Even families that cook dinner from scratch have those days when there’s nothing to eat. The fridge is close to empty, and the physical and emotional resources required to cook up something from scratch are totally depleted.
We turn to the freezer in hope of a microwavable miracle. But when even the leftovers from previously prepared feasts are absent, we reach out for a prepared meal purchased skeptically a month or two ago.
In the last 50 years, food manufacturers have seen a surge in demand for what was once called TV Dinners. And in recent years, as our nutrition awareness has grown, new brands of frozen meals have been developed to provide “healthy choices.”
Today we’ll take a look at ConAgra’s opportunistically named Healthy Choices brand, with a product called Cafe Steamers Grilled Chicken Marinara.
What you need to know:
The single serve chicken breast, pasta and broccoli florets in marinara sauce look pretty good in the picture on the package. The 10 oz serving is to be heated in a microwaveable packaging that mimics the effect of steaming. Steaming is a preparation method that requires little to no oils, unlike a saute. You each can be the judge regarding the flavor.
The numbers on the nutrition facts panel look promising – only 270 calories, 21 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber, and only 4.5 grams of fat. The sodium content is 550mg, a quarter of the daily max. That’s high but not as high as most other fat meal solutions.
Below is the lengthy ingredient list.
We’ve highlighted the ingredients one would use at home when preparing this dish. We’ve underlined additives that we don’t think regular folk have at home.
Cooked Penne Pasta (Water, Durum, Semolina [Enriched with Niacin, Iron (Ferrous Sulfate), Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid], Egg Whites), Garlic and Pepper Seasoned Chicken Tenderloin Chunks, Chicken Tenderloin, Water, Garlic and Pepper, Chicken Seasoning [Salt, Sugar, Dehydrated Garlic, Spices Including Paprika, Maltodextrin, Soy Lecithin, Chicken Broth [Contains Flavors], Xanthan Gum, Caramel Color, Natural Flavor], Olive Oil, Isolated Soy Protein Product [Isolated Soy Protein, Modified Food Starch, Starch, Carrageenan, Soy Lecithin]). Broccoli, Water, Diced Tomatoes, Tomato Paste, Contains 2% or Less of: Full Moisture Parmesan Cheese (Cultured Pasteurized Milk, Salt, Enzymes), Brown Sugar, Onions, Garlic, Salt, Canola Oil, Modified Food Starch, Spices, Potassium Chloride, Xanthan Gum, Citric Acid.
While none of the underlined additives is inherently bad for you, their purpose is to provide the flavor and texture of a home cooked dish served straight from the pot. They “cheat” our senses to believe we are getting a better food than we actually are.
Don’t know about you, but I want the flavor of my dish to come from the chicken and the veggies, not from an additive called “Natural Flavor”.
By the way, On the Healthy Choice website, they’ll gladly boast their nutrition info, but the ingredient lists cannot be found. Sneaky and deceitful. The company says it’s because product formulations change occasionally. Oh, that’s the reason …
Bottom line: From a nutrition perspective, this product is probably less worrisome compared to other frozen meals. That said, eating it shouldn’t be a daily habit.
What to do at the supermarket:
Minimize your purchase of processed frozen meals and try to prepare your own. For rainy days, choose options that have mostly recognizable ingredient lists, that are low in sodium (less than 500mg), and are low in sugar (less than 6g) too.