Sheryl Lozicki is a registered dietitian and the director of Nutrition and Wellness at Mercy Health Saint Mary's. School is back in swing, days are shorter and after school and work activities are ramping up. The frozen food aisle may be beckoning your name and there’s no reason to steer clear of these convenient dinner options by following these guidelines to help you make healthier decisions.

According to research by Mintel, frozen food sales saw a one percent increase in 2015 after three years of steady decline. Regardless, 72% of the American population consumes them and they are a billion dollar industry. More than half of adults who eat prepared meals do so because of convenience, they’re faster than cooking from scratch and they’re useful to have on hand when you don’t feel like cooking. It’s important for consumers to read the nutrition panel when choosing, paying special attention to the calories, saturated fat, sodium, fiber and ingredient label in order to identify define better-for-you brands.

Many companies are converting to recognizable ingredients, more herbs, less sodium, and swapping out high-fructose corn syrup for agave, molasses and cane juice and right-sizing portions. Just remember that while the nutritional profiles might improve it doesn’t mean they are any less processed.

Top Tips

1. Choose meals that range in calories from 350-600. For those that are lower than this, try adding a side salad, additional brown rice, fruit cup or vegetable serving or you’ll be headed back to the refrigerator or snack drawer shortly after dinner.

2. Choose foods with less than 10% saturated fat or less than 4-7 grams per serving and no trans fat. Both of these increase your risk for heart disease.

3. This one is hard but look for meals that contain less than 600 mg of sodium per serving. Sodium content is easily the single worst dietary offender when it comes to frozen food. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends we limit our sodium intake to less than 2300 milligrams per day. Limiting your prepared entrees to 600 milligrams or less safely buffers the sodium content from your other meals and snacks.

4. Does the entrée contain 14-21 grams of protein and more than 5 grams of fiber? Protein and fiber helps to keep you fuller longer, stabilizes blood sugar and protein helps to rebuild cells.

5. Read the ingredient label. Do you recognize most of the words?

TV dinners have come a long way since I was a kid. Rubber peas served up with fried chicken, a side of mac-n-cheese and a brownie with cherry pie filling in the middle was probably a family fav but nothing I could condone nowadays.

It’s important for viewers to have the skills to make the best choices possible. While I’d love everyone to sit down to the family dinner table to a scratch made dinner, I know it’s not always possible.