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Dr. Tim Says....

Can You Make Convenience Foods Part Of A Healthy Diet?

Recently there was a study, funded in part by Jenny Craig, that showed that structured meal plans can help people lose weight. There are ads all the time for such plans – Jenny Craig, Nutrasystem, Bistro MD.... These work - in a way - and I have had patients lose weight using such plans. But the weight doesn't stay off for long: they almost always gain it back. This is partly because the programs don't really teach you anything about eating healthy without someone else making the decisions about what to eat and when.

That said, I believe that convenience meals like those provided by Jenny Craig et al. can be a healthy part of your life. I'd much rather you make your own meals, whether it's taking a sandwich to work or putting together something healthy out of a well-stocked pantry, but I'm realistic. People do use Lean Cuisine, Healthy Choice and Weight Watchers meals in lieu of cooking. If you are going to choose these, how do you know which ones are healthier? Our tasting panel at DrGourmet.com has sampled dozens of these products over the years and have found some that are fairly good (and a lot that are really terrible).

Most of the frozen dinners on the market range between about 300 and 400 calories (give or take a bit). We've analyzed this carefully, and the make up of each meal is about 2 ounces of protein, about a half serving of starch, and a half serving of vegetables. In essence, most of them are about half of a normal dinner serving. That can work for you, but it is important to understand this fact. They're better suited to lunch than to dinner for this reason.

What we have found in our taste testing is that there is no one company that can be reliably counted upon. One company may have an excellent chicken meal, but that doesn't mean all of their chicken dishes are good. For instance, we found the Lean Cuisine Macaroni and Cheese to be OK but their Classic Macaroni and Beef isn't so hot.

We do have general criteria for selecting meals that we review. First we look for meals that are under 500 calories. That's pretty easy as is the fact that most of these are lower in fat. It's the sodium and the fiber that are the big challenge. Most of these are higher in sodium than I would like to see, generally coming in at between 600 and 700 milligrams per serving. While that's not outrageous, your goal should be to choose those meals that are under 500 mg per serving.

At the same time many of these products have very little fiber. This is because many times the starch is white rice, potatoes or white pasta. Look for products that serve brown rice, whole wheat pasta, lentils, beans or sweet potatoes. Look for meals that have at least 4 grams of fiber or more.

Also note that we at DrGourmet.com look for and prefer meals with as few artificial ingredients as possible. If you see items that you don't recognize, it's best to just leave the meal in the freezer case. Likewise, if it contains High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), hydrogenated oils of any kind or monosodium glutamate (MSG) you don't want to take it home at all.

To recap:

  • Meals under 500 calories
  • Target under 15 grams of total fat
  • Target under 5 grams of saturated fat
  • Less than 500 mg of sodium
  • 4 grams or more fiber
  • Recognizable ingredients

There are many great brands other than those you might recognize. Amy's, Michael Angelo's, Kashi and Ethnic Gourmet are all national brands that the Dr. Gourmet tasting panel has found to sell good products. You can read more and see other reviews here: Dr. Gourmet's Food Reviews.

You can have convenience meals be part of your life and be healthy with just few smart choices.

Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life!

Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.
Dr. Gourmet