When you're watching your weight and don't have much time to prepare meals, frozen entrees can be convenient ways to help you control calories.
But beware - they're not all necessarily good for you, says Health magazine Senior Food and Nutrition Editor Frances Largeman-Roth.
Some have more of certain things than you should have at a time, and some are so light you might be heading for the kitchen cabinet just a few hours after eating them.
Largeman-Roth offered guidelines on "The Early Show Saturday Edition" to help you navigate the frozen aisle and be diet- and taste-smart.
Generally, what should people look for when choosing a frozen entrée?
Look at the ingredient list: The first ingredient should be real food, whether it's chicken or pasta or vegetables. It shouldn't start out with stabilizers and fillers. Next, you want to make sure that you're not topping out over 500 calories. And you want to make sure that the sodium in it is no more than 30 percent of the daily recommendation of 2300 mg.
The meal should have at least three grams of fiber to help you feel full, and look for ones with about 10 grams of satiating protein. And now that there are so many tasty whole grain options, look for meals made with things like brown rice and whole wheat pasta. All of Kashi's meals are based on its seven whole grain mix.
What should people avoid when choosing a frozen entrée?
Avoid high fat entrees. A person on a 1500 calorie diet (for weight loss) is limited to about 50g of fat or less per day. Stick to entrees with less than 15g of total fat, and no more than 5g saturated fat. For sodium, make sure they have less than 700mg. And if you happen to choose one that has more fat, calories, or sodium, it's not a total disaster - just make sure you balance out the rest of your day with lots of low fat, low sodium choices.
I tried to fill out what the meals I'm pointing to might be low in (fiber, protein, etc) with some add-ons, while also balancing them out, taste-wise. So, a spicy entrée gets paired with a refreshing orange, and the mac and cheese gets colorful carrots, since there are no vegetables in the dish.
And, since we're all supposed to be getting our five-to-nine servings of fruit and veggies each day, pairing a piece of fruit or veggie with your meal is an easy way to do that and boost fiber. Also, carrots are great for weight loss, but it's thanks to the fiber - not the beta carotene.
And remember: Never buy anything when the major ingredient consists of stabilizers and fillers.
Best entrees, based on taste and nutrition content:
Kashi Red Curry Chicken
Topping out at only 300 calories, this flavorful option gives you a great bang for your buck at the grocery store. In order to make you feel more full for a longer period of time, add a small whole-wheat pita (74 calories, 1g fat) to round out the dish.
Entrée alone: 300 calories, 9g fat (3.5 sat fat), 470mg sodium, 5g fiber, 18g protein
Total meal: 374 calories, 10g fat
TIP: Do not exceed 700mg of Sodium per meal
Lean Cuisine Macaroni and Cheese
The creamy texture and rich cheese sauce make this Lean Cuisine "Simple Favorite" entrée a great substitute for real comfort food if you're watching what you eat. For the amount of food you're given, the dish is somewhat filling, but don't forget to add fresh veggies! Fresh carrots will give you a nice boost of vitamin A and E as well as beta-carotene, which can be helpful in weight loss.
Entrée alone: 290 calories, 7g fat (4g sat fat), 630mg sodium, 1g fiber, 15g protein
Total meal: 410 calories, 10g fat
Tip: Look For meals with 15 grams of total fat or less
Amy's Indian Vegetable Korma
The most intense flavor of the bunch, this meal packs organic vegetables in a curry sauce flavored with coconut milk, organic raisins, cashews, slivered almonds, and organic tomatoes. Combine these intense flavors with hearty golden basmati rice and a dal consisting of a mixture of six delicately spiced lentils and beans and you have a nice little meal. Add one navel orange (70 calories, 0g fat) to balance out the spices-the citrus is a nice complement.
Entrée alone: 310 calories, 12g fat (3.5g sat fat), 680mg sodium, 7g fiber, 9g protein
Total meal: 380 calories, 12g fat
Tip: Make sure each meal has on average 10 grams of Protein
Spa Cuisine from Lean Cuisine Apple Cranberry Chicken
Available in freezer sections nationwide beginning in March, this dish is a great representation of the new frozen entrees on the market. The Apple Cranberry Chicken combines grilled chicken in an apple reduction with cranberries, French cut green beans and whole-wheat pilaf. The dish itself is colorful, tasty, and has 6g fiber - one of the highest counts we've seen. Be sure to add a medium apple to round out the meal, which has about 95 calories.
Entrée alone: 300 calories, 4g fat (1.5g sat), 500mg sodium, 6g fiber, 14g protein
Total meal: 395 calories, 4g fat
Tip: Buy meals with at least 3 grams of fiber.