How to Find the Best Bowls
Frozen Meals are Getting a Makeover
Bowls are in. Panera. Chipotle. Sweetgreen. Those and countless other eateries have jumped on the meal-in-a-bowl wagon. So why not the freezer case?
The good news: a typical bowl is mostly plants. Many offer whole grains, vegetables, beans or another protein, sauce, and maybe nuts or seeds. That often means more fiber, potassium, and unsaturated fat—and less refined grain, salt, and cheese—than typical frozen entrées.
What to Look for in the Best Bowls
Bowls can be packed with lentils, greens, and other healthy ingredients. (We have tips to build your own here.)
The best bowls are mostly plants.
But some products offer the same old greasy, salty, white-flour mac ‘n cheese, baked ziti, or pad Thai. Here’s what to look for:
Whole grains: grains that are at least mostly whole. (It’s rare to find 100% whole-grain pasta, for example, in the freezer case.) And skip the white potatoes. Nutrient-rich sweet potatoes? You bet.
Sodium: 450 milligrams or less per bowl is ideal. But few brands get that low, so up to 600 mg is reasonable. (That’s generous for a typical 300-calorie bowl.)
Saturated fat: 3 grams or less. That cuts out most cheese, fatty red meats, and coconut curries. (A few grams more isn’t a big deal if the fat comes from nuts, seeds, or healthy oils.)
Some brands with plenty of bowls that fit the bill: Luvo, Mann’s, Kashi, and Healthy Choice.
Luvin’ that Luvo
When was the last time you picked up a frozen entrée full of spiced chickpeas and black lentils? Or green garbanzos, cabbage, and kale? Or black rice, pineapple, mango, and cashews? Luvo sets the bar high for nutritious and tasty bowls. Sky high.
Every Luvo Bowl or (vegan) Planted Power Bowl has 450 milligrams of sodium or less. That alone deserves a medal. It’s not just that many Luvos use potassium chloride, a salt substitute that helps cut sodium and boost potassium. It’s also their flavorful herbs, spices, and more.
We’re talking cilantro, ginger, and mango powder in the Chana Masala, pineapple, mango, and tamari in the Hawaiian Un-Fried Rice, tomatillos, poblanos, and jalapeños in the Quinoa & Veggie Enchilada Verde, and shiitakes, raisins, and sumac in the So Cal Kale & Bean. Yum.
Another plus: Luvo tallies the fruits and vegetables on the front of each box (typically ½ cup in the regular Bowls and 1 cup in the Planted Power Bowls).
“A delicious warm meal with fresh veggies & sauce.” That’s Mann’s Nourish Bowls.
Each fresh (not frozen) bowl starts with a base of shredded or chopped sturdy vegetables—like kale, kohlrabi, cabbage, broccoli, or butternut squash—plus beans or brown rice or sweet potatoes. Just microwave, add sauce, and eat!
The upside: you get more vegetables (about 1¼ to 2 cups, by our measure) and less grain (about ⅓ cup of brown rice, if any) than usual.
And Mann’s is creative. The Cauli-Rice Curry swaps cauliflower for white rice and green chickpeas for peas. The Spicy Thai subs kohlrabi spirals for rice noodles.
But they’re not perfect. The protein (6 to 11 grams) can be low, and the sodium (290 to 800 mg) and saturated fat (1 to 7 grams) can be high. The good news: you can use half the sauce packet to lower the sodium and sat fat.
Why We’re Still Keen on Kashi
“Eating well is easier with our entree bowls, which use wholesome plant-powered ingredients, mighty grains, super seeds and yummy roasted veggies,” says Kashi’s website.
Indeed. Kashi’s reliable line of mostly whole-grain (vegan) bowls offers oldies but goodies like Black Bean Mango (black beans, roasted veggies, whole-grain pilaf) and Mayan Harvest Bake (amaranth polenta, plantains, roasted sweet potato, pumpkin seeds). But Kashi adds welcome newbies like Pesto Chickpea Quinoa (arugula-kale pesto, chickpeas, quinoa, red rice) and Creamy Cashew Noodle (mostly-buckwheat noodles, edamame, cashew butter sauce).
Too bad the Coconut Lemongrass Rice has enough artery-clogging coconut cream to deliver half a day’s saturated fat.
Healthy Choice: What’s New and Improved
Healthy Choice is shaping up. Its Simply Steamers have “nothing artificial,” shorter ingredient lists, and mostly whole grains.
And we’re not just talking chicken plus broccoli. Check out the Chana Masala (chickpeas, cauliflower, brown rice), Mediterranean-Style Lentil Bowl (lentils, chickpeas, peppers, spinach), and Unwrapped Burrito Bowl (black beans, pinto beans, brown rice). All are high in fiber (7 to 12 grams) and won high marks from our tasters.
So did Healthy Choice’s more adventurous Power Bowls—like the Adobo Chicken Bowl over brown and red rice, red quinoa, and black barley with pinto beans, leafy greens, fire-roasted corn, and a guajillo chili sauce. The Power Bowls deliver the “bold flavors” they promise.
On the downside, most of Healthy Choice’s Café Steamers have white rice, white pasta, or white potatoes. You can do better. What’s more, a handful of varieties—like the Sweet & Spicy Orange Zest Chicken, Sweet & Sour Chicken, and Barbecue Seasoned Steak with Potatoes—hit 12 to 18 grams (about 3 to 4 teaspoons) of added sugar. You call that healthy?
How to Turn a Bowl into a Meal
Unless you’re looking for a light lunch, many of these (or other) bowls need an assist.
Protein: Some plant-based bowls hover at the low end (6 to 11 grams) of protein. Solution: add tofu (10 grams per ½ cup) or beans (6 to 10 grams per ½ cup), or have low-fat greek yogurt (10 to 15 grams per 5 oz.) for dessert.
Vegetables: To help reach 11 (½-cup) servings of fruits and vegetables a day, serve your bowl over a bed of baby spinach or kale. Or add a salad or a side of sautéed vegetables.
The information in this post first appeared in Nutrition Action Healthletter in April 2018.
Photos: LUVO (featured bowl), Jennifer Urban/CSPI (Mann’s), Lindsay Moyer/CSPI (all others).
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