Frozen meals may sound less than appealing, but the grab-and-go option can actually provide you with a slew of health benefits. This is especially more prevalent than ever with organic lines like Amy’s and natural ingredient-driven dishes from Kashi, for example. What’s more, you can eat 95 percent of your weekly food just from frozen items — and average spending less than nine dollars per day on your diet according to new research. (Pretty sweet, right?)
“When shopping, make sure to choose meals that have certain components,” says Lauren Popeck, RD, dietician at Orlando Health. “They should be 500 calories or less per serving, have three to four grams of saturated fat or less, have no more than 600 milligrams of sodium and ideally include lean protein, vegetables and whole grains like brown rice or whole-wheat pasta,” she adds. But if your frozen dinner is a bit lackluster, we’ve got great news: You can up the nutrition, taste and look of frozen food by just having a few tips and tricks up your sleeve.
5 Ways to Upgrade Frozen Food Tonight
1. Get a healthy flavor pop from herbs.
Lots of frozen meals get a bad rap for being bland — but adding healthy-but-flavorful veggies and herbs, such as onion and garlic, can help. “Onions and garlic both have sulfur compounds that boost our immune systems,” says Liz Weinandy, RD and outpatient dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Chop up some and add to the frozen meal about halfway through cooking, or sauté in a bit of olive oil and add to the meal once cooked through,” she adds. Pro tip: Crush or mince garlic finely, allowing it to sit exposed to the air 10 minutes before cooking or adding to the meal. The air exposure sets off a chain reaction to activate the sulfur compound allicin, says Weinandy. Other herbs that provide flavor with little to no calories? Popeck likes cilantro, basil and parsley, “which are all excellent sources of the antioxidant vitamin A.” All the better for seeing you, my dear: Vitamin A promotes better eye health in addition to boosting immune function.
2. Try stirring in some Greek yogurt.
To up the savory factor on an Indian or Mexican meal, Weinandy goes for an easy hack: adding a quick stir of Greek yogurt into beans, rice or sauces. Think of it like a healthier sour cream, just lower in fat and packing good-for-you probiotics (win, win!). Plus, “adding plain Greek yogurt to a meal will up the protein and calcium of your dish, so it’s more satisfying.” To ensure ideal texture, “make sure to add it at the end of heating a meal,” she says.
3. Add in valuable greens.
A strategic side medley of steamed veggies will add color (read: nutrients), plus a whole lot of fiber to satiate you. “Only four percent of all Americans get the recommended amount of vegetables in daily,” says Weinandy. “Think about throwing in a handful of pre-washed baby spinach to any cooked meal, or stir in frozen vegetables like green beans, peas or broccoli halfway through cooking,” she suggests. Popeck recommends serving up a side of broccoli, Brussels sprouts or asparagus for extra B vitamins and beta carotene. Or, tack on a side salad, which will “balance high sodium content [typically high in frozen foods for preservation purposes), since fresh veggies are naturally low in sodium and high in water,” Popeck says. “Potassium-rich produce can counter the effects of the sodium, as well,” she adds, “so think of throwing in some spinach, tomatoes or avocados.”
4. Dip into any of your leftovers.
It’s not a bad idea to add leftover protein from a dinner earlier in the week — or make extra one day, so you can add it to a frozen meal the next night. “Many frozen meals are low in protein, since meat is usually the most expensive [component],” says Weinandy. But just because manufacturers don’t want to shell out, doesn’t mean it’s OK to skip. “Instead, think about adding some leftover chicken, lean pork, beef or beans to a meal to get some protein in, and make the meal a bit more balanced,” she adds. You want about 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal, so check the back of your package and add accordingly; a chicken tenderloin or quarter-cup of black beans is around 10 grams of protein. (Consult this infographic to see how much protein your favorite foods are packin’.)
5. And don’t forget the (all-natural) sweet stuff.
Frozen meals almost always come without a major dietary component: fruit! Not only does a dose of fruit up your fiber and antioxidant game, the high concentration of water can also help balance a meal with excess sodium. “About 90 percent of us are not getting in enough fruit, so peel a mandarin orange, enjoy seasonal pears or apples, add grapes or berries — whatever is easiest,” Weinandy says. Besides, a sweet dessert after a frozen meal is always a good choice.