It’s not surprising that more than 80% of Americans have altered their eating habits during the COVID-19 pandemic, cooking more at home and dining out less. This is good news, as dietitians know that home-cooked meals tend to not only be more petite in portions and lower in sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars but also contain more vegetables. From a nutrition standpoint, this enhanced enthusiasm for cooking is one of the few positive aspects of this nasty pandemic.
Clients definitely need to be consuming more veggies, as recent research from the USDA reminds us that American adults are eating a measly 1.5 cups of vegetables per day, which is a cup short of the amount they should be eating. With more than 70% of Americans currently overweight, adding adequate amounts of low–energy density vegetables at meals will cut calories by displacing higher-calorie foods, such as meat and grains, on the plate. We know that vegetables are kind to the waistline; they’re full of water, so they’ll fill clients up before they’ll fill them out, adding to meal satisfaction with fewer calories.
Unfortunately, while the public initially embraced home cooking at the start of the pandemic, COVID cooking fatigue has set in—big time. Recent research shows that after only a mere four months into quarantine, consumers’ desire to minimize daily food preparation has increased by 50%. It appears that the novel, but laborious task of scratch cooking is being scratched by consumers as the pandemic marches on. Consumers seem to want to get the heck out of the kitchen as fast as possible.
This is a wonderful opportunity for RDs to educate the public about the convenience and health benefits of frozen meals to keep them in the kitchen rather than dialing for takeout. Frozen meals have experienced a healthful makeover over the years and are flooding the frozen food aisles of the supermarket with a variety of better-for-you quick meal options. “The frozen meal aisle has come a long way from the macaroni and cheese TV dinners of yesteryear,” says Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, RDN, a dietitian based in Jersey City, New Jersey, who frequently writes about food trends. “Many of today’s frozen meals are lower in sodium, higher in fiber, and made with healthful ingredients such as whole grains, beans, and more veggies. They also represent a range of diverse cuisines.” Say goodbye to the Salisbury steak dinner and hello to the bean and mango Cubano bowl as a hot meal item in the supermarket freezer case.
According to the American Frozen Food Institute, sales of frozen meals have been climbing since 2016, but the pandemic has skyrocketed them to double-digit increases since Americans have been forced to hunker down. As RDs, we should be spreading the word to clients and patients that stockpiling these more healthful frozen meals in the freezer can allow them to take a break from preparing a meal or two during the week but still feel good putting a healthful and tasty dinner on the table.
Dietitians also may want to give them tips on how to make these frozen meals even more veggie-friendly by suggesting they microwave a package of frozen veggies as a side dish. Since frozen veggies typically are in the same supermarket aisle as the meals, they don’t even need to travel far to fill their shopping cart with a healthful dinner with very little prep.
— Joan Salge Blake, EdD, MS, RDN, LDN, FAND, is a nutrition professor at Boston University and the host of the hit health and wellness podcast SpotOn!, available on all major podcast platforms, including Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher.