Are Proportioned and Prepackaged Meals Healthy?

Old TV Dinner

Frozen and prepackaged meals can be a healthy option.

Man and Microwave Meal

Man and Microwave Meal

Our society is increasingly on the go and has less downtime than many of our counterparts int he world. With the increased time at work and travel to and from, we look for more convenient ways to feed our families. Frozen and packaged meals are vilified for being unhealthy, and Our societies are increasingly relying on convenience. Our lives and our breakfasts, lunches, and dinners are increasing becoming quick fix items that we barely fit into our schedules. For this reason, convenience foods are becoming increasingly popular.

I recently found an article on Science Daily entitled “Parents purchase frozen dinners for more than convenience”[1] that I feel is at least partially off base. It is not the premise for which I have a problem. The research looks at why folks are buying these preportioned frozen dinners. The problem I have is some of the statements in the article that I feel are over generalizations that based on half truths to sensationalize the article to gain hits. As we progress in the post, I will work back to the review in Science Daily, but for now, we will shift to the research behind the blog post.

Horning and her group did the research study[2]. The study is a secondary data analysis uses Healthy Home Offerings via the Mealtime Environment Plus study data from parents of children aged 8–12 years. Secondary data analysis means that this investigation looked data intended for another study. The research found that the most frequently given reasons for purchasing prepackaged, processed meals included a lack of time (57%) and family preferences (49%). I have no problem with this portion of the review. The data is the data, and it is evident and not surprising that convenience is the top reason for purchasing prepackaged cuisine for your children.

Microwave Cooking

Microwave Cooking

So, let’s get to the problems I have with this blog review article. In the first sentence of the blog post, the writer makes the statement that “Processed foods are higher in calories, sugar, sodium, and saturated fat.” This statement is a generalization that would make you think that all frozen processed and prepackaged dinners are terrible for you. This statement could not be further from the truth. The key to encouraging patients to eat convenient foods that are healthier is education. You have to teach them how to read food labels and make healthy choices.

The processed foods we eat are higher in calories, preservatives, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar than natural foods we used to eat. But prepackaged, processed meals remain a popular choice for many consumers because they reduce the energy, time, and cooking skills needed to prepare food. Having items like boxed entrees and frozen dinners available at home can contribute to a poor diet, which led researchers to examine reasons why parents purchase prepackaged, processed foods.

Tips for choosing a healthier packaged meal:

  1. Watch the fat. I recommend no more than 3 grams of fat per 100 calories and less than 3-4 grams of saturated fat. White, cheesy, and buttery sauces have more fat.
  2. Maximize fiber intake. Each meal should include at least 4 grams of fiber. Fiber is tough to acquire in a frozen dinner because many of the less healthy varieties have little to no fiber.
  3. Lower your salt intake. The sodium content of each meal should be less than 600 mg. Red sauce often contains more sodium.
  4. Where’s the beef? Your should get at least 15 grams of protein per meal. Protein is filling, and you friend if you are trying to lose weight.

The bottom line on prepared and packaged foods: 

Hungry Man TV Dinner

Hungry Man TV Dinner

I grew up in the South. You can make homemade grub that is terrible for you. I could share a family recipe for tiella, pepperoni rolls or macaroni and cheese and you would quickly see how unhealthy homemade food can be. These foods are delicious comfort foods from my childhood in central West Virginia, but healthy they are now. If you make good choices, you can eat healthy even with the addition of frozen meals during the work week.  Don’t confuse what I am saying because I am not saying that packages foods are preferable, but there is a vast difference between a “Hungry Man” TV dinner (image to right) and a “Healthy Choice” dinner.   I would recommend homemade meals as much as possible, but that is not feasible to make three meals a day for seven days a week in a modern busy lifestyle.

I plan to do a series of short articles about making better food choices. Choose wisely and enjoy your meals!

Footnotes
[1]“Parents Purchase Frozen Dinners for More than Convenience.”
[2]Horning et al., “Reasons Parents Buy Prepackaged, Processed Meals: It Is More Complicated Than ‘I Don’t Have Time.’”
Horning, Melissa L., Jayne A. Fulkerson, Sarah E. Friend, and Mary Story. “Reasons Parents Buy Prepackaged, Processed Meals: It Is More Complicated Than ‘I Don’t Have Time.’” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. Elsevier BV, January 2017. doi: 10.1016/j.jneb.2016.08.012
“Parents Purchase Frozen Dinners for More than Convenience.” Science Daily, January 6, 2017. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170106125846.htm.
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About the Author

ChuckH

I am a family physician who has served in the US Army. In 2016, I found myself overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, so I made a change to improve my health. This blog is the chronology of my path to better health and what I have learned along the way.

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