If you're trying to lose weight, prepackaged frozen meals can help you eat less by offering instant portion control.
And you don't have to be counting calories to like the idea of popping a ready-made meal into the microwave. If you're short on time - or don't like to cook - the convenience of a frozen dinner can be appealing.
With so many options crowding the frozen food aisle - at least 190 choices by my recent count - there's bound to be something for everyone. You'll find meals that are organic, vegetarian, low in calories, reduced fat, even some made with whole grains.
Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Not really. It can be challenging to find a meal you actually like, satisfies your appetite, is easy on sodium and contains more than a smattering of vegetables.
To determine whether a frozen dinner is as good for you as the name or the picture on the package implies, you need to read the nutrition label. Who would think that Weight Watchers Smart Ones Spicy Szechuan Style Vegetables & Chicken could pack in 900 milligrams of sodium - nearly two-thirds of a day's worth - in a measly 240 calories? Not so smart after all.
The following tips will help you choose a frozen entrée that won't sabotage your weight loss efforts or send your blood pressure soaring. Be prepared to spend a little extra time in the frozen food aisle.
Trim saturated fat
Many frozen meals are low in saturated fat thanks to their small size and lean ingredients. But you'd be surprised to see how much of this cholesterol-raising fat some companies can fit into a tiny meal.
President's Choice Chicken Lasagna contains half a day's worth of saturated fat (11 grams) in a small 340-gram tray. Worse, Swanson's Hungry Man Salisbury Steak delivers 14 grams.
To put these numbers in perspective, your intake of so-called "bad" fats (saturated plus trans fats combined) should be limited to 10 per cent of daily calories. For a 2,000-calorie diet, consume no more than 20 grams of saturated plus trans fat each day. If you're following a 1,400 calorie weight loss plan, 15 grams is your daily limit.
Be wary of entrées with high-fat ingredients such cheese, sausage and bacon. To keep saturated fat to a minimum, choose a meal with no more than four grams of saturated fat.
Skimp on sodium
Here's comes the hard part. Of the nearly 200 meals I rated, only a handful can be considered low in sodium. Most harbour at least half a day's worth of sodium and some deliver a day's worth or more.
Brands that manage to keep sodium to a reasonable level include Amy's Organic Light in Sodium Brown Rice and Vegetables (270 milligrams a serving), Healthy Choice Gourmet Steamers Sweet Sesame Chicken (330 milligrams), and President's Choice Blue Menu Parmesan Chicken (460 milligrams).
Adults, aged 19 to 50, need only 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day. Older adults, who are more sensitive to the blood pressure raising effect of sodium, need less (1,200 to 1,300 milligrams a day).
Select meals with less than 700 milligrams of sodium a serving. If you're going to dine on a frozen entrée, keep your other meals for the day low in sodium by avoiding processed foods and restaurant meals.
Look for veggies
It's pretty hard to get one serving (½ cup) of vegetables from a frozen meal. But some products do better than others. Your clue? Not the colourful picture on the box. Instead look at the daily values for vitamins A and C listed on the nutrition facts box.
A daily value of 15 per cent or greater is considered a good source of these antioxidant nutrients. More fibre can also indicate more vegetables or legumes (beans, peas, lentils). Choose a meal with at least four grams of fibre a serving.
Packages of Healthy Choice Gourmet Steamers boast one full serving of vegetables a serving. And the nutrition numbers back the claim. For each serving, the company's Asian Five-Spice Beef and Vegetables has five grams of fibre and 35 per cent of the daily value for vitamin A.
While it may not be the convenience you were looking for, in most cases your best bet is to add your own vegetables. Enjoy your meal with a green salad, raw vegetable sticks or a side of steamed vegetables.
Choose appropriate calories
Convenience aside, puny portions aren't for everyone. A 300-calorie meal isn't enough to satisfy the appetite of an active person. Most people, even those on a weight loss diet, need 400 to 500 calories at meal.
To prevent you from moving on to after-dinner snacks, round out your meal with extra vegetables, a glass of milk or fruit and yogurt for dessert.
Sure, some companies offer larger portions for hearty appetites. But keep in mind, more calories also mean more saturated fat and a whole lot more sodium. Eat Michelina's Grande Fried Chicken dinner, a 480-calorie meal, and you'll also consume 1,820 milligrams of sodium. Ouch.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com.