Don’t bother looking for a health expert who would recommend 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 getting home late and 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. Luckily, these days there are more companies making healthier options—if you know what to look for (and what to avoid).
“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. “The main issue with frozen meals is that they don’t contain enough vegetables. We like at least two cups of raw or cooked veggies at dinner.”
Other common issues? Many are filled with difficult-to-digest processed soy, excess sugar and sodium, and additives like carrageenan, which Slayton recommends avoiding. “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, in addition to choosing meals made primarily with whole-food ingredients.
We took a trip down the freezer aisle and found some of the best frozen meals available.
CAULIPOWER MARGHERITA PIZZA
Caulipower capitalized on the cauliflower-pizza craze by introducing the first cauli-based frozen pizza crust (which also incorporates brown rice flour). Its pizzas are gluten-free and 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, and it just announced a major expansion in distribution so it will be even easier to find soon. “These are popular with our clients,” Slayton says. “I would have a side salad or some frozen broccoli to up the fiber of this meal and round it out.” Along with classic Margherita, the pre-made pizzas come in Veggie and Three-Cheese options (the latter is a bit heavy on sodium, though).
AMY’S QUINOA & BLACK BEANS WITH BUTTERNUT SQUASH & CHARD
“Amy’s really paved the way for better frozen meals,” Slayton says, though many of its dishes are on the sugary side. This veggie bowl is a perfect pick, however: 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.
HILARY’S WORLD’S BEST VEGGIE BURGER
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.”
LUVO GREAT KARMA COCONUT CURRY
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, but it stays well under Slayton’s sodium and sugar limits.
Capello’s frozen grain- and gluten-free pasta 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).
EVOL CILANTRO LIME CHICKEN BURRITO
Many of the burritos in the freezer section are little more than salty calorie bombs filled with lots of processed ingredients. The tastiest exception: Evol’s Cilantro Lime Chicken. 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.
GOOD FOOD MADE SIMPLE TURKEY MEATBALLS
You’ll enjoy this one, and it’s also a great kid-friendly option, too. “You wouldn’t expect it from a pasta dish, but the fiber content here is higher than most,” Slayton says. It also contains many organic ingredients. This one met Slayton’s sodium and sugar limits (not all of the entrees from Good Food do that, so be careful when shopping), and though it’s higher in refined carbs than we would like because of the white pasta, it incorporates organic broccoli and bell peppers, so it’s worth it.
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. So while you’re shopping in the freezer section, stock up on those, too.