IN A PINCH. 8 Jul 2010



Hi Lauren! 

I really like to cook. I have a proper chef's knife, a great micro-plane, and I am accumulating a respectable pantry of spices and world cuisine staples. I try to make delicious and nutritious stuff every night - there are nights when I am just too tired, or come home from work late and have no energy to cook.  I went to Trader Joe's the other day and found a treasure of frozen meals. The Poblano pepper stuffed with cheese and covered in a zesty tomato sauce is awesome!  I also tried the Butter Chicken - outside of being served with white rice, the dish packs protein and great spices. You can actually taste the cumin. The packages list good quality ingredients. 

Anyway - I don't opt for frozen meal dishes very often, or ever until now. Since you know so much about nutrition and getting proper nutrition, I was wondering what your take was on these frozen, convenient meals. Are they a good way to eat occasionally? If so, do you have any particular favorites that deliver good nutrition? I feel like they would be a good alternative for lunch at work - sometimes I can't bring lunch from home, and I HATE buying lunch from fast food places on campus. Thanks a bunch for your advice!  RJ


Well, I get a lot of emails and questions about frozen/prepared meals; Kashi/Trader Joe's frozen meals, in particular. Are they good/bad for you?  I hate to break it to you guys, but they are so NOT good for you.  

Ladies, fresh is always best-stay away from frozen meals if possible and stick to the outside edges of your supermarket. In fact, if you talk to Banana Tree/Lithe Escape, Liz Solms about frozen meals, you won't ever buy one again!  I know how busy we all are and it's tough on some nights to come home exhausted, famished and then "cook."  It's often the very last thing that we want to do. 

 I decided to pick up the Trader Joe's Poblano Pepper yesterday because I wanted to give it a review and it was coldly seducing me with the words, "fire roasted poblano, stuffed with cheese and topped with salsa" on the packaging. Sounds like a yummy, Mexi-Cali meal!  I have to be honest, it was decent, but not good enough to try again. Why?  

 Trader Joe's white labels all of their frozen/packaged foods-they are "cheaper eats," which is so great for the wallet but not for the body. These poblano's are probably Amy's or Kashi brand. There's nothing too good here nutritionally.  Besides the fact that it's not healthy or good for you, the super high sodium content, high saturated fat content and preservatives add major bloat to the female fat zones. I mean, Big Time bloat. If you cut sodium from your diet, you will be amazed at how different you feel and look around the hips, thighs, butt and belly. It's just incredible.  

So, I would say this is not really great (even in a pinch). Fresh is best! For all of you Penn girls, check the prepared meals over there at Metropolitan Bakery or Picnic in University City (you can also find Picnic items at Metro).  You'll know that you're getting fresh, local, organic ingredients and some real nutrition after a long day. 

Want more info about good, locally prepared foods that you can grab in a pinch?  Philly has so many great options!  Look out next week in Philly Mag's Be Well Philly about my top 10 healthy spots to eat in Philly when I'm on the run. 

Trader Joe's nutrition info via Fatsecret.  Images via Urban Pantry, Sheeatsbears & MichaelPollan.


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thanks for the review, Lauren. I used Picnic for some catering here at Penn. Anne Marie the owner is amazing, great produce and everything is really fresh. Gia pronto and Metropolitan do have some good eats also on this end. The fruit truck seems to be okay also, the one by 34th and Walnut.

This is great information! Very educational. Even the "health" brands present these meals as a great way to get nutrition and save on time. No more frozen meals, ever!

I find that Grocery at 13th and Chestnut, some stuff at DiBruno's (thai tofu salad, vegan carrot ginger soup) and the food bar at Essene have the best quick, nutritious prepared options. Out West, it gets a bit tougher, but I like Hummus for their veggie platter and they are open late!

I don't like buying lunch from fast food spots, either, so I do recommend spending a few hours over the weekend preparing grain salads and cooking things that you can freeze yourself, so that you have lunch or dinner for a week. Frozen food is only okay if you cooked it, because you're not dumping on the salt or adding any preservative gibberish.

And finally, two of my no-brainer options if we don't have time to cook or feel lazy: a bowl of Kashi with almond milk and some chopped nuts or fruit OR a slice of Metro spelt bread slathered with mashed avocado, some lemon juice and sea salt.

The issue is front of packaging nutritional labeling. Right now, the FDA does not regulate claims- so X brand can claim on the front of the package that it's healthy for you but its not actually linked to anything real. Whereas, the back of the package has the real nutritional statements.

Marion Nestle- awesome food movement academic and leader- write a bunch about this trend.

My favorite fresh food takeout:

-Bacchus on 23rd and Spruce (lots of delish quinoa salad, couscous, and salads...although it's tough to stick to the healthy stuff because the cookies seduce you!)
-Fork Etc. on Market and 3rd (i never knew how good beets and feta are together!)

Great feedback, ladies! Fork, etc. is one of my fav's too!

i live next door to Bacchus, literally. so funny that someone mentioned their cookies (and blondie brownies), -lead to downfall. you have to walk straight past them to the healthy prepared foods in the back!!!!

I'm so glad you addressed this question. I have wondered the same thing passing by the frozen aisle at TJs. Thanks for all the great and educational info! I always have some individually wrapped fish fillets frozen in the freezer. They defrost so quickly and always make for a very quick, minimal labor, and healthy meal.

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