In a perfect world, families would sit down every night to a balanced meal with fresh vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. But here in the real world, stressed parents struggle to get dinner on the table while balancing jobs and the family checkbook. It’s no wonder they sometimes turn to heat-and-eat convenience foods.
Nutritional experts say that’s no reason to feel guilty. The new generation of natural and organic kid-friendly frozen entrees include wholesome ingredients and eschew the worst offenders, like trans fats, MSG and preservatives. Plus, many manufacturers offer options free of common allergens such as gluten, eggs, dairy, meat and peanuts. Amy’s Kitchen’s Baked Ziti, for example, is made with organic rice noodles and dairy-free “cheeze.”
Even more, frozen-food manufacturers now offer a package deal. The boxes of many natural brands are adorned with fun colors, mazes and characters that appeal to the younger set, and the packaging is free of controversial bisphenol-A and often made with post-consumer materials that appeal to many moms and dads.
Customers may hope to cover all nutritional bases in one frozen meal, but that’s not realistic, according to Boulder, Colo.-based dietitian Judy Converse, RD, owner of Nutrition Care for Children. “To expect that out of one frozen meal is silly,” she says. “You need to balance it out over the course of a day. If you’re able to purchase something that’s organic, made with whole foods, not loaded with additives or funky fat, you’re 4 for 4.”
As for what to avoid, Lisa Lanzano, also a Boulder-based dietitian and owner of Essential Nutrition counseling service, sees sugar as a major no-no. “What I notice most are all the added sugars and artificial colors to make [mainstream frozen entrees] more appealing to kids,” she says, adding that both ingredients may be linked to hyperactivity in kids. And artificial sweeteners may be a worse bet than sugar. “They can make taste buds crave more sweetness,” Lanzano says. “Our kids get used to everything tasting so sweet, it’s no wonder they hate vegetables.”
New York-based Happy Baby offers frozen entrees for toddlers as well as infants. “Our goal was to create meals that had a real nutritional balance—fiber, protein, good carbohydrates—and make them fun, in a format kids would really enjoy and moms would appreciate because we sneak in a lot of hidden vegetables,” says founder and CEO Shazi Visram. “We pride ourselves on making home-style foods in small batches. We give out our recipes if you want to make the same product, but the whole point is convenience.”
Laurie Budgar is a Longmont, Colo.-based freelance writer and editor.
Amy’s Kitchen Mexican Quesadilla
Dr. Praeger’s Sweet Potato Littles