We've all heard the same advice: shop around for fresh meats and produce, and avoid frozen, processed and pre-packaged foods. Shopping is the easy part, but preparing healthy meals isn’t always practical in a busy lifestyle. Sometimes, you just have to grab something on the run, and packaged foods – from meal replacement bars to frozen pizzas – have a way of magically appearing just when you're short of time and your stomach starts to growl.
But Bent Fork Nutrition's Krista Leck Merner, a professional dietitian, says if you're aware of what you're eating and keeping a balanced diet, a frozen meal won't hurt every once in a while.
"Convenience foods end up in our lives more often than not, so we may as well have a few healthier ones on hand," she says.
When you're stocking up on packaged meals or snacks at the grocery store, Leck Merner says to check the nutrition information label. Here are some guidelines she offers:
Calories: Stick to 300-400 calories for breakfast, 400-500 calories for lunch, and 500-600 calories for dinner. Snacks should be 100-200 calories twice daily.
Fat: Each serving should contain 0g of trans fat and less than 15 per cent of your daily total fat intake.
Sodium: Aim for a daily intake between 1500 and 2300mg, with less than 500mg of sodium per packaged meal. Although many companies are now adding low sodium/no added salt options, sodium is still a big thing to watch for.
Fibre: There should be at least 4g of fibre per serving.
Sugar: Each item should have less than 10g of added sugars per serving. Remember that things containing real fruit sugars are okay.
Check the list of ingredients and know what to look for. "A shorter ingredient list generally means the food is less processed," she advises. Ingredients are listed by weight, so avoid items that list sugar, salt or fat as any of the first three ingredients.
Balance is key, Leck Merner says. She notes that while healthy packaged foods are okay, it's important to supplement a convenient meal with something fresh.
"Pre-packaged options are great bases for meals, but they often need a few additions to round them out – both calorically and balance-wise," she says. "Try a frozen dinner plus fruit and yogurt, or instant low-sodium vegetable soup plus cheese and crackers. "
Here are some of Leck Merner's favourite quick meal options:
Alternatively, she suggests homemade batch cooking. "Cook meals with leftovers and/or double a recipe to create immediate leftovers or portion into single servings and freeze – great for a nutritious, cost saving and time crunch meal."
Since graduating from McMaster University and Sheridan College, Stefanie has ventured into the world of community newspapers, web projects and trade publications. Her favourite topics include food, lifestyle, entertainment and environmental issues, and she loves learning about different ways to improve her health and wellness. Her work has appeared in Canadian Pizza, Canadian Biomass and on Agrobiomass.com. Besides reading, writing and copyediting, Stefanie loves to travel, cook and spend time with her friends and family.