Shop smarter in the frozen foods aisle
They may not be "fresh," but frozen foods can still be healthy and lighter on your wallet. Find out what frozen foods to look for and which to avoid.
Though it may not have the colorful allure of your local produce stand, there’s no denying that the frozen food aisle has its own appeal. Not only do frozen vegetables, fruits and meats have a long shelf life, but frozen fare can also be more budget-friendly than fresh, especially for food that’s out of season. Plus, for those with limited mobility or arthritis, pre-cut frozen produce can make meal preparation a lot simpler.
Frozen fruits and veggies can have good nutritional value, says Johanna Rathbun, a clinical dietitian at HCA Florida University Hospital in Davie, Florida. However, she cautions her clients that not all products in the frozen food aisle are healthy choices.
Today, the frozen food section is bursting with pre-made meals, desserts and breaded items. These processed foods may contain high levels of saturated fats, trans fats, sugar, sodium and preservatives. “I typically advise people to avoid frozen vegetables with added sauces and gravies most of the time, as those tend to have more saturated and trans fats and are loaded with sodium,” Rathbun says. “The same goes for frozen fried foods, highly processed meats or even fruit that has added sugars or syrups.”
So which frozen foods are best? As with any packaged foods, label reading is key. However, food labels can be tricky to dissect.
Rathbun says one barometer for healthy fare is the percent daily value (DV) listed on the item. “First I flip over the package to check out the nutrition label,” Rathbun says. “You want as little as possible of cholesterol, sodium, trans fats and saturated fats. For example, if the label says sodium is at 5% or below, that product would be considered low in sodium. But sodium at 20% or above for DV is considered high. I also advise people to try to find items close to 20% or greater for beneficial nutrients like fiber, vitamins and minerals.”
“The 5-20 rule is one method to follow, but clients can always consult with a dietitian one-on-one,” she adds. “At the end of the day, nutritional needs should be individualized.”
Rathbun also suggests looking at the ingredients list for added sugars, fillers and other unwanted extras. She always notes how many ingredients the item actually has — and in which order they’re listed. “If the first ingredient is high fructose corn syrup,” Rathbun explains, “then that would be the main ingredient, as they are listed from heaviest to lightest in weight. So, if you’re perusing the aisle for frozen blueberries or even popsicles labeled as containing ‘real fruit,’ check the ingredients list for a better idea of just how much ‘real fruit’ an item actually has.”
To summarize, when shopping in the frozen food aisle, remember the less processed an item is, the better it is for you. Here are some simple frozen food do’s and don’ts to keep in mind on your next grocery trip.
Buy more often:
- Plain vegetables
- Fruits with no added sugars or syrups
- Riced or spiralized veggies with no added sauces or gravies
- Plain fish, chicken or other lean meats
- Whole grains (rice, breads) with no added sauces or gravies and a sodium DV of 5% or less
Buy less often:
- Smoothie base mixes
- Burritos and pocket sandwiches
- Pasta dishes
- Battered and breaded foods