When pandemic lockdowns hit last spring, frozen food sales skyrocketed. Need to replenish your stockpile for the winter? Think bowls.
Why? They’re full of the healthiest stuff in the freezer case. “Bowl” is often code for jazzed-up whole grains and vegetables plus beans, lentils, or chicken. Here are the best of the best.
Our Best Bites and Honorable Mentions have:
- Whole grains. Their grains are all or mostly whole. As for potatoes, only meals with nutrient-rich sweets made the cut. “Grains” made of riced vegetables? Of course!
- Sodium. Best Bites have 450 milligrams or less. Honorable Mentions can go up to 600 mg. That’s high, but it sure beats healthy-looking bowls that pile on the salt.
- Saturated fat. Our limit (3 grams) leaves little room for cheese, fatty red meat, or coconut, but plenty for nuts, seeds, and unsaturated plant oils.
- Added sugars. For most bowls, it’s a non-issue. But some have enough honey, sugar, or apple juice concentrate to supply more than 5 grams (about 1 teaspoon). That’s 10 percent of the Daily Value. In a savory meal, who needs it? So they missed a Best Bite or Honorable Mention.
The power of choice
Take your pick. That’s the selling point for Healthy Choice Power Bowls. Aside from a handful with too much sugar, the line is a solid source of yummy Honorable Mentions (more than a dozen!), plus one Best Bite.
Why so good? Most are jam-packed with vegetables, legumes, or chicken, plus whole grains like brown rice, red rice, red quinoa, and black barley. Some Power newbies:
- Grain-free. Three Honorable Mentions swap starch for riced (finely chopped) cauliflower. Nice! Try the Chicken Marinara or Spicy Black Bean & Chicken.
- Plant-based. Say hello to nutrient-packed staples like broccoli, kale, chard, and spinach, with protein from lentils, chickpeas, edamame, and pumpkin seeds. Our taste buds preferred those “Vegan” and “Vegetarian” bowls over the two new “Meatless” bowls made with Gardein Chick’n or Be’f.
Competitor Healthy Choice won plenty of Best Bites and Honorable Mentions. Why didn’t Lean Cuisine, or spinoff Life Cuisine?
Salt, mostly. Meals labeled “healthy” can have no more than 600milligrams of sodium. There’s no “lean” limit. Many Cuisines hit 800 to 900 mg. Ouch.
Some varieties do better. Korean Style Rice & Vegetables, Lean Cuisine’s sole Best Bite, turns up the flavor with shiitakes, miso, garlic, ginger, and gochujang. (Memo to headquarters: Why only one “plant powered” bowl?)
The Spice Market Chicken & Cauliflower (lentils, chicken, riced cauliflower), with 650 mg of sodium, just misses an Honorable Mention. But its 1½ cups of vegetables make it a standout. Many frozen entrées have no more than ½ cup.
Rabbit food redux
“Some people call veggies rabbit food,” says Fat Rabbit.
“Not me. My veggies are smashed, slashed, roasted, toasted, sauced, and tossed until they’re blasting with color and bursting with flavor.”
And rabbits don’t lie.
The vegetarian brand is breaking new ground. Take Honorable Mention Green Riot Verde (cauliflower, roasted peppers, roasted corn, beans, spinach, quinoa, pumpkin seeds). Or Best Bite Lemon Feta Frenzy (roasted zucchini, roasted sweet potatoes, broccoli, chickpeas, quinoa, yellow lentils). Delish.
The other varieties, which didn’t miss an Honorable Mention by much, are also worth checking out. So hop to it!
A protein pair
Whether they need more or not, shoppers are clamoring for protein. And whether it comes from meat or plants, plenty of brands deliver. Two of the best:
- Green Giant Protein Bowls. These meat-free meals lean on lentils, edamame, or black, cannellini, or kidney beans to tally up 12 to 14 grams of protein. But their hearty whole grains—like spelt or wheat berries—steal the show. Instead of taking about 30 minutes to cook from scratch, they emerge from your microwave in just six. Ta-da!
- CedarLane Protein Bowls. It’s not just that each CedarLane bowl has enough chicken to pump up the protein (to 19 to 22 grams). The chicken is also a crowd pleaser. It’s got a fresh-cooked texture that could fool anyone who didn’t see it come out of a box. And it’s raised with no antibiotics. Bravo!
Tahini, yogurt, and lemon or olives brighten up the Chicken Shawarma (an Honorable Mention) and the Chicken Souvlaki (a near miss). Mmm.
A top performer
How does the Luvo “Performance Kitchen” whip up more Best Bites than any other brand?
First, every bowl has no more than 500 milligrams of sodium. That’s almost unheard of. Luvo cuts some salt with potassium chloride, but also gets a lift from real ingredients like the shiitakes, pineapple, mango, ginger, and garlic in the Hawaiian Un-Fried Rice.
Second, the whole-grain-rich lineup looks to legumes, nuts, or chicken—raised without antibiotics—for its protein.
Health-wise and taste-wise, even the near misses impress. The Creamy Cauliflower Mac & Cheese (with cheesy butternut sauce) and the Thai-style Green Curry Chicken (with brown rice noodles) trounce the cheesy pastas and coconut curries you’ll find in competing brands. Gotta Luvo it!
Keep it simple
Power Bowls aren’t the whole ballgame from Healthy Choice. The company’s Simply line also brings winners to the table.
Simply upgrades the classics. That includes everything from lightened-up Meatball Marinara (with mostly whole-grain penne) and Grilled Chicken & Broccoli Alfredo (sans spaghetti) to Chicken Tikka Masala (with riced cauliflower).
More without meat
Going vegetarian or flexitarian? Meat-free standbys Kashi and Amy’s are a good place to start.
- Kashi Plant-Powered Bowls. Three of the five (vegan) bowls get Best Bites. Creamy Cashew Noodle or Black Bean Mango, anyone?
- Amy’s. Alas, most of Amy’s bowls are too salty or cheesy to get high marks. But don’t overlook her best stuff: the Brown Rice & Vegetables (which you can also get “Light in Sodium”), the Black-Eyed Peas and Veggies, the Light & Lean Quinoa & Black Beans, and the new Mexican Inspired Veggies & Black Beans, which comes covered with a creamy chipotle cashew sauce.
- Veg out. The healthiest diets have about 10 (half-cup) servings of fruits and vegetables a day. So slice up a veggie or toss a salad while the microwave is doing its thing.
- Don’t overcook. Start with the low end of the cook time. Once broccoli gets mushy, there’s no going back.
- Be patient. If the instructions say to let your microwaved bowl sit for a minute before digging in, do it. It helps hot spots dissipate and your food finish cooking.
- Mix it up. Don’t see the sauce? Check the bottom.
Make it yours. If your bowl needs a little something, try ground black pepper, a few drops of hot sauce, a squeeze of fresh lemon, or a dollop of plain Greek yogurt.