The TV dinner got its start about 50 years ago when C.A. Swanson & Sons had too many frozen turkeys — 10 refrigerated railroad cars full, to be exact. They needed to come up with an innovative way to make use of them — and behold, the TV dinner was born. Today, frozen entrees account for more than $5.9 billion in annual supermarket sales.
For years, the TV dinner market meant obscene amounts of fat and calories to ensure tasty and exciting food for those of us who just didn’t have the time to prepare meals from scratch. Now with all the low-calorie options such as Lean Cuisine, Smart Ones, and Healthy Choice, we can enjoy the convenience of frozen meals and still be able to lose or maintain our weight. “Additionally, these healthier meals are a great resource for dieters who have difficulty keeping their portion sizes under control,” says New York City Nutritionist Shira Isenberg, R.D.
But don’t run to the supermarket yet. The meals that bill themselves as “healthy,” “lean,” or “smart” vary widely in nutritional content and — a key point — size. Some boast very low calorie and fat contents, but have small portion sizes. So, you really have to consider whether or not one portion will satisfy you. Truth be told, when I put those 10 frozen meals on my dining room table, the one that stood out as a “real” meal was the only one that was not low in fat or calories — the mammoth Hungry Man Backyard BBQ XXL. In fact, this “1 1/2 pound” dinner packs a whopping 1140 calories, 127 grams of carbs, and 46 grams of fat.
“We are a society of supersizers — if someone is used to eating large portions of food for dinner, and he or she is trying to lose weight, it’s unlikely that a low-calorie TV dinner will be satisfying,” explains Dr. Teresa Moore, an exercise physiologist and nutrition expert at the University of South Carolina’s School of Public Health. “And when someone’s not satisfied, he or she tends to eat additional foods that can be high in calories and fat.”
Most of the low-calorie options that I tested (including Smart Ones, Lean Cuisine, and Healthy Choice) were just okay in terms of taste — there were no particular standouts in the crowd. I guess my taste buds are in line with the Consumer Reports “tasters.” A few years ago they made the same call, claiming that “most of the products tried were mediocre at best.” They went on to say that “the best-tasting products, sorry to say, had the most fat and sodium — substances that generally enhance flavor, even though high fat and sodium didn’t guarantee a high [flavor] ratings score.”
That said, with the hundreds of choices available, there are certainly enough healthy, low-calorie meals to try, and some are bound to meet your culinary desires — I even found a couple that I liked enough to eat again (like the Lean Cuisine Asian Style). But be wary and watch out for the following:
LOOK FOR THE WORD “HEALTHY.” By federal law, any foods that say “healthy” (including the brand “Healthy Choice”) on the packaging must meet certain government standards; they must contain less than 3 grams of fat per 100 grams and no more than 30% of calories from fat. In addition, sodium content cannot exceed 600 mg.
WATCH THE SODIUM. “If the meals are low in calories and fat, then how can they be tasty at all? In some cases, the answer may be sodium,” says Dr. Lisa Ritchie, a dietitian and assistant professor of family and consumer sciences at Harding University. Many frozen dinners do have high sodium content, so aim for no more than 700 mg per serving as a guide.
WATCH THE FAT. Your meal should also contain no more than 3 grams of total fat and no more than 1 gram of saturated fat per 100 grams of food — this usually means keeping the fat to a total of 6 to 8 grams per meal or entree. Also, watch out for trans fatty acids — many of the low-calorie, low-fat products contain these types of fats. You can spot them on the food label if you see the words “partially hydrogenated” on the ingredients list.
ADD FRUITS AND VEGETABLES. It’s difficult to find a frozen dinner that includes enough fruits and vegetables — so add your own. Peel an orange, slice up an apple, get some frozen string beans or broccoli — not only will this increase your nutrient consumption, but you’ll also feel more satisfied.
GET MILK (OR YOGURT). TV dinners are often low in calcium, so make up for it by adding a cup of skim milk or yogurt to boost your calcium consumption.
HAVE A SOUP OR SALAD. Add low-calorie soups and salads (watch the dressing) to fill you up so you don’t end up feeling hungry — especially if you’re used to having “supersized” meals.