Image: Lean Cuisine
Lean Cuisine
Lean Cuisine provides calorie or carb counts on some of its meals.
updated 2/10/2006 8:33:30 PM ET 2006-02-11T01:33:30

Frozen dinners once offered little more than mushy Salisbury steak and shriveled green beans, but today’s versions are so varied and well-labeled that some people use them to watch calories and carbs, fat and fiber.

A frozen meal’s nutritional breakdown “lets you control what you’re putting in your mouth. Otherwise it can get too time-consuming to figure out,” said Erica Miller, a slim 24-year-old teacher in Albany who eats at least one frozen meal a day for weeks at a time.

The average American now eats a frozen meal about six times a month, and the number of those who eat them more frequently is growing, according to the American Frozen Foods Institute, an industry group.

While convenience and speed are the main drivers behind this market, also feeding consumption is growth in diet choices, said Chris Krese, spokesman for AFFI.

The frozen dinner and entree market is now $4.9 billion, up from $3.4 billion in 1996.

While growth has steadied in recent years, the industry is undergoing enormous change to compete with the array of quality ready-to-eat options flooding the supermarket and fast food chains, said Bob Garrison, editor of Refrigerated and Frozen Foods.

From gluten-free to high-fiber, supermarkets are now stocked to suit nearly any type of diet.

Healthy Choice, endorsed by the American Heart Association, now has 70 entrees while Smart Ones are stamped with points for those following a Weight Watchers diet.

Lean Cuisine provides a calorie or carbohydrate count, and meals that are free of preservatives are marked, too. Amy’s adds vegan, dairy-free, and even corn-free options.

Even brands like Budget Gourmet and Hot Pockets — known more for their flavor than nutritional benefits — have rolled out lighter versions.

And frozen dinners have quickly evolved to satisfy a wider range of palates with everything from Indian curries to shrimp pad Thai. Lean Cuisine now markets some of its dishes as “spa cuisine” and recently rolled out panini grilled sandwiches.

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Nutritionists warn that low calorie counts don’t always translate to sensible eating. A microwave dinner may only have 300 calories, but too many might come from fat, said Netty Levine, a dietitian at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

The paltry sides of broccoli or peas in most dinners probably aren’t adequate servings of vegetables, and meals that weigh in at fewer than 300 calories won’t be enough food for most active people, either.

“You have to round out these meals with a salad, a glass of milk or some fruit,” Levine said.

In contrast to the heaping helpings served up at many restaurants, the right frozen dinners can pose a good alternative — especially when it comes to portion control, she said.

“Manufacturers and retailers are responding to time-pressed, diet-conscious American consumers’ desire for healthier, more convenient meal solutions,” said Todd Hulquist of the Food Marketing Institute.

So what’s next on the horizon: The frozen foods institute recently hired a dietitian to come up with a nine-week frozen food meal plan that meets nutritional guidelines.

Even so, surviving on frozen dinners could get expensive, with some costing as much as $4 — a price tag even busy professionals like Miller say is too high for the trade-off in taste.

“It’s never going to be as good as home-cooked,” she said.

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