When you’re eating for metabolic health, whole foods reign supreme. But that doesn’t mean all convenience foods are off-limits. This ongoing series highlights some of the most metabolically friendly packaged foods you can buy, in this case, frozen meals and sides.
The convenience of frozen meals is hard to beat. At most, you may have to add some extra vegetables or protein, and you have a complete meal in minutes. However, this is one of those foods where the label is required reading if you want a meal that supports metabolic health.
The biggest problem with frozen meals is that, often, the base is a heavy amount of carbs such as rice or pasta, which can cause blood glucose levels to rise quickly. Even “healthy” carbs like quinoa can spike blood glucose in some individuals. If this happens too often, it can set the stage for insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes.
These meals also tend to be light on protein and fiber, two nutrients that help slow digestion, which causes a more gradual blood glucose response and may help you feel fuller longer. And they often contain inflammatory processed seed and vegetable oils and additives that have been linked to various health problems such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Luckily, today’s frozen meal options are far from the TV dinners of your childhood. Now you can find ones that combine a moderate amount of fibrous carbs with lean proteins, healthy fats, and antioxidant-rich superfoods. And you can always customize them by adding or swapping ingredients. Read on for our picks of convenience meals that promote metabolic health while still being delicious.
When choosing a frozen meal, keep the following in mind:
- Whole foods: Look for meals that are minimally processed. A “perfect” ingredients list would only include what you use at home—you want to see vegetables, unrefined oils, herbs and spices, and proteins such as chicken, beef, or seafood.
- Carbohydrates: Ideally, carbs are not the first ingredient, and the carbs present come from unrefined sources such as vegetables or beans.
- Sugar: Frozen meals can contain upwards of 31 grams of added sugars in the form of sugar, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, and more. Products with zero added sugar are ideal; added sugars from sugar alcohols or natural sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit are a next-best option.
- Oils: When possible, avoid refined seed oils such as canola and soybean oil, which are high in potentially inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. Options like olive oil and avocado oil are richer in healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
- Serving size: Some meals that seem healthy may provide two servings per container. In other cases, single frozen meal portions can be meager and fall short of what’s recommended for a meal. If you still feel hungry, consider making a side salad or roasted vegetables since many frozen meals are light on veggies.
- Protein: Aim for at least 15 grams of protein, ideally from organic and grass-fed meat, wild-caught fish, or non-GMO plant proteins, recommends Kim Yawitz, RD, a registered dietitian in St. Louis, MO.
- “Superfoods”: When you can, favor frozen meals with micronutrient-rich foods that support metabolic health such as pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, leafy greens, turmeric, and mushrooms.
- Make it your own: It’s difficult to find a frozen meal that meets all of these criteria. So find one that’s close and then modify it. You could add more protein and vegetables, sprinkle on superfoods, or swap the base, such as upgrading from white pasta to zoodles or from brown rice to cauliflower rice.
7 Frozen Meals Better for Metabolic Health
If you don’t have time to check labels yourself, consider grabbing one of the options below.
Thanks to a base of cauliflower rice rather than white or brown rice, this dish has only eight net carbs (the total carbs minus the fiber and sugar alcohols—note that there’s controversy around the value of net carbs, but fiber can help blunt a glucose spike). Beef and black beans provide 16 grams of protein, while pico de gallo and spices in the dish add the right level of heat. Yawitz suggests topping with half a small avocado for additional\taste and health benefits
Per serving (1 bowl): 200 calories, 5 g fat, 16 g carbs, 7 g fiber, 3 g sugar, 16 g protein, 840 mg sodium
Price: $7.99* per bowl
Rather than white meat, this bowl contains dark meat chicken, which provides around 29% of your daily selenium per ounce of cooked meat. Selenium is an antioxidant mineral that’s essential for DNA synthesis and thyroid health. It also helps promote glucose uptake by cells, decreasing the need for insulin. Additionally, rather than dairy, this dish gets its creaminess from almond butter, a source of healthy fats and fiber
Per serving (1 bowl): 460 calories, 39 g fat, 10 g carbs, 5 g fiber, 4 g sugar, 18 g protein, 810 mg sodium
Price: $8.99 per bowl
Many prepared meatballs are processed and contain food additives like xanthan gum, which can cause bloating and gastrointestinal distress in some people, or maltodextrin, which some evidence suggests may alter the gut microbiome, potentially spurring inflammation. These frozen meatballs contain only organic beef, gluten-free breadcrumbs, and spices, and they’re easy to cook on the stove top or in a slow cooker with no-sugar-added marinara. Or try them over spaghetti squash or zucchini noodles tossed with pesto.
Per serving (4 meatballs): 220 calories, 17 g fat, 5 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 0 g sugars, 11 g protein, 220 mg sodium
Price: $22.99 for a 12-ounce package
Unlike many packaged foods that use refined potentially inflammatory seed oils, this Southwestern-style chicken bowl is made with extra-virgin olive oil. It also contains apple cider vinegar, which may help improve glycemic control when eating before or with a meal. You can find this affordable brand at a variety of grocers and online vendors like Thrive Market.
Per serving (1 bowl): 390 calories, 25 g fat, 17 grams carbs, 6 g fiber, 5 g sugar, 17 g protein, 890 mg sodium
Price: $5.29 for one bowl
Although we recommend serving this garlicky entrée with a low-carb side like roasted vegetables or mashed cauliflower, the 24 grams of protein will help you digest any carbs more slowly, so your blood sugar doesn’t spike. Plus, it’s ready in five minutes: Simply sauté the meat, add the sauce, and eat.
Per serving (5 oz): 160 calories, 5 g fat, 3 grams carbs, 0 g fiber, 0 g sugar, 24 g protein, 470 mg sodium
Price: $11.99 for a 16-ounce package
This mix of cauliflower, tomatoes, onions, and cashews has a kick from red chili pepper and loads of warming spices. Of note is the turmeric, which contains the compound curcumin. This chemical fights inflammation, an underlying factor in diseases such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and heart disease. Yawitz suggests adding shredded chicken or tofu to amp up the protein content for a proper meal.
Per serving (227 g): 130 calories, 8 g fat, 12 grams carbs, 4 g fiber, 4 g sugar, 3 g protein, 330 mg sodium
Price: Plans from $7.50 a meal
This frozen blend of broccoli, peas, green beans, and zucchini makes it easy to consume more green vegetables. The seasoning—garlic, parsley, and black pepper—pairs well with just about any entree. What’s more, broccoli, green beans, zucchini, and black pepper are all good sources of manganese, a mineral that one recent study showed could be protective against hyperglycemia and promote insulin sensitivity. Pair with pork tenderloin, chicken breast, or salmon for a balanced dinner.
Per serving (⅔ cup): 30 calories, 1.5 g fat, 3 grams carbs, 2 g fiber, 0 g sugar, 1 g protein, 90 mg sodium
Price: $2.99 for a 14-ounce package
*The prices in this article reflect those listed at the time of publication. Prices and local store availability may vary.