fillets — available singly packaged or in multiples.
• Read the labels before choosing prepared and processed fish sticks and fillets; while some are nutrient rich, others are loaded with extra salt, fat and calories.
• Seafood, especially shrimp, is a great nutrient-rich, economical option.
• For “specialty fish” like wild salmon that have a limited growing season, frozen fillets are the perfect choice.
Frozen pizzas, like most processed and prepared foods, have loads of hidden added salt and fat. Adding toppings boosts the cost, without extra food or nutrients.
• Personalize and boost the nutrients of your favorite pizza with your choice of thick or thin crusts available everywhere. From a ready-to-use crust, to English muffins or pita rounds, you can go plain, whole wheat or gluten free.
• Top your pizza with a healthier jarred sauce — it's lower in salt and fat than pizzeria versions.
• Add your favorite toppings so you control the amounts — even the more indulgent ones. Try swapping turkey pepperoni for regular, or add just a few pieces of the regular version. Try reduced-fat cheese to lower saturated fat without compromising flavor. Load up on veggie toppings for pennies.
While this might sound like a shocker, nutrient-rich fruits like berries, cherries and peaches are traveling thousands of miles to get to your local market. Usually the taste, texture and color are less than expected, and the price is astronomical.
Meanwhile, frozen fruits — conventional or organic — are “flash frozen” upon harvesting, keeping them nutrient rich and fresh. Most waste is eliminated, as you use what you need at the time.
• I call fruit “nature’s candy”, so try cherries or your favorite straight from the freezer for a treat.
• Skip the frozen fruits with added sauces or toppings that contain a lot of added sugars. Stick with plain frozen fruit.
• Upon thawing, the texture does change, so mix with seasonal fresh fruits like apples or oranges if using in a fruit salad. Frozen fruits are best when cooked or blended in smoothies or yogurt, but can be eaten “as is” when still slightly frozen.
There’s no food waste, just use what you need! You’re not stuck with a whole head of cauliflower that sounded like a good idea to use five ways, but winds up in the back of the fridge, untouched.
• Frozen vegetables are ready to use, already cut and washed to save prep time.
• Prices skyrocket in the winter, and you can use frozen veggies for mostly all uses, except raw, with dips. Add to stews, soups and side-dishes. While the texture is slightly different, frozen veggies are “flash frozen” for optimal nutrient content and taste.