How healthy are Healthy Choices Frozen Meals?

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.

Sound familiar?

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.

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  • Cassie

    Or just make a double batch of something one week and freeze the leftovers for a “I don’t feel like cooking” day.

  • Rose

    You lost me at “ConAgra”…

  • Evita

    I love sharing information like this! Great job!

    Too many people grab quickly any food choice without thinking twice or reading what they are actually eating. Bottom line, better or worse, it is processed food.

    We can find easy ways to get back to natural food, and it does not have to be hard or time consuming. We just have to re-establish a healthy relationship with food and our eating choices and make both a priority.

  • Health for All

    The best food is the fresh food, not frozen. Moreover, fast food, it does not contain good nutrition, just a collection of synthetic food flavoring. Back to nature …. best choice.

    • beckaboo

      OK….natural is best….but as far as the girl with the migraines, its very possible the food she ate triggered them. The food didn’t make her barf, the migraine did!! Believe me I understand first hand I’ve had migraines for 17 years. Not everyone is gonna be effected by the food in the same way. If there not good for u in your opinion, or..if they cause u problems/illness then don’t eat them. The poor girl with the migraines just needs to learn what triggers them and stay away from that.
      1.Going from extreme heat to cold(or vice versa)
      3.sinus infection
      4.lack of caffeine (especially when addicted)
      5.if you are unhealthy
      6.extreme dieting
      And many more……

      • Audrey

        Most fresh food at you find at the grocery store is not necessarily “fresh”. Most nutritionists will tell you that frozen foods, which are usually selected at their peak and then frozen are healthier than their “fresh” counterparts in the produce section that have usually spent a week on a truck. I think buying frozen veggies, fruit, and meat are all fine (and a lot of meat has been frozen anyways before it gets to the store). The real problem with frozen foods are when packagers add extra ingredients, with preservatives and stuff. But I’ll eat frozen vegetables all day long.

  • The 50 Best Health Blogs

    Uh-oh, now you’ve gone and ruined my day.

    As a widower who hates to cook, I have recently been eating a lot of frozen microwaveable dinners, and the Healthy Choice Cafe Steamers are my favorites.

    I like the small size (fewer calories), the convenience of microwave preparation, and the taste isn’t all that bad. It sure beats stuff like Dinty Moore, with that distinctive Dinty Moore yuck taste.

    Spoil sport! I think I’ll call you “Food U Hate.”

    Seriously, though, good post, and great blog!

    Jim Purdy

    • Phil Laytio

      The Healthy Choice line of frozen dinners are just fine …this article does not disprove that. If you were to make a similar dinner at home, you’d be hard pressed to get a good taste without adding significantly higher fat and salt to make it taste as good. Fact is home cooked meals are generally worse than the frozen Healthy Choice entrees once you have added butter,fat,salt etc. There are also no more chemicals in it than a home cooked meal. “Natural Flavor” is just that…natural. For example natural chicken flavor is just a chicken that is cooked…reduced down and usually spray dried onto a natural “carrier” starch like wheat. Vanilla is a “natural flavor”. I have no idea why this author thinks you cannot enjoy “natural flavors”, they make your food more enjoyable and have no health downsides.

      • Shell Giacomini

        My brother made flavors. “Natural flavors” is just that a flavor made from chemicals that mimic nature. There is nothing natural about it!

        • Phil Laytio

          No, that isn’t correct. Your brother must be ignorant. I am in the business and we do not use chemicals to make natural flavors. We use for example, beef to make beef flavors or shrimp to make “shrimp” flavor or we can even use yeasts and other natural compounds to mimic the taste of beef, the yeast is neither chemically modified nor genetically modified. When we use non-naturally occurring substances we call them artificial. But really, try making this same dinner at home in the same portion size and it would be difficult to make it as healthy and still edible tasting.

  • kc

    ConAgra = GMOs. You claim that “none of the underlined additives is inherently bad for you” but they are all made from genetically modified crops. Those additives are bad for you in so many ways it is hard to enumerate them all. They have been linked with obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, food allergies, migraines, reflux, infertility, and are being studied as the main cause of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.

    Anything made by ConAgra will be a clever rearrangement of GMO corn to resemble real food. I would love to know the percentage of corn to actual food products in this frozen meal. The only ingredients that are actually corn-free would be the pepper, garlic, olive oil(maybe), broccoli, brown sugar(maybe) and onions. The chicken, tomatoes, pasta and cheese are all full of GMO corn and all of the other ingredients are made from GMO corn or soy. It is such an insult to our intelligence that it is marketed under the name “Healthy Choice”.

    • Torsh Johansen

      Genetically modified food doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s not inherently bad to modify a gene, for say, more growth, or to enhance it’s immune system that helps stave off infection, etc.

      You could make that it COULD in SOME instances — sure. But you have the burden of proof on that one to call it an insult to label it not inherently bad — sorry “Guest”. :)

      • DontTreadOnMe!

        You must work for Monsatan!

      • Robert in BC

        Why on earth is the burden of proof on us the poor consumers and not on a multi billion dollar business to pay for really independent testing and research. AND why not allow GMO labelling, because they know we would stay away from these products if we knew?
        I hope “Torsh” is well paid for his or her responses to people like “Guest” and I. Why else would he attack us?

  • Corey

    I was unaware you could assemble a tomato from corn… even GMO corn… can you do this? Survey says no… unless you’re some sort of food alchemist! Plus… Wheat pasta? Not usually derived from corn, but hey if all you can eat with your weird ‘im allergic to everything that even looks at a corn cob’ allergy… then whatever.

  • Lucywoodland

    My daughter just started a new job , very happy . First day , brought a home made lunch , fine . The second & third day , brought Healthy choice frozen meals : two days of migraine . Today , she can not even stand up without barfing , losing an important day of training …..Thank you ….

    • MichiganGuitar

      You are being ridiculous to blame all of this on Healthy Choice meals or any meal for that matter. Simplistic views like this are why people shouldn’t be able to post on the Internet. People will believe you. Moderation and portion size works. I would never suggest a diet of only processed food, but eating a HC meal for two days (which I just did by the way) and stating that it caused vomiting is utterly ridiculous. I know your post is old – but people deserve to know its b__s__t.

    • Gary

      Allergies are for the weak.

  • Trykauai

    get rid of gmo and people, u can help….do not buy it!!

  • Beedee

    Here’s the truth, based on science and human evolution, not the USDA food pyramid or nonsense from a celebrity doctor. The 33 grams of carbs in this meal with raise your blood sugar, which will cause an insulin spike. The modernized, dwarf wheat will help cause leaky gut syndrome, mess with your gut’s microbial life, and may trigger an autoimmune reaction in your body, The soy will introduce phytoestrogens into your system. The vegetable oil (in this case canola) will help push your omega 3 to 6 ratio in the wrong direction, making your cell membranes more brittle and less flexible, None of this even begins to address all the chemical additives. Processed food is nasty. Processed food with vegetable oil, soy, grains and sugar is poison. Eat real vegetables, meat, eggs, natural fats (have you ever tried to squeeze corn to get oil? Seriously.), berries and nuts. That’s what our ancestors ate, and it got us all the way to 2012. Not a frozen box in sight.

    • Josef

      Except human evolution is a complete lie and a farce.

  • Stacy

    omg …it all makes sense!!!

    My blood test results showed that i have pre-diabetes. I am 20 yrs old and I live a very active lifestyle 5-6 days of interval training not to mention all the other physical activities am involved in aerial arts, pole fitness etc. I eat pretty healthy ( at least i thought I was ) .. I stay away from food that is high in fat, sodium , sugar, the 9 yards!, I don’t drink anything but water, tea w/o sugar and Gatorade occasionally.. and when my doctor told me this, I was so angry . Frustrated is the word because i do everything that i can to be healthy … and I’ve been eating these dinners whenever I don’t have time to cook … which lately has been a lot . My doctors tells me eat less sugar ” wtf” I drink my tea without sugar! i do everything i can to stay away from sugar because I have acid re-flux issues. Than he say’s it could be genetic. That’s true but still wasn’t an excuse for me to understand where this came from .. so i’ve been doing my search and here it is ” wah la “! I knew it was too good to be true finally i found the problem and am not buying this stuff anymore. shm!

    • Torsh Johansen

      It’s probably genetic. Healthy Choice stuff varies in sugar, but there’s plenty that are relatively low in sugar. If you’re already pre-diabetes, being 20 years old, and you’ve always been relatively healthy (compared to the population) before you started what you point out is pretty good healthy eating & exercising a lot — it’s genetic. It ain’t your food — sorry. :)

    • Robert in BC

      I was shocked by the 24 gms of sugar and over 500 mg salt in one of these “healthy choice” meals. But then I noticed who really owns the brand, it’s “Con “Agra! Notice the word con in their name, now that is truth in advertising!
      Like Stacy I have been struggling with being borderline diabetic. My dad had diabetes by my age (63) and my hope is that by learning from his experience I can avoid it. But I only recently started looking more carefully at food labels and realized that though I try to avoid sugar and salt it is there in many of the foods I eat.
      I try to buy whole grains such as multi grain bread and brown rice and cook from scratch, which is I know is the best approach.
      “healthy Choices” is a terrible con IMHO!
      Yes. perhaps Stacy and I may have a genetic tendency towards diabetes, but eating meals like this will certainly not help us avoid it and the lie inherent in the name is outrageous IMO.
      maybe “A bit less awful food choices” would be a better name?

    • V Cogar

      I ride in a semi truck with my husband. I am a diabetic but diet controlled diabetic. We have a microwave and fridg in the truck so we can easily heat TV dinners. I was eating a Healthy Choice Dinner 4 out of 7 days a week. I went in for my 3 month blood sugar test and my Doctor told me I may have to start medication. I started watching what I ate and I was eating less than I had ever eat but my blood sugar kept rising. I finally read the label on the Healthy Choice meals and immediately stopped buying them. Now I eat more again and my blood sugar stays reasonable normal. THESE MEALS ARE NOT HEALTHY!!!!!

  • WadeCollins

    Hey a– who wrote this. So name the entrees that contain less than 500 mg in sodium. You took the chicken s–t way out by preaching advice with no real information.

  • Tom Murdoch

    we specialized in Refrigerated Trucking, Frozen Food
    , Frozen Food Distribution, Frozen Food Transportation, Blast
    Freezing and many more related services.

  • Phil Laytio

    The Healthy Choice line of frozen dinners are just fine …this article does not disprove that. If you were to make a similar dinner at home, you’d be hard pressed to get a good taste without adding significantly higher fat and salt to make it taste as good. Fact is home cooked meals are generally worse than the frozen Healthy Choice entrees once you have added butter,fat,salt etc. There are also no more chemicals in it than a home cooked meal. “Natural Flavor” is just that…natural. For example natural chicken flavor is just a chicken that is cooked…reduced down and usually spray dried onto a natural “carrier” starch like wheat or into an oil based carrier. Vanilla is a “natural flavor”. I have no idea why this author thinks you cannot enjoy “natural flavors”, they make your food more enjoyable and have no health downsides. I am a chef and use “natural flavors” all the time. I use a natural all purpose flavor enhancer powder made of mushroom powder, seaweed powder and anchovy powder, all high in natural glutamates which give “umami” flavor to the dish. With a wide assortment of dishes, you can eat Healthy Choice dinners and not worry about them. If you are diabetic, just choose the ones highest in protein and lowest in carbs.

  • Ketakee

    great post!!! i guess these type of food stuff should be one time indulgence and not more than that… i mean in a week once its fine but not daily. thanks for writing this..

  • larryboy

    I think that people are freaking out for Nothing. None of this was around when I was a kid and people are living to 80, 90 and over 100 so what is the problem? It cost a fortune to eat what we prepare and it is allot cheaper to eat frozen meals that have been prepared in indistrial quantities which lessens the price.