Are Microwave Meals Tricking Your Taste Buds? (3:32)
The freezer aisle hasn't always been thought of as the go-to place for healthy eating. But many people in America rely on microwaveable meals from the freezer section as a quick and easy way to eat lunch or dinner in the midst of their busy, over-scheduled lives. I love my microwave, but I'm always on the lookout for healthy microwave meal hacks that can make me feel better about nuking my food come dinner time.
With the promise of convenience, it's easy to understand why frozen meals have generated close to $57 billion in sales, according to a recent report from the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). Food journalist and author of The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor, Mark Schatzker, reported on The Dr. Oz Show that frozen microwaveable meals actually contain tons of unhealthy ingredients in order to make them taste better.
First there are preservatives to add flavor back into food because when you freeze food, the natural taste starts to diminsh over time. Then there is an abundance of added sugar. Schatzker says that a serving of a microwave meal (which is usually only half of the packaged meal) can contain up to 29 grams of sugar. So if you eat the full meal, that's 58 grams of sugar — which is the amount found in a couple of candy bars. The last unhealthy ingredient hiding in these meals is modified starches, which, according to Schatzker, are added to thicken the food to make it taste better. When you consume it, it's really just adding unnecessary amounts of hidden carbs into your diet.
This all sounds horrible, but the bright side is, Schatzker says there are ways to enjoy the convenience of these meals without all of the unhealthy consquences. Check out his hacks for how to make microwave meals healthy and cut down on unnecessary calories.
Look for Whole Foods on the Label
When it comes to freezer food, looking at the nutrition label is essential (knowing how to read one is important regardless of which aisle you're shopping in). Schatzker says that ingredients are listed in descending order of weight — how much of the ingredient is in the product — so you want the healthy ones to be first.
Make sure a whole food like chicken, beans, or a fruit or vegetable is one of the first on the list. Paying attention to the nutrition label on your microwaveable meal can also tell you if there are added preservatives. If some ingredients sound like words that belong in a science experiment (like Polysorbate 80, Potassium Bromate, and Sodium Nitrate) instead of your food, chances are you shouldn't be putting it in your body. So, it may not be a bad idea to play i-Spy the next time you're in the freezer aisle.
Only Eat Them Twice a Week (Or in Emergency Situations)
Listen, desperate times call for desperate measures, but microwave meals shouldn't be your saving grace all the time. "The more you rely on these meals," Schatzker says, "the more inconvenient cooking seems."
Don't look at freezer meals as an excuse not to cook, you should be eating fresh, whole foods most of the time. If you have a really busy schedule and can't seem to give up the convenience these meals offer than at least try to limit to only eating them twice a week — or, if you can, eat them in an emergency situation only.
Follow the 50/50 Rule
You may have heard your doctor say that you should do and eat everything in moderation, Dr. Oz believes this, too. This philosophy certainly applies to the ready-to-go meals you are heating up in your microwave.
Schatzker advises that on days when you do eat microwave meals, you should follow the 50/50 rule: have half a frozen serving and half a fresh serving. In other words, it may be best to pair microwavable grilled chicken with some low-carb roasted whole cauliflower or healthy sprouted lentils (there are many fast and easy dishes to make that only have five ingredients). This balance will allow you to enjoy your quick meals, while also making sure you're eating healthy too.
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