Incongruous supermarket merchandising, Seattle, 08/04/06 Rule #1: Count Calories: You want a frozen meal that will satisfy for a realistic – not too much and not too little – calorie load. For example, a 210-calorie frozen entree has fewer calories than a cup of fruited yogurt – that’s a snack, not a meal. No one’s diet should drop below 1,200 calories a day, which means at least 400 calories per meal. For main-meal frozen items – from pancakes and burritos to entrees – aim for about 100 to 150 calories less than 1/3 your total day’s calorie allotment. That leaves room for extras, such as milk, vegetables, or a salad.

Rule #2: Limit Total Fat: Basically, avoid any frozen item that is breaded, pre-fried, in a crust, or prepared in sauce, or is a sweet-and-creamy item, such as the frozen cakes, pies, cookie dough, and regular ice cream. Look for frozen foods that contain no more than 3 grams of fat for every 100 calories (example – a 350-calorie entree should have no more than 10.5 grams of fat). Beware: Claims of “fat-free” or “low net carbs” on any frozen item doesn’t necessarily mean low-calorie.

Rule #3 Cut Saturated & Trans Fat: Choose frozen items with no more than 1 gram of saturated/trans fat for every 100 calories – less is better. Watch out for trans-free frozen items promoted as heart-healthy, since many of these are still high in saturated fat. Beware: Don’t be fooled by size. Many frozen foods squeeze ladles of saturated fat into those itty bitty plastic trays. Stouffers Macaroni and Cheese, for example, is dripping with 14 grams of saturated fat or 70% of  your day’s total allowance. That’s frozen fat, not frozen food!

Rule #4 Stay Sodium Savvy: One of the biggest challenges when choosing frozen foods is not going overboard on sodium. Some frozen entrees supply more than 75% of your entire day’s maximum allotment for sodium of 2,400 milligrams. Choose items with no more than 200 milligrams of sodium for every 100 calories (i.e., 600 milligrams sodium for a 300-calorie slice of pizza). If you select a food that is too high, such as Trader Joe’s Cooked Shrimp that has 480 milligrams of sodium in an 80-calorie serving, then cut back on sodium elsewhere (unless you have high blood pressure, then all choices should be low-sodium).

Rule #5 Think Fiber & Protein: Choose frozen foods that contribute 2+ grams of fiber per serving toward your daily goal of at least 25 grams. A general rule for main-course lunch and dinner frozen entrees is that they  provide at least 15 grams of protein, which shouldn’t be a problem, except for some vegetarian entrees where protein typically drops to between 8 and 15 grams.

Rule #6 Shop Beyond the Case: You can’t live on freezer food alone. Plan to venture into the produce and dairy aisles to round-out any meal. Even these items needn’t take much time to prepare. For example, add a glass of nonfat milk or a side of thawed berries to compliment your frozen breakfast, a piece of fruit, frozen fruit juice, or handful of baby carrots to accompany your frozen pizza at lunch, and an instant salad made from bagged lettuce along with a microwaved sweet potato or steamed frozen vegetables to accompany a frozen entree.

Mike Baehr via Compfight