The main benefit of frozen convenience foods is… well, their convenience. But a stroll though the frozen food section of your supermarket is likely to leave you hungry for better options. With good reason. The freezer case is packed with dietary pitfalls that can sabotage your waistline and harm your health.

Pick up a frozen dinner and scan the long list of ingredients on the label. It’s likely to look more like a checklist for a chemistry class than the makings of a mouthwatering meal. Leave that frozen dinner in the case.

Even “natural” and organic convenience foods that have shorter ingredient lists and contain no additives and preservatives pose a dietary dilemma. Fortunately, there are plenty of pre-packaged foods that are not only convenient, they are healthy too.

In a minute, I’ll share my favorites with you. But first, you need to know what to watch out for. Here are five of the worst “red flags”:

• High-Glycemic Load. Wheat flour, rice flour, and other starchy ingredients are at the top of the ingredient list on most packaged foods. Scan down the labels, and you’ll find that many pack as much as 40 grams of carbohydrate per serving, with only a few grams of fiber. When you see that, this is your clue that you’re looking at a high-glycemic food that will spike your blood sugar, promote fat storage, and contribute to chronic disease.

• Empty Calories. At first glance, it may seem that a packaged food provides decent nutrition (e.g.,10 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat, and 5 grams of fiber per serving). But look closer at where those calories are coming from. Clean organic sources of protein? Healthy fats? Nutrient-rich veggies? Probably not. The bulk of ingredients in packaged foods are low quality and devoid of nutrients.

• “Filler” Proteins. I’ve warned you before about the many dangers of soy protein isolate, which range from anti-nutrient activity to hexane exposure. This “filler” appears in everything from pizza and pastas to burritos and baby foods. Why? Because it is inexpensive and versatile, taking on any shape or flavor the manufacturer chooses.

Don’t be duped into thinking soy protein isolate is a health food. It’s definitely not. And it is in almost every packaged ready-meal – including organic ones like Amy’s and Kashi.

• Unhealthy Fats. The label tells you that your ready-meal contains polyunsaturated fat – but it doesn’t tell you whether it is omega-6 fat or omega-3 fat. As you know from Jon Herring’s recent article “Improve Your Health in 2 Simple Steps,” omega-3 fats are critical to our health but severely lacking in the typical American diet. Omega-6 fats, on the other hand, are overly abundant and are one of the primary dietary causes of inflammation – the cornerstone of disease.

Unless the label specifically notes the omega-3 content of a packaged food, it’s safe to assume the polyunsaturated fat in it is primarily inflammation-promoting omega-6.

• Sodium. In order to get bland-tasting wheat flour, beans, and rice to taste good, manufacturers rely on salt. Too much sodium, coupled with not enough potassium  in the diet, is a recipe for high blood pressure that can lead to heart attack and stroke.

To make smart food choices, all it takes is an understanding of the factors that go into making food healthy (or unhealthy) and a little time spent on planning ahead. Here are four ways to keep yourself on track.

1. Stock Up on Superfood Staples

When you keep your fridge stocked with superfood staples, healthy and delicious meals are just minutes away. And, as I’ll show you, high quality doesn’t have to mean high dollar.

All of the items listed below are available at SuperTarget, Publix, and Whole Foods Market. You may also want to look into delivery services like Wellness Grocer (wellnessgrocer.com) and DeliciousOrganics (deliciousorganics.com).

  • Earthbound Farms Organic Salad Mixes ($3.99 for 10 oz.)
  • Organic Valley Omega-3 Eggs ($3.99 for a dozen)
  • Applegate Farms Organic Roasted Turkey Breast Slices ($5.93 for 7 oz.)
  • Archer Farms Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon ($7.99 for 1 lb.)
  • Archer Farms Wild Shrimp ($8.99 for 1 lb.)
  • Maverick Ranch Buffalo ($6.99 for 1 lb.)
  • Organic Dairy (feta cheese, cheddar cheese, sour cream, etc.)
  • Organic Condiments (olives, artichokes, salsa, extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, horseradish, mustard)
  • Raw Nuts & Seeds (almonds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, etc.)

2. Save Time and Fight Cravings

When hunger strikes, it’s tough to muster the willpower to avoid that grab-and-go meal. To ensure you’ll stick to your healthy eating during a hectic workweek, do a little prep ahead of time.

I suggest you do things like boil eggs, cook shrimp, and brown grass-fed beef on the weekend. (Keep in mind that seafood is best within two days of cooking it.) Store these pre-cooked items in glass containers in the fridge, and then you can…

3. Get Healthy in a Hurry!

Once you’ve stocked up on staples and have done a little prep work, you have everything you need to make fresh, nutrient-dense, low-glycemic meals in no time flat. To get you started, here are three meals for under $4 that take less than five minutes to prepare.

Mediterranean Chicken Salad

Time: 5 minutes

Approximate Cost: $3.50

Preparation: 3 slices Organic Valley Roasted Chicken Breast over 3 cups Earthbound Farms Mixed Greens topped with 1 oz. Organic Valley Feta Cheese, 6 organic grape tomatoes, 4 kalamata olives, and 1/2 Tbsp. balsamic vinaigrette

Asian Sesame Shrimp Salad

Time: 5 minutes

Approximate Cost: $3.00

Preparation: 4 ounces pre-cooked, thawed wild shrimp tossed with 1 Tbsp. Asian Sesame Vinaigrette over 2 cups Earthbound Farms Arugula topped with 1 oz. slivered almonds

Buffalo Burrito Wraps

Time: 5 minutes

Approximate Cost: $2.50

Preparation: 4 ounces cooked Maverick Ranch Buffalo with Simply Organics taco seasoning in 3 lettuce wraps topped with 1/4 cup organic salsa, 1 Tbsp. organic sour cream, and 1 oz. shredded organic cheddar cheese

4. Choose Better Bites in a Box

There is no substitute for fresh, unprocessed, whole foods. That said, the packaged foods below make the grade with high-quality “clean” protein, a low-glycemic index, and a better balance of omega-3s to omega-6s.

EcoFish Products (ecofish.com): This line of sustainable, omega-3-rich seafood is available at Target and Whole Foods. Naturally low-glycemic and “Seafood Safe” (low in mercury and PCBs).

  • Henry & Lisa’s Alaskan Salmon with Asian Ginger Marinade. ($10.16 for 9 oz.)
  • Henry & Lisa’s Wild South American Mahimahi with Caribbean Marinade. ($10.89 for 9 oz.)
  • Henry & Lisa’s Bay Scallops with Japanese Glaze. ($10.74 for 9 oz.)

WildCatch Products: Sustainable, wild seafood available at wildcatch.com and Whole Foods. (Sockeye Salmon Burgers – $3.49)

Organic Classics (organicclassics.com): An extensive line of organic ready-meals containing organic chicken and pastured meats. While most are heavy on the carbs, their Chicken Cacciatore ($5.69) and Honey BBQ Chicken ($5.69) are lower.

All of the above are delicious, fast, pocket-friendly… and truly healthy too. Enjoy!

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Kelley Herring

Kelley Herring is the Founder & CEO of Healing Gourmet – a multimedia company that educates on how foods promote health and protect against disease. As a young adult, Kelley battled a debilitating health condition that went misdiagnosed by multiple doctors for more than a year. Finding no help from “modern medicine”, she turned to her own knowledge of biochemistry and her passion for health research. She soon learned that her symptoms were related to nutrition and within weeks, she charted a course back to health with nothing more than simple lifestyle changes and the power of the plate. The lessons she learned spawned the creation of Healing Gourmet. Kelley is a firm believer in vigorous exercise, moderate sun exposure and delicious, healthy, home-cooked meals. She is also the creator of Healing Gourmet’s Personalized Nutrition Software and Editor-in-Chief of the Healing Gourmet book series published by McGraw-Hill including Eat to Fight Cancer, Eat to Beat Diabetes, Eat to Lower Cholesterol and Eat to Boost Fertility.

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