Fifty years ago, I graduated from high school in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. Nutrition was my chosen college major and under my high school yearbook photo it reads “future dietitian” (and, I was the scorer for the baseball team which may have led to my love of sports nutrition!) I was delighted to receive a scholarship from Stouffer’s, yes, the Stouffer’s of frozen food fame. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was a Mrs. Stouffer and she ran a restaurant in Cleveland in the 1920s. Her meals were uber-popular so much so that customers asked for take-out meals. In the front of the restaurant stood a freezer chest so customers could take home a frozen lasagna or meatloaf to feed their families.
So, I was delighted when Nestle (who purchased Stouffer’s in 1973) invited me to Solon, Ohio to learn more about frozen meals, from conception to freezer case, and join with their team of chefs to experience the creative process. In addition to working with the chefs to create spice blends used for developing global flavors and reducing sodium (like the one below), we toured the innovation center to see how recipes are developed and tested for scalability (i.e., taking a homemade lasagna recipe and scaling it to make thousands of them). The recipes created in the kitchen used the same ingredients you would use at home, they just use a whole lot more of them!
For many, “processed” foods are to be avoided, but let’s face it, we are not going back to the days when every meal was home cooked from scratch, nor should we. There has been a lot of talk of reducing what has been termed “ultra-processed” foods. A recent study found that when people ate a diet of ultra-processed foods (the foods that are calorie-dense, taste good, and gobbled up by many of us) an extra 500 calories a day was consumed. This was a small study, but well controlled, and it gives us some insight into one of the contributors to obesity (note, I said contributing, not causing).
Tamar Haspel, writing in the Washington Post , details the problem of ultra-processed foods and notes that maybe the answer from the food industry is “better processed food.” Innovations to reduce sodium, saturated fat, and increase veggies and whole grains are a good start but the catch is….we have got to buy the products. It made me think of Trix cereal; parents demanded natural colors instead of the neon-colored cereal nuggets, but when the change was made using natural fruit dyes, the colors were not as bright and guess what? Cereal sales dropped and parents wanted the original cereal back in the aisles!
So, bringing this back to my visit at Nestle, we talked a lot about their program to Balance Your Plate. The website and program shows how a busy family (or a single who doesn’t want to cook) can enjoy a frozen meal or a frozen pizza, but the entrée can be balanced with sides and salads to round out the meal. The portion size can be modest when other things on the plate…. a fresh fruit salad, a green salad, or grilled or steamed veggies, balance the meal, contributing to nutrient intakes and keeping you feeling full.
I also came away with a new respect for frozen foods; we tasted a few Lean Cuisine entrees, California Pizza Kitchen, Sweet Earth, and Wildscape products that were delicious and healthy. Pairing some of these products with a side of brown rice, a serving of chickpeas, or roasted broccoli or cauliflower makes an easy family meal.
So, next time it’s 5 pm and you have no dinner plans and are tempted to drive through a quick service or fast food restaurant, rethink your meal and try the frozen food aisle instead. Some data show that frozen meal eaters have better diet quality than those who rely on quick service meals.
During our visit, we were asked to bring the box of a favorite frozen meal and explain why we chose the item. I had to pay homage to Mrs. Stouffer and show a frozen lasagna box. I make a great spinach lasagna, but sometimes when I have a big family gathering, I get tired of cooking and on the last day of their visit I pop a frozen lasagna in the oven…. but I always balance the plate with huge salad and a slice of crusty bread!
Disclosure: My travel for the one-day trip to Solon, Ohio was paid for by Nestle, but I was not asked to or compensated to write this post.
Copyright © 2019 [Christine Rosenbloom]. All Rights Reserved.