By Lisa Elaine Held
Don’t bother looking for a health expert who recommends giving up cooking in favor of eating frozen meals. It’s just not going to happen. But for those nights when you can’t avoid working late or you don’t have a dinner plan or the energy to cook, it’s such a relief to have a fast meal waiting for you. “Frozen meals are convenient and don’t spoil, so you can’t argue with that,” says registered dietician Lauren Slayton, founder of New York City-based nutrition practice Foodtrainers.
Luckily, these days there are more and more healthy options out there. We took a trip down the freezer aisle with Slayton to find some of the best frozen meals available right now.
But, First: What to Look for (and What to Avoid) in Frozen Meals
“The main issue with frozen meals is that they don’t contain enough vegetables,” says Slayton. She recommends looking for frozen meals made primarily with whole-food ingredients, with at least two cups of raw or cooked veggies. The other common issue for frozen meals? Many are filled with difficult-to-digest processed soy and excess sugar and sodium. “I’d suggest looking for less than 8 grams of sugar, less than 600mg of sodium, and 5 grams or more of fiber,” Slayton says. And, she adds, just say no to anything with additives like carrageenan.
Pro Tip: Slayton tells her busy clients to buy frozen vegetables and clean frozen protein (from brands like Applegate or Vital Choice) to assemble their own fast freezer meals. She also recommends Cappello’s frozen grain- and gluten-free pasta. It contains just five ingredients—all recognizable—and because it’s made with almond flour, it’s higher in protein and fiber than white pasta. And unlike dry pasta, it cooks in just 90 seconds. “It’s really life changing,” Slayton says. “We have a freezer full. It’s also very filling, so a little goes a long way.” Pair it with cauliflower alfredo sauce or just some jarred tomato sauce (but keep sodium and sugar in mind if you’re grabbing the jar).
1. Caulipower Margarita Pizza, $6.89 at Target
Caulipower capitalized on the cauliflower craze by introducing the first cauli-based frozen pizza crust. Its pizzas are gluten-free, made primarily with whole foods, and they’re lower in sodium and sugar than other frozen-pizza options. The brand also sells a plain crust so you can pile your own veggies on top.
2. Amy’s Quinoa & Black Beans with Butternut Squash & Chard, $4.29 at Target
“Amy’s really paved the way for better frozen meals,” Slayton says. And while many of the dishes are on the sugary side for Slayton’s liking, this veggie bowl is a perfect pick: It’s high in protein and fiber and low in sugar and sodium, and it’s made with clean ingredients, almost all of which are organic. It’s also gluten-, dairy-, and tree nut-free, and vegan.
3. Hilary’s World’s Best Veggie Burger, $2.99 at Amazon
The name doesn’t lie. Hilary’s veggie patty is made with healthy whole grains like millet and quinoa and tons of actual veggies like sweet potatoes, leafy greens, and onions. What’s missing? The processed soy in so many other veggie burgers. It’s also certified organic. “This is Foodtrainers’ favorite veggie burger,” Slayton says. “Put it on Know bread or over a salad, slice some avocado and you’re good to go in about two minutes.”
4. Luvo Great Karma Coconut Curry, $3.48 at Walmart
A hearty bowl filled with veggies and plant protein? Yes, please. This Luvo dish piles garbanzos, lentils, butternut squash, kale, sweet potatoes, carrots, and more onto organic brown rice. It also contains lots of health-promoting (and flavorful) spices like turmeric and cumin, and is high in fiber and protein, and it stays well under Slayton’s sodium and sugar limits.
5. Evol Cilantro Lime Chicken Burrito, $2.89 at FreshDirect
Many of the burritos in the freezer section are little more than salty calorie bombs filled with lots of processed ingredients. The tastiest exception is this single-serve chicken burrito. The main ingredients are black beans, chicken, and brown rice, and a large portion of its ingredients are certified organic. It’s also protein-rich and low in sugar and sodium.