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Need a quick meal? Don’t freeze out frozen food

Nutritionist Elizabeth Somer helps solve your dinner dilemmas with healthy foods from the frozen aisle of your supermarket.
/ Source: TODAY

Is cooking really not your thing? Can’t tell a saucepan from a frying pan? Does your refrigerator hold an old bottle of ketchup and maybe something furry on the bottom shelf that resembles the cat you haven't seen in a week? Or, maybe you’re just pressed for time. Never fear, the frozen food case of your grocery store holds the answers to your hurry-up life, that is if you choose wisely. Nutritionist Elizabeth Somer, author of "The Origin Diet," was invited to appear on "Today," to offer some tips for healthy eating from the freezer case. Here she shares some simple guidelines:

You say freezer food is OK?
There’s something to be said for eating from the freezer case. America’s bulging waistlines are partially a result of expanding portions. You can’t beat frozen meals for helping you control those portions. Heating up a single tray of food can simply remove any temptation to go back to the stove for more. Of course, you also can eat some of the grocery store’s greasiest and most artery-clogging items, too. It’s a matter of following a few simple guidelines.

What are those guidelines?
You want to look for foods that are low in fat, especially saturated and trans fat, supply some fiber (at least two to three grams per serving), and don't pack a huge calorie punch. You can’t use cut off points for frozen items, especially entrees, like “no more than five grams of fat.” The first guideline is to look for foods that are no more than 30 percent fat calories, which means no more than three grams of fat for every 100 calories.

Why can’t you just look for foods that have a limit on fat, sugar or salt?
You don’t want to reward companies that kept the fat grams low by serving up tiny portions. A label might say, “Only 210 calories,” but is that really a meal? A one-cup fruited yogurt has 250 calories and we don’t call that a meal. It’s a snack. True, almost seven out of every 10 Americans is battling a weight problem, but even diets shouldn’t drop below 1200 calories a day and if people ate a third of their calories at each meal, that means at least 400 calories. Stick to a 200-calorie entree and you’re likely to say, “Hey that meal was so healthy, I can have a little treat now, like that half gallon of ice cream in the freezer.” What you want is a meal that will fill you up with healthy food without filling you out with too many calories.

Your second guideline is to choose foods low in saturated and trans fats.
Yes. Look for items that have less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat. That means about one gram of saturated fat or less for every 100 calories. An entree that contains 250 calories, for example, should have no more than 2.8 grams of saturated fat.

What about sodium?
My third guideline is to limit sodium. Whether you have high blood pressure or not, everyone would benefit by cutting back on their sodium intake. Many frozen foods, particularly the breakfast and dinner entrees, are sodium land mines, supplying up to half or more of your entire day’s allotment for sodium, which is 2400 milligrams. Look for items that contain no more than 200 milligrams of sodium for every 100 calories. For example, a slice of pizza that supplies 300 calories should contain more than 600 milligrams sodium.

You have one more guideline. What is it?
You also can’t eat entirely from the frozen food section. You have to venture into the produce aisles to compliment and round out any meal. But, even then, you can choose foods that take no time at all to prepare. For example, have a glass of milk or tub of yogurt to compliment your frozen breakfast, a piece of fruit to go along with your frozen pizza at lunch, and tear open a bag of lettuce for an instant salad to accompany a frozen entree.

Let’s put those guidelines into practice. What frozen breakfast items can make or break our diets?
-Eggo NutriGrain Frozen Waffles with Whole Wheat supply three grams of fiber each. Top one with peanut butter or fat-free sour cream and thawed frozen blueberries. Serve with frozen calcium-fortified orange juice and you have an excellent breakfast for about 300 calories.

-Lean Pockets Bacon, Egg & Cheese meets the criteria for fat and saturated fat, but Hot Pockets Bacon, Egg & Cheese doesn’t qualify. Even though both have the same total calories, the Hot Pockets gets too much of those calories from artery-clogging saturated fat and 42 percent of calories from fat! Serve the Lean Pockets with a glass of reconstituted frozen  juice. (A word of caution: Read labels on frozen fruit juice: A label can say 100 percent fruit juice, but if that juice comes from concentrated pear, white grape, or apple, all you have is just sugar water. Look for juices that do not contain these concentrates and don’t contain high fructose corn syrup. Your best bets are 100 percent orange juice, pineapple juice, and the pineapple-orange-strawberry juice.)

Can’t live without some meat at breakfast?
Morningstar Farms vegetarian sausages have half the calories and a fraction of the fat of Brown n’ Serve sausages.

Watch out for anything that has eggs, cheese, and/or ham and bacon. For example, Red Barron Mini Scramble with ham supplies 390 calories and more than four teaspoons of fat, which means it gets almost 40 percent of its calories from fat and more than a teaspoon of saturated fat.

What about hashbrowns or any frozen fried potato?
I dare you to find a brand that has less than three grams of fat for every 100 calories and contains no hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is a prime source of trans fats, another type of fat known to increase heart disease. If you can find a brand that meets this criteria, and you don’t add any additional fat in preparation, then these are an OK inclusions once in a while, but certainly no substitute for orange juice, cantaloupe or tomato slices, or any other richly-colored fruit or vegetable.

Is it possible to eat from the frozen food aisle at lunch?
Yes. Along with the frozen entrees that we’ll discuss in a minute, you have a few healthy choices here. Rule of thumb: Include at least a cup of fruits or vegetables, such as bagged lettuce or cut up fruit and a yogurt, to complete the meal. For example:

-Lean Pockets makes lunch-sized items that contain about 15 percent fewer calories and half the fat of Hot Pockets and a third the fat of Croissant Pockets. Serve with a clam-shell of cut up fruit from the produce department and a glass of milk or tub of nonfat yogurt.

-A container of cooked shrimp with cocktail sauce is another option. Serve with baby carrots and dip, apple slices, tossed salad, or other fruits/vegetables. Or just buy cooked frozen shrimp and toss with bagged lettuce for an instant lunch salad.

-Frozen pizzas: This one is a bit tricky, but you can have your pizza and maintain your waistline and health, too. In general, go for the pizzas with the most vegetables. For example, a slice of Essensia Pizza Spinach Mushroom or Classic Vegetable Pizza or Freschetta Roasted Portabello Mushroom with Spinach has up to 100 calories less per slice and much less fat and saturated fat of any pizza made with only cheese or cheese and meat. Serve with a big tossed salad with low-fat bottled dressing. And/or, doctor up your pizza by adding more frozen pepper slices. Watch out for the serving sizes when you’re reading pizza labels. I found that the greasy four-meat pizza was higher, but not much higher calorie-wise until I noted the manufacturer had cut the serving size from 1/4 of a pizza for the vegetable pizzas to 1/6 of a pizza for the meat pizzas — making them look lower in calories than they really were.

Now we come to the frozen entree choices. There are literally hundreds of items to choose from here. How does a person sift out the bad from the good?
Frozen food entrees have come a long way since the days of TV dinners and the choice between meatloaf or fried chicken. First they trimmed the fat, thanks to companies like Lean Cuisine. Then Healthy Choice led the troops in cutting the salt. Now Lean Cuisine’s Spa Cuisine has even added some whole grains. Some add a smattering of vegetables, but none add enough. In most cases you can measure the vegetable in teaspoons, not cups. The “Bowls” are the best, sometimes having up to 3/4 of a cup of vegetables.  Vegetables, especially richly colored ones, are Mother Nature’s goldmine for vitamins, minerals, and thousands of antioxidant-rich phytochemicals that help lower our risk for cancer, heart disease and much more. The good news is: You can get lots of veggies in the frozen food aisle to compliment your frozen dinner. Here are the best and worst entrees:

-Salisbury steak remains an all-time favorite, which can make or break your health depending on the choice. Remember the three grams of fat and about one gram of saturated fat for every 100 calories. With this rule in mind, Healthy Choice and, believe it or not, Hungry Man, both met the criteria, although both were very high in sugar, supplying about five teaspoons of sugar for a dinner! Claim Jumper’s version packed in the most calories (630 calories) and 50 percent of it came from fat with more than three teaspoons of saturated fat. Serve the Healthy Choice or Hungry Man with steamed frozen vegetables, such as green peas or green beans, and a tossed salad made from bagged lettuce and dressing.

-Other beef dishes: Banquet Crock Pot Classics Stroganoff with Beef and Noodles or their Beef Stew, Lean Cuisine Café Classics Teriyaki Steak Bowl and Stouffers Lean Cuisine Dinnertime Selections Steak Tips Dijon, all meet the criteria for fat and saturated fat. Lean Cuisine Spa Cuisine Classics Garlic Beef and Broccoli sounds healthy, but it’s a little high in fat and supplies only 170 calories! That’s less calories than you’d get in an energy bar and not much more than you'd get in a can of soda. Most people would need two of these plus a salad and steamed vegetables to feel satisfied.

-Pasta: This is where carbs have gotten their bad name. Not because pasta has a lot of calories, but because so many pasta entrees are laden with fat. You could have more than five of those Garlic Beef and Broccoli frozen entrees for the calories in Marie Callendar’s Fettucine Alfredo with Garlic Sauce, which by the way has a full-day’s allotment of saturated fat and more than 11 teaspoons of fat! That brand’s Spaghetti with Meat Sauce is better, but still packs in almost 700 calories, more calories than a Quarter Pounder with cheese and a side of fries. On the other hand, Weight Watcher’s Smart Ones Bowl, Pasta Fagoli is a great choice. Serve with steamed frozen vegetables and a salad to round out the meal.

-Chicken: Unless you are a marathon runner with no history of heart disease, you’d best avoid the Hungry Man Beer Battered Chicken and Cheese Fries (660 calories and half a day’s allotment for saturated fat). However, there are lots of choices here, including any Healthy Choice, Weight Watchers, or Lean Cuisine Café or Spa Cuisine Classic chicken entree.

-Fish: Fish is good for you. It’s the best dietary source of the omega-3 fats, which lower your risk for heart disease and possibly bone loss, depression, memory loss, and more. But roll them in batter and fry them ‘til crisp and you’d be better off going hungry. Van de Kamps Popcorn Fish with Macaroni and Cheese is almost 50 percent fat and close to two teaspoons of saturated fat. However, Lean Cuisine Spa Cuisine Classic Salmon with Basil is a great choice and one of the few entrees on the market to supply those healthy omega 3s!

Finally, dessert. The fat-free craze a few years back really back-fired with lots of high-calorie, fat-free desserts that didn’t help us lose weight. What should we look for and what should we avoid?
Sugar-wise, look for items that supply less than two teaspoons or 10 grams of sugar, and preferably the sugar should come from fruit, not corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, or other added sugars. Manufacturers can trick you in this category, so read labels. For example: Dole Fruit Juice Bars have only 30 calories and little sugar, while fat-free sorbet or Dreyer’s Whole Fruit Sorbet has four times the calories and six teaspoons of fat. Of course, that’s still better than Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, which has more than twice the calories and 50% of those calories come from fat. Top your sorbet with thawed frozen fruit and you have a nutritious sweet treat. 

-Mrs. Smith's Hearty Pumpkin Pie and Pumpkin Custard Pie and Mrs. Smith's Reduced Fat, No Sugar Added Apple Pie are the healthiest pie selections in the frozen food case.

-The very best frozen dessert of all is frozen blueberries. They taste like sorbet, but have no added sugar and pack a huge antioxidant punch!