Given I trumpet healthy living, I might get mocked for what I’m about to say, but here goes: I’m a fan of frozen meals.
Frozen food offers convenience and saves time. It also can be more nutritious and more flavorful than, say, a sandwich I’d otherwise prepare with week-old radicchio and wilted spinach, because frozen fruits and vegetables are picked and frozen at peak ripeness. Of course, a decent baseline nutritional quotient depends on buying a healthy frozen entree: Amy’s Kitchen and Evol Foods are my go-to brands.
Still, any frozen dish can be upgraded, though you’ll do yourself a disservice (and wind up bloated and uncomfortable) if you choose a cheap frozen dish spiked with excessive sodium. Questionable ingredients and harmful additives don’t help either.
1. Invent a pizza-salad combo
I feel sheepish mentioning pizza because we all know we can take a basic pie and put toppings on it. Right? So do that—but also to pies that are themed: Heaps of arugula and spinach (hope it’s not wilted) sprinkled with high-quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar make margherita pizza more interesting. Same goes for (vegan or traditional) pepperoni pizza, plus it can use bonus micronutrients. Try your own pizza-greens combos, varying your oil and vinegar. Next, use the same salad strategy to elevate cheese-based frozen entrees such as goat-cheese ravioli, ricotta ravioli and cheese & kale bake: Cover them with greens.
2. Get smart with tomatoes, carrots and corn
Cooking tomatoes and carrots makes their micronutrients more bioavailable, and cooking corn bumps up its antioxidant power. Cooked tomatoes deliver lots of lycopene, while cooked carrots give you beta-carotene, which your body converts into vitamin A. Corn gives you carbs and protein. You’ll get fiber from all three ingredients.
So zap your frozen entree for about half its cooking time, and then add corn, sliced tomatoes or sliced carrots (skin on please, if it’s organic) as you see fit. If the carrots or corn are frozen, add them earlier. Carrots and corn enhance Asian dishes, such as cashew noodles and savory dumplings. Might seem like overkill, but I pile tomato onto Italian entrees. You do what works for you.
3. Make a belly-filling Mexican meal
Choose entrees such as frozen enchiladas or poblanos. Once heated, add chopped fresh tomatoes, cilantro, avocado and/or red onions. When I’m really pressed for time, I toss in whatever I have. When my schedule is looser, I create a salsa of those add-ons that includes a touch of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and a lot of lime, then generously scoop it on my dish. This keeps me full for hours, but if you want even more power, dollop Greek yogurt (full-fat is most delicious) on your plate in lieu of sour cream. The same strategy works great for frozen burritos, which are inexpensive, calorie-packed and abundant in the frozen-food aisle.
4. Squeeze authentic vitamin C into your meal
Fresh-squeezed lime enlivens Mexican, Asian and Indian entrees. Fresh-squeezed lemon brightens non-Italian pasta meals. I always have both citruses on hand, not only to improve the flavor of frozen dishes but also to easily and tastily consume vitamin C.
5. Use easy proteins
The frozen meals I eat are vegetarian, yet still have plenty of protein. But if I want more, I throw in tofu or frozen organic soybeans, which asks little of me, as in: no advanced cooking required. If you’re an animal protein eater, after you’ve heated your frozen dish, add cooked chicken or other cooked meat you have on hand, cover your dish, and let the protein steam in the heat for a couple minutes—a simple way to use leftovers.
6. Tap prepared-food manufacturers
Finally, let the frozen meal experts do the creative work for you. Amy’s Kitchen has lots of tips and recipes that use its products, including soups, which are a cinch to enhance—though perhaps less appealing during summer’s heat.