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Packaged diet meals rate pretty high -- with caveats

If your New Year's resolutions include losing weight, and if you choose to do so by incorporating packaged diet meals into your diet, you'll want to check out this assessment of their quality. Consumer Reports today released its roundup of frozen and shelf-stable diet meals, and the news was, for the most part, good for fans of such foods.

The key finding? These foods actually taste pretty good. Consumer Reports found a big difference in the foods' appeal since it last tested them, in 2004. Pastas, meats and vegetables were all more palatable than before, and the testers appreciated new, tasty pairings with beans and pastas. Brands that came up on top included Kashi, Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice.

But all is not perfect in the packaged diet-food world. For one thing, CR noticed that many items marketed as meals have far too few calories -- in many instances, 300 or fewer -- to serve as a decent lunch or dinner. In a 1,500-calorie-a-day diet, each of those meals should count for 400 or 500 calories. But the magazine points out that this offers a perfect opportunity for dieters to add lots of fresh fruit and vegetables to their plates to round out a meal and boost the calorie count in a healthful way.

Another downside: Many of the meals surveyed had more sodium than is desirable. A healthy person with no blood-pressure issues should consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day; people with concerns over high blood pressure should keep it below 1,500 mg daily. That's tricky when a meal delivers as much as 800 mg of sodium. (Consumer Reports likes 'em to log in at 600 mg or lower.)

Still, if your busy day has you choosing between takeout and a packaged meal in your freezer or pantry, you'll generally do better by picking the latter.

Better yet, with a little planning and advance shopping and preparation, you can fill your freezer with healthful foods to pull out when you're strapped for time. That way you can control the calories, portion sizes and sodium content. Here are some tips to get you started.

I know that I'm lucky -- and unusual -- in that my schedule allows me to cook dinner nearly from scratch most evenings. I don't have a lot of experience with frozen or packaged diet meals, and my resolutions this year don't include adding them to my life. How about you? Do you rely on such foods? How do you like them these days?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  January 5, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity  
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The article is spot-on when it says they are really snacks, not meals. Definitely require supplementing. But I have noticed they taste better than they used to.

Posted by: catymac | January 5, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

One of the best things about these frozen meals is that you don't have to think about them. You just pull them out of the freezer and heat them up. I found this helpful when, after packing lunches for three other people every morning, I couldn't face the thought of packing one for myself. Before long I realized that I could make my own frozen low calorie meals by freezing portions of the low calorie soups and stews and pastas that I cooked for dinner every night. When no one wants to face another bowl of minestrone, I put the rest in single serving containers in the freezer and eat them for lunch.

Posted by: mblackburn1 | January 5, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

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