Frozen foods—convenient or concerning? Health nuts like to remind you to shop the perimeter of the grocery store, focusing on fresh foods. But sometimes necessity wins, like when you pair a bag of frozen peas with a heat-and-eat pizza at the end of a busy week. And what if you live in a part of the country with a long, bleak winter, where produce can be scarce and expensive? Frozen blueberries must be better than no fruit at all, right?!
The good news: frozen foods definitely can be healthy—if you make smart choices. Frozen fruits and vegetables actually retain a lot of nutrients, in some cases even more than their fresh counterparts. The best choices include minimally messed-with fruit, veggies, and seafood. What you want to avoid are the many processed foods you’ll have to pass along the way. Remember these tips the next time you turn your cart down the freezer aisle.
1. Go for bite-size vegetables
Green peas and sweet corn are ideal candidates for freezing. Peas are particularly high in natural sugars, but unless you can pick and eat them same day, they’ll taste sweeter if promptly frozen. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts hold onto their health benefits, but they suffer in terms of squidgy texture when reheated. Spinach and butternut squash get a little grainy, but they’re packed with nutrients and super convenient to throw into a casserole, lasagna, or pureed soup. Most veggies are blanched before freezing, so check for sodium, since salt can sneak into the cooking liquid, and avoid sauce packets.
2. Enjoy unsweetened fruit
Fruit boasts the most nutrients when harvested at peak ripeness. But unfortunately, most fruit is actually picked green, to make it sturdier and easier to transport, and it may spend weeks sitting on a ship or truck, while traveling across the country (or world!). Sitting in your fridge for a few more days only means more nutrient losses. In that case, frozen might be the better alternative. Berries, cherries, mangos, peaches, and pineapple are all great choices. Keep an eye out for added sugars. You only want to see fruit listed under ingredients on the label.
3. Stock flash-frozen seafood
Fish comes from specific regions and is highly perishable, so it has to travel long distances fast, making it one of the biggest challenges of the food industry. Luckily, flash-freezing technology has come a long way, allowing fisheries to preserve their catch right after pulling it out of the water. Often, what shows up in the fresh case has been frozen and defrosted, too. Shrimp and scallops fare well with freezing and defrosting, as do vacuum-packed fillets. Skip anything that’s breaded or fried, like popcorn shrimp and fish sticks. If your budget allows, wild fish tends to be leaner and more flavorful. (From an environmental perspective, both wild and farmed varieties have issues, so look for a sustainable seafood label on the packaging.)
4. Avoid processed foods
Push on past those chicken nuggets, pizzas, lasagnas, pot pies, burritos, spring rolls, and samosas. Oh right, and ice cream. And the toaster waffles. The point is, there are a lot of prefab foods dominating the freezer aisle. Unless you’re vigilant about reading labels, it’s not always clear what you’re getting. Preservatives, tenderizers, breading, frying, and sauces are where saturated fat, sodium, and sugar start to sneak in.
5. Rethink “healthy” labels
Easy and enticing, the TV dinner has become a staple in many households. Companies want you to think you’re making a smart choice, by featuring beans and grains, veggies and fish. But the truth is in the numbers. Flip over that box, and check for hard-to-pronounce ingredients, how many calories per serving, whether a serving is how much you would actually portion out to eat. Some food for thought:
- A meaty, cheese-stuffed pizza can pack 340 calories and 16 g fat into one small slice. And most eaters don’t stop munching after just one slice of pizza.
- A chicken pot pie (with cheese! and bacon!) can weigh in at 520 calories and 31 g fat—for half a pie! Eat the whole thing, and you’re well over a thousand calories and the daily rec for saturated fat.
- Simple veggie potstickers, with dipping sauce, can easily rack up 1,130 mg sodium, nearly half your daily intake. That’s just for five dumplings.
- A “healthy” sesame chicken meal might only be 280 calories—but would you call that dinner? It can also sneak a whopping 23 g of sugar into your day.
It’s better to grab simple, frozen veggies, fruit, and fish, and head straight for the checkout counter. Throwing together a combination of fresh and frozen ingredients can be just as easy—and more delicious!—than a sad microwave dinner, anyway. Plus, you’ll get the satisfaction of knowing you’re eating whole, healthy ingredients.
Which frozen foods are always on your grocery list? Join the conversation below.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.