Happy National Frozen Foods Day! Learn to navigate the frozen food aisle at the grocery store like a dietitian.
Did you know Frozen Foods Day has been celebrated all the way back from 1984? I’m sure majority of your grocery shopping trips make a pit stop to the frozen aisles for at least one item, if not more. The frozen aisle has definitely improved over the years.
I like to bring this question up in many of my nutrition group discussions – Which do you think is healthier: fresh or frozen? Many raise their hand for fresh and a few brave participants raise their hands for frozen, even if they don’t exactly know why. The answer is both are healthy! Frozen can be just as healthy as fresh thanks to American inventor Clarence Frank Birdseye II, who invented the process of flash freezing. Flash freezing of fruits, vegetables, meats, and seafood preserve flavor, quality, and nutrients. Birdseye discovered the key was freezing the food quickly, locking in foods nutritional value. Flash freezing forms small ice crystals which prevent the cell walls from bursting. Large ice crystals turn the food to mush.
Previously working as a supermarket RD, I know how to navigate the aisles like a pro!
As like any section of the grocery store, the frozen aisle is broken into categories. Follow this dietitian’s guide to navigating the frozen food aisle.
- Check your ingredient list. Make sure it is just the fruit itself. Avoid added sugar.
My Picks: Campoverdue Fruit & Veggie Blenders, Dole Fruit & Veggie Blends, Earthbound Farm Organic Smoothie Kickstarts, Dole Dippers (for a portion controlled sweet treat)
Tip: Skip the syrup for topping your waffles or pancakes. Try using frozen fruit! Simply add frozen berries to a small pot over the stove top and let simmer. It will turn gooey and syrupy. Add a teaspoon of chia seeds to thicken.
- Opt for the plain varieties. Skip the vegetables with gravies, cheese sauces, and even those labeled as “lightly seasoned”. They may be light in taste but check the nutrition label for hidden excess sodium and fat.
- Watch out for “par-fried” items. I’m looking at you frozen french fries. Par-fried means blanching or half-frying that involves partially frying the food but not browning it, so that it must be cooked again before serving. So even though you might bake them in the oven, they were still fried.
- Look for new items like riced cauliflower and other riced vegetables. So far I’ve seen riced carrots, broccoli, and sweet potatoes too!
- Cauliflower is popping up everywhere for a low-carb option. They are even making cauliflower tots to replace potatoes.
My Picks: frozen cauliflower rice, Veggie fries, Dr. Praeger Veggie Tots, or ANY frozen plain veggies
Tip: Give yourself a break prepping in the kitchen. Get a stir-fry going in minutes with pre-chopped onions, peppers, and carrots!
- Look for the first word on the ingredient list to be the word “whole”, for frozen products like waffles.
- Now ancient grains are even easier to get on the dinner table. No need to wait for them to cook in a pot. Warm up frozen whole grains like brown rice and quinoa.
- Do steel cut oats take to long to cook in the morning? Don’t worry there is frozen version that can heat up in seconds.
My Picks: Van’s Whole Grain Waffles, Kashi Whole Grain Waffles, Brown Rice, Quinoa, Ezekiel bread, Food for Life Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Grain Waffles
- Again, watch out for “par-fried” items.
- Opt for protein, like chicken or fish, without a breadcrumb coating. Choose lean choices of meat.
- Look for plant-based proteins like edamame. Now they even have frozen beans & lentils available!
My Picks: Hip Chick Farms, Good Food Made Simple, Hanover Beans, Good Food Made Simple Southwestern Veggie Breakfast Bowl
This is typically your ice cream section of the frozen department. There is a whole other refrigerated aisle dedicated to wholesome dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheeses – aka the dairy aisle.
- Check your ingredient list. Look for real food ingredients.
- Opt for yogurt-based items
My Picks: As a dietitian, I always practice what I preach that everything in moderation. Now if you want that Ben and Jerry’s, go for it, being mindful of the portion sizes. There are so many new ice creams out there that I do have mixed feeling about. Some have sugar alcohols. For me personally, they bother my stomach, but it can be a good alternative for ice cream lovers who are looking to enjoy their ice cream a little more often than not. Halo Top, Nada Moo, Yasso, Enlightened, Ciao Bella Adonia Wild Blueberry Greek Frozen Yogurt Bars, are a few.
In general, look for meals that include one or more servings each of vegetables, whole grains, and lean meat, fish, or poultry. This combination will be higher in vitamins and minerals as well as fiber (which helps fill you up). Skip frozen dinners with cream sauces, gravies, or fried foods. And although dessert may look like a bonus, maybe have a piece of fresh fruit instead, for more fiber, nutrition, and fewer calories.
When comparing labels for frozen entrees, many eyes jump right down to the sodium, because come frozen meals can be sodium bombs. Look for a frozen entree < 600 milligrams.
It’s also important to pay attention to serving sizes. Although they may be lower in calories, smaller entrees may leave you hungry. But don’t be afraid to add a few extras to boost nutrition and satisfaction. Add a side salad or an extra bag of steamed veggies to up the nutritional value of the meal and add fiber, so it will fill you up and satisfy your hunger. Looking to bump up the protein? Add 1/2 cup of beans or a sprinkling of nuts to your meal. No additional cooking required!
My favorite trick: I place a big bed of baby spinach or zoodles on my plate then pour the piping hot Luvo frozen entree right on top straight from the microwave. It wilts the spinach or softens the zoodles and bulks up the meal with extra vegetables.
My Picks: Luvo, Grainful, Evol, Garden Lites, Kashi, Amy’s
Check your serving size. Often those pizzas contain multiple servings. Again, bulk them up! Keep it simple so there is no additional cooking required. Add toppings like frozen grilled chicken strips and plenty of veggies. Also, look for pizzas that use whole grains in the crust.
My favorite trick: I pile my pizza high with extra veggies. (The more the merrier!) When there is about 5 minutes left until the pizza is done, I crack a few eggs right on top and finish cooking the pizza to add an extra veggie and protein punch. Plus, who doesn’t like a runny egg yolk?
MyPicks: Newman’s Own, Pea’s of Mind, American Flatbread, Kashi
Check your ingredient list. Make sure there are actual vegetables in there! Don’t be fooled by packaging. Just because there is no animal protein in it, they can skimp on the veggies. Some veggie burgers contain fillers like rice and potatoes to bulk it up. Look for a veggie burger with plenty of vegetables on the ingredient list.
My Picks: Dr. Praeger, Hilary’s, Gardenburger
*Please note there are plenty more healthy options found in the frozen aisles of the grocery store. The ones listed are just a sampling.
Want a more in-depth tour of the grocery store? I now offer grocery store tours in the north NJ area!