Let’s face it: TV dinners don’t exactly conjure up the image of a healthy meal. For decades, the sectionalized paper trays of processed meat, frozen veggies (both likely covered in a thick, mystery sauce) and, if you’re lucky, a bite-sized brownie went largely unchanged. Ones that were considered “healthy” typically were so low in calories that you’d be hungry again soon after eating them.
While the rest of the frozen food section got a healthy makeover in recent years—cauliflower pizza! broccoli rice!—the microwaveable dinner category went largely unchanged. The stigma, it seemed, was too great for healthy-minded eaters to overcome. That is, until a new graduating class of heat-and-eat entrees made their way onto the market and into consumer’s fridges and freezers.
But why renovate the heat-and-eat dinner category in the first place? Mike Wystrach, the CEO of Freshly, a healthy refrigerated meal delivery service, says that people need quick, healthy options now more than ever. He says Freshly was founded to solve a problem he himself was having: “I wanted to eat better, knew how to do it, but didn’t have the time or desire to cook,” Wystrach explains. TV dinners were a natural solution—but required a big health overhaul.
The 2.0 TV dinners look more like something you’d get from a trendy fast casual restaurant than something you’d find in a freezer case, yet the technology of flash freezing (which preserves food and nutrients while still fresh) hasn’t changed at all. “It’s funny, it’s more of a new technique than a new technology,” says Matt Davis, co-founder of newly launched Mosaic Foods, a line of plant-based heat-and-eat delivery meals. (Meals include the Tuscan Pesto Bowl, with butternut squash, white beans, and Brussels sprouts, and the Greek Jackfruit Bowl, with roasted red peppers, chickpeas, and seasoned jackfruit.)
What has changed, Davis says, is that vegetables are now the star of the meal (rather than a sad afterthought) and aren’t coated in a preservative-filled sauce. Mosaic and Freshly in particular are now creating meals focused on protein, vegetables, and fiber to make them more filling and satisfying. For example, the above-mentioned Tuscan Pesto Bowl from Mosaic has 24 grams of protein and 19 grams of fiber; Freshly’s Teriyaki Salmon Cakes meal has 21 grams of protein and five grams of fiber. (Compare that to a more traditional brand’s frozen vegetarian entree, which offers only six grams of protein and four grams of fiber.)
Kettlebell Kitchen—a pre-made meal company popular in the fitness community, especially among Crossfitters—even creates meals based on specific macronutrient targets. “Our team then comes up with delicious and creative concepts prioritizing seasonal vegetables, herbs, and spices,” explains co-founder Joe Lopez Gallego. “We utilize ingredients that fit each of our meal plan guidelines, which ensures that we’re creating dishes that will help our customers meet their goals.” Sample meals include barbecue chicken with roasted zucchini and Thai basil chicken. There are also options for ketogenic and vegetarian dieters, and some selections are even Whole30-approved.
These companies then use innovative spins on existing technology to ensure their food lasts until people are ready to eat it. Mosaic co-founder Sam McIntire says they asked chefs for tips. “With our pesto, for example, we learned that if you blanch fresh basil, it will help the pesto keep that vibrant green color instead of turning it into a dark color,” Davis says. (Note: These meals still can have higher sodium levels. Mosaic’s Tuscan Pesto Bowl has 790 milligrams—more than what you’ll find in some more traditional healthy freezer fare.)
Meanwhile, Kettlebell Kitchen eschews the freezer altogether. “Because our meals are never frozen, we take our production and cooking processes very seriously. All of our production happens in refrigeration—from cutting vegetables to making meatballs,” Gallego explains. “Our food is cooked using extremely precise methods, with controlled temperature and moisture levels depending on the product.” He explains that their oven systems can control moisture down to less than 1 percent, and it goes directly from oven to the chiller, where they’re rapidly cooled to 35 degrees Fahrenheit to preserve freshness. Customers store the meals once they arrive youin the fridge, and then microwave or heat them in the oven when ready to eat.
Mosiac, Freshly, and Kettlebell Kitchen are all delivery services; you won’t find them in the grocery store. (Kettlebell Kitchen, it should be noted, is sold at several gyms and boutique fitness studios.) For Mosaic, Davis says it’s because getting past the healthy eater’s perception of the freezer aisle is a challenge. “54 percent of grocery shoppers who spend over $100 don’t even walk the frozen food aisles,” Davis says. “It’s a tough market to get into.” It’s why many of the new companies like the ones highlighted here are testing the market by being direct-to-consumer. Still, Davis is hopeful that the landscape will continue to change, pointing to French healthy frozen food brand, Picard, which is sold in grocery stores in France and is widely loved.
For healthy chefs who still want heat-and-eat convenience with a little more room for creativity, there’s Hungryroot, a line of plant-based staples such as shaved Brussels sprouts, sweet potato ribbons, and cauliflower rice. “People want to eat healthy, but the grocery and cooking experience is broken, and unhealthy often beats healthy because it’s more convenient,” founder and CEO Ben McKean says. Hence his line of veggie-forward building blocks where you can craft a build-your-own nutrient-dense meal in mere minutes. For example, you can throw together their Thai peanut Sauce, butternut squash noodles, and braised lemongrass tofu nuggets and you’ve got a takeout-inspired dinner. Nothing is frozen; everything is kept in the refrigerator until you’re ready to eat.
However, it’s important to note that the premium ingredients from these companies come with a cost. While the standard TV dinner costs around $4 (depending on the brand and where you buy), Mosaic costs $9.99 per meal on the eight-meals-per-week plan, Freshly costs $9.99 per meal on the six-meals-per-week plan, and Kettlebell Kitchen costs $11.95 per meal on the six-meal-per-week plan. (They also offer à la carte options for $11.95 per meal.) HungryRoot, on the other hand, costs $69 for 11 items per week—which translates into $6.27 per item.
If you choose to check out the offerings in your own grocery store instead, there are a few frozen brands like Dr. Praeger’s and Sweet Earth that are minimally processed and emphasize healthy, whole ingredients. When deciding what to add to your cart, Keri Glassman, RD, (who works with frozen food brand Kidfresh) has a few tips. “Look at the ingredients list and pick meals made with whole food ingredients and not chemicals,” she says. “Many frozen TV dinners are high in sodium, so be aware of that.” She adds to keep an eye out for polysorbate 80, an emulsifier often used in foods, that is linked to causing inflammation (though it is generally regarded as safe).
Companies like the ones highlighted here are proving that chemicals aren’t needed to preserve healthy food—or make them tasty. PSA to food companies: People actually like vegetables if you make them interesting, no thick mystery sauce necessary.