My kids and I recently had 30 minutes to undertake a week’s worth of grocery shopping before we had to be at baseball practice. This is not unusual. As we ran through the grocery store, each flying in a different direction to gather items on the list, my boys asked me an excellent question. They asked me why I don’t buy frozen meals.
We happened to be at Trader Joe’s, a store full of frozen items that are labeled organic and appear to be very healthy. They reasoned that if I tossed seven frozen meals in the cart I’d be almost done shopping for the week. Shopping would have taken mere minutes instead of the hour it usually takes to find all the ingredients, not to mention the time spent unloading the groceries and cooking the meals.
My boys asked a fair question, and one I am guessing most parents have asked themselves when they feel frazzled getting dinner on the table.
Here is my simple answer.
Nutrients. Freezing has been shown to decrease the nutrient value of a meal. Frozen meals also generally provide small quantities of vegetables and fruits. Because vegetables and fruits provide many of the vitamins and minerals that are essential to our health, we want to guarantee we consume enough of them.
Hydration. Fresh fruits and vegetables have a higher water content and therefore offer natural hydration that is important for cellular health.
Healthful fats. There is a great disparity in the health value of various oils and fats. I am in control of which oils and fats are in a meal when I prepare it myself.
Enzymes. Enzymes help with digestion and nutrient absorption by breaking down the food into absorbable parts that our bodies can use. Enzymes have to be removed from fresh food for it to have a shelf life. It is believed that freezing lowers enzyme activity.
Ingredients. A frozen meal often has a longer list of ingredients, some of which might not be whole foods. Many frozen meals have added gluten, preservatives, flavorings or chemicals, so be sure to read the labels.
Salt. Search the nutrition facts panel for the amount of sodium; frozen meals tend to have more sodium than is recommended.
Toxins. Storing foods in plastic, microwaving a meal in the package or adding chemical flavorings or colors can infuse unwelcome toxins into a meal.
Unhealthful fats. Many oils are processed in unhealthful ways such as through high- temperature mechanical pressing, or bleaching, filtering and deodorizing practices. Nutrients are lost in these extracting and refining processes, and you might find unwanted chemicals in the resulting products. To make matters worse, many vegetable oils are extracted from crops that have been sprayed with pesticides or that are grown from genetically modified seeds, both of which create some health concerns. So again, I prefer to be in charge of the oils I use in my cooking.
This information doesn’t mean you should never serve a frozen meal. It doesn’t mean you should feel guilty when you do. This is just a reminder to myself, and my children, why I work hard to get fresh, whole-food meals on the table. Spring and summer make eating fresh fruits and vegetables easy, as a variety of produce is in season and needs little doctoring to taste delicious.
On those nights that a frozen meal is the answer, add a side salad or a few raw vegetables to make up for the lower amounts of water, enzymes and micronutrients. Then sit down and enjoy dinner with your kids.
Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a D.C.-based nutrition education company.