Nutrition Tip of the Week

Author: Heather K. Mackie, MS, RD, LD

Week of June 24, 2013

Friendly Frozen Foods

Of course fresh food is ideal, but often there just is not time in our hectic schedules.  There are many, many options in the freezer aisles these days that may help to stay on a healthy eating plan, while keeping our busy schedules!  We all know the routine – get home from work late, the family is hungry and there is an evening activity and you have minimal time to cook dinner.  If you keep your freezer full of nutritious options, then it can be your saving grace on nights like this.  Many people use frozen meals for quick, easy lunches as well.  Frozen meals are also great when cooking for one!

Myriad of Choices. Frozen meals seem to come in all options – light, supersized, all sorts of ethnicities, to the traditional.  About 1/3 of frozen meals are low-calorie options.  Of course frozen meals may not match the quality of a homemade meal, but are certainly a great option to help during the busy times.

Weight Loss Tool. One great benefit to frozen meals is the fact that the portions are controlled.  One study published in 2000, followed over 300 overweight individuals with type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure for one year.  One group ate frozen prepared meals, while others followed their normal eating plan at home.  The researchers found that those that ate the frozen meals lost significantly more weight.  This group of researchers attributed the weight loss to the ease of the frozen meals, as well as the variety, portion control, and nutritional wholeness.

Choosing Frozen Meals. When choosing a frozen meal, look at the overall calorie content, amount of protein, fiber, fat, and sodium.  Some individuals may need to add a side salad or extra side of veggies to complement their meal.  Look for dinners that range between 300-400 calories per meal and less than 10 grams of fat per meal (very low in saturated fats and no trans fat).  Look for the inclusion of vegetables and whole grains.  Limit the sodium intake to less than about 30% of the daily value.  Some sauces will increase the sugar intake of the meal, so opt for choices with less than 10 grams of sugar per meal (the lower the better).  Try to get at least 15-25 grams of protein per meal.

DIY. With a little pre-planning, you can create your own frozen meals in your freezer.  These can often taste better and be quite a bit more economical than the grocery store choices.  Try making a large batch of your favorite healthy chili, stew, pasta sauce, etc. and store in individual portions for quick, easy microwave meals.  Even when you are cooking a regular meal for dinner, consider cooking a little extra and freeze a small portion for the night you do not have time to cook.

Storage of Frozen Meals. Frozen food can be safely stored in your freezer for several months as long as it is tightly sealed and there is no evidence of thawing.  Try to employ the first in, first out strategy to prevent frozen food from becoming encrusted with ice and to prevent freezer burn.

Friendly Frozen Foods. Some great options to begin with if you do not currently use frozen foods include frozen veggies, whole-wheat dinner rolls, bagels, veggie burgers, lean-meat or turkey burgers, an assortment of healthy frozen meals, and your own family favorites.  Lasagna, quiche, soups, casseroles, pot pies, cooked veggie dishes, lentil bean dishes, cooked meat dishes, pizza with the toppings, meat loaf, baked goods, french toast, pancakes, etc. all tend to do well with the freezing-defrost process.  Below are a few tips for friendly frozen foods to make the best choices.

  • Buy fresh chicken and then freeze.  Chicken typically sold in the freezer section has added salt.
  • Whole grains keep longer in the freezer.  Store whole-wheat flour, oats, and flaxseed in the freezer.
  • Freeze your own veggies.  If you have extra in-season vegetables you want to save, blanch them first (immerse in boiling water for 1-3 minutes), then drain well and store in airtight plastic bags.
  • Frozen, wild caught salmon is a great way to obtain heart-healthy omega-3’s.  Simply thaw, then bake, broil, or grill the salmon.
  • Frozen chopped spinach is a great way to use what you want.  Look for the kind with no added salt and that comes loose in the bag.  Spinach will provide many vitamins and minerals, including potassium, vitamin C, and iron.
  • Frozen cooked winter squash is an easy side dish to any meal.  Simply heat and serve to get a colorful veggie full of antioxidants.  Consider adding to casseroles, soups, and stews.  Squash is full of fiber and potassium.
  • Frozen bell peppers are a great option when fresh is too expensive or you do not have time to dice peppers for dinner.  Bell peppers are high in folate, which can lower homocysteine  levels, further decreasing your risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Frozen edamame is the perfect quick and easy snack or complement to any meal.  Edamame provides heart-healthy soy protein and fiber.  It is also well tolerated by bariatric patients.  You can purchase edamame shelled or in the shell (in the shell makes more work, which keeps your hands busy during snack time).  Sprinkle shelled edamame on a salad; add to pasta, or your favorite casserole.
  • Frozen blackeye peas will save on the sodium content when compared to canned brands. Just make sure you opt for the unsalted frozen bags of fiber-rich legumes.  Add to soups, chilis or use as its own side dish.
  • Partially thawed frozen peaches on top of nonfat, plain Greek yogurt are a great snack or breakfast for any bariatric patient.  Peaches are rich in fiber, potassium, and vitamins C, E, and K, which make it a great heart-healthy food.
  • Partially thawed blueberries are great in a smoothie, fruit salad, cereal, or in whole-wheat pancakes.  Research has shown that blueberries can lower blood pressure and boost your good cholesterol (HDL).
  • Soy crumbles should be in every bariatric patient’s freezer.  These are a low-fat crumble made of soy that are a great substitute for ground beef and are very well tolerated by bariatric patients.  The FDA stated that 25 g of soy protein per day, when combined with a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Unfriendly Frozen Foods. While there are some foods that freeze well and taste wonderful heated up, there are some that do not.  Here is a grouping of foods you would not want to freeze.

  • Salads – Salads do not freeze well.  It is not recommended to use frozen veggies in salads.  The only exception is bean salads.  These taste great when defrosted.
  • Eggs – Cooked eggs will have a leather-like taste when defrosted.  This also includes any meringues.  Raw egg will freeze quite well (ex: freezing uncooked eggs with veggies in a muffin tray and take out as needed and bake).
  • Potatoes – Potatoes will taste crumbly and watery upon defrosting.  Mashed potatoes seem to do okay, but opinions will vary on this.
  • Milk-Based Sauces – Milk may curdle during freezing and not taste fresh.
  • Fried Foods – While bariatric patients may want to avoid fried foods anyways, these tend to become quite soggy upon defrosting.
  • Sour Cream – Consider adding sour cream to the dish after defrosting.
  • Plain Pasta – Pasta will lose flavor and become soggy.  Pasta mixed in a dish like lasagna freezes quite well.

Tips to Freeze Successfully:

  • Use microwavable glass or plastic containers, which are also freezer safe.  If using plastic, considering using BPA free plastic.  When using containers, leave a little gap between the food and the top to allow for the expansion of air.
  • Fancy plastic storage systems that remove all the air are fantastic if you can master the craft of using it properly.
  • If you are cooking just for freezing (not eating it immediately), under cook the meal slightly.  Remember to reheat your food to the safe temperature during reheating.
  • Completely cool the food before you freeze it to prevent bacterial contamination.  Bacteria can grow when the outside of food freezes while the inside remains warm, so be cautious.
  • Label the food with a permanent marker.  Sometimes a frozen veggie dish may look like meat when it is in a ziplock bag.  Mark with a use by date to ensure freshness.
  • Do not use freezer bags for long-term storage.  As a general rule, fruits, vegetables, and fish will stay freezer fresh up to six months.  Meat and poultry will last for three months.

Thaw Safely. Thaw all meats and seafood in the refrigerator, not on the counter.  Read the package directions to ensure food safety.

Benefits of Frozen Foods. Not only are frozen foods quick and easy, but they are often as healthy as their fresh counterparts.  Many fruits and vegetables are picked at peak ripeness and frozen immediately making them just as nutritious if not more than fresh due to the distance fresh food may have to travel to get to you.  Frozen foods are often cheaper and easier to store as well.

Of course fresh, wholesome food is the first recommendation, but it is important to have a back-up plan for those days when you do not have time to prepare the necessary, healthy meal.  Frozen foods have really changed over the years and there are more and more healthy options than there were even 10 years ago.  So go CELEBRATE your healthy eating plan and incorporate frozen foods as needed to stay on track!

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