Whether you're looking for a fast way to get dinner on the table or a way to stretch your grocery budget, frozen food can be a staple in your kitchen. "Using frozen ingredients to prepare meals, freezing leftovers for another time, or making wise choices about prepared frozen dishes at the supermarket are ways to make life a little easier when planning healthy food choices," says Tawnya Dorn, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Queen of the Valley Medical Center. In observance of National Frozen Food Month, Dorn offers some suggestions on how you can get the most use out of your freezer.
Frozen fruits and vegetables can be a home cook's secret weapon. "Frozen berries can be added to smoothies or heated up for a sauce that can top yogurt or oatmeal, while frozen vegetables can be part of soups, stews and a host of entrees," Dorn says. "Frozen produce offers great versatility because you can use off-season fruits or veggies without paying the higher price it would cost to buy the fresh versions. They also last a long time, so you don't have to worry about spoilage."
Some frozen vegetable producers have begun livening up their offerings by making them into complete side dishes that combine vegetables, whole grain pasta and brown rice. With or without pasta, avoid frozen produce packaged in sauces or syrups--the produce should be the only ingredient. The ones with sauce will have more sodium, sugar, and calories.
Frozen home-cooked meals
Savvy home cooks know that they can save money, and buy a night off from cooking dinner, if they freeze leftovers. "Certain dishes are ideal for freezing, such as soups, lasagnas and enchiladas; you can also freeze components of dishes such as pesto sauce or turkey burgers," says Dorn. You'll want to make sure you have the proper equipment, such as freezer-safe bags and containers, as well as the know-how to properly reheat dishes to prevent food-borne illness.
Store-bought frozen meals
Frozen food has come a long way since the days of TV dinners in tinfoil trays. "There are many more options today when it comes to prepackaged frozen meals," Dorn says. "However, you must read the labels with great care. Some meals have too much fat and calories; low-fat or low-calorie options are better choices, but you should still check the label for sodium, as many frozen meals are high in salt."
For people with little or no tolerance for wheat, many companies freeze meals that are gluten-free. Some brands use only ingredients that have been grown or raised in a sustainable environment, rather than on a mass-production farm.
An easy way to encourage yourself to increase your daily serving count of vegetables is to opt out of eating meat. Frozen vegetarian and vegan bowls come in many flavorful options that add protein in the form of whole grains, beans and seeds. They tend to have less fat, but check the label to make sure the oils don’t increase the fat—and calorie count—beyond what you expect.
A good gauge to start with when choosing frozen meals: They should be less than 500 calories, with 3 grams or less of saturated fat and less than 600 milligrams of sodium. "Remember, those measurements are per serving, so make sure you note the serving size on the label as well," Dorn adds.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.