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FROM THE FREEZER // How do those dinners rate?

Do you cry when the office microwave goes on the fritz? Do you know the subtle differences between Lean Cuisine and Budget Gourmet, Weight Watchers and Healthy Choice?

Do you get upset when the grocery store is out of Stouffer's lasagne?

If you answer yes to any of the above, you've probably joined the ranks of Americans who regularly nuke their lunch or dinner . Frozen entrees, those one-dish frozen meals, accounted for an estimated $740-million in sales in 1995 in a $5.1-billion frozen-food industry.

According to the Frozen Food Executive, the one-dish entree category grew 3 percent last year, led by Oriental, poultry and Italian dishes.

Those of us who grew up with the Swanson TV dinner know just how far the frozen meal has come. For one thing, the meals are microwave-ready, unlike a few years ago when you had to pry out the frozen block of food and flip it into your own microwave container. These days, manufacturers are expanding their lines to be all things to all people: Next to the low-fat entrees, you'll find the new, "heartier" portions.

There's no doubt the changes have been for the better.

"They look a lot better than what we were served a half dozen years ago," says Denver dietitian Mary Lee Chin. "There are a lot more choices, and they're using more sophisticated ingredients."

On the other hand, she says, the marketing is slick. Note labels such as "Mexican-style rice" or "Oriental-style vegetables."

"What does that mean?" she says. "It's a euphemism for "it's kind of like, but not really.' "

But what many of us want to know is this: Are frozen entrees nutritious, or is eating one the equivalent of consuming three bags of cheese-flavored chips?

And what if you eat them every day for lunch, or twice a day?

"If you eat these meals every day, will they kill you? The answer is no," Chin says. "Will they give you outstanding nutrition and great health? Again, the answer is no, because when you get dependent on any one thing, you eliminate other things that should be part of a varied diet."

Chin says "frozen meals meet a definite need" in today's busy world, but she recommends serving them with a fruit, a whole wheat roll and carrot sticks _ and don't eat the same kind of frozen meal day in and day out.

We asked Chin to take a look at two dozen frozen entrees one might choose for lunch or dinner in several popular categories: lasagne, chicken and rice, chicken and pasta, and traditional, i.e., fried chicken. We compared the ones that make health claims or come under a healthy label, such as Healthy Choice or Lean Cuisine or Weight Watchers, against the ones that make no such claims: Marie Callendar's, Stouffer's, Banquet, Budget Gourmet and Swanson.

Chin looked at calories _ "people still need to beware of "calories in, calories out,' if they're watching their weight" _ cholesterol, sodium, fiber, fat, saturated fat, and percentage of calories from fat. Saturated fat is of chief concern because of the increasing research that shows fat has more impact when it comes to risks of heart disease.

Here are some of her tips on frozen meals:

Read the label. Don't assume that a name such as Chicken and Rice means the dish has more chicken than any other ingredient. "When you read the ingredient label, you (may) find it has more of the rice or pasta. From a nutritional point of view, that's a good thing, but if you think you're paying for the chicken, you might not be too pleased."

If you're a white meat chicken fan, choose the boxes that specifically say tenderloins or white meat, or choose the ones with the lower fat health claims. The latter are more likely to contain white meat. If the label just says "chicken," you could be getting either white or dark meat.

The boxes that made health claims were universally lower in fat and calories than the ones that made no such claims. However, if the box doesn't make a health claim, it will still be lower in calories than when no one talked about fat. It will not necessarily be lower in fat.

Fill in with fiber. All the dishes surveyed were pretty low in fiber. "It was rare to find one that would give you a third of your daily value of fiber, which you assume you should be getting from lunch." Research indicates fiber decreases risks of certain cancers, particularly colon cancer.

If you're buying the one- or two-dish frozen meals for the vegetables, think again. "You usually have to look pretty hard to find them," Chin says.

With the push on for people to get their five-a-day servings of fruits and vegetables, this is a major nutritional concern. "If you're eating these (frozen dishes) every day for lunch, you're not going to get all your fruits and veggies over the long term without a concerted effort to get them at some other point in the day."

If you're watching your sodium intake, look for dishes labeled "low sodium" and for those billed as "healthy." The ones with health claims meet guidelines, but in the traditional dishes, the sodium often is out of sight. One brand of lasagne meat sauce we tested had 1,050 mg. (The daily recommendation is no more than 2,400 mg.)

If you prefer traditional dinners _ those that make no health claims _ many still fall within acceptable limits. One of the Swanson dinners, for instance, had 9 grams of fat, about 24 percent of the calories from fat, well within a reasonable range, considering that these are a third of your daily requirements.

Check serving sizes. They're all over the board. Chicken and pasta ranged from 8{ ounces to 11 ounces. Lasagne ranged from 10 to 15 ounces, even though they're all called "single size." The Budget Gourmet at 9.4 ounces was laughable in size _ one skinny piece of lasagne in the middle of the box. Portion size isn't as important as percentage of calories from fat, particularly if you're going to eat a smaller portion and then grab a candy bar later because you're still hungry.

Marty Meitus is food editor of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.

Here are a couple of dishes to make and freeze in individual-size portions.

Shells with Chunky Meat Sauce

12 ounces large pasta shells

1 teaspoon olive oil

6 ounces ground turkey

6 ounces hot Italian turkey sausage, casings removed

1 medium onion, chopped

3 celery ribs, chopped

3 medium carrots, chopped

1 medium green bell pepper, chopped

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

\ cup tomato paste

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon dried oregano

{ teaspoon fennel seeds

{ teaspoon salt

\ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook shells 10 to 12 minutes, until tender but still firm. Drain into a colander.

Meanwhile, in a large non-stick skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add ground turkey and sausage. Cook, stirring to break up meat, four to five minutes, until no longer pink.

Add onion, celery, carrots and bell pepper. Cook three to five minutes, until just tender. Stir in crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, vinegar, oregano, fennel seeds, salt and black pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low.

Partly cover and simmer eight to 10 minutes, until sauce thickens slightly.

To serve, drain shells and place in a large bowl. Pour sauce over pasta, toss lightly to mix, and serve.

Serves 4. Nutritional information per serving: 552 calories, 11 gm. fat, 54 mg. cholesterol.

Source: Low Fat in Nothing Flat by Linda Rosensweig.

Turkey Lo Mein

2 teaspoons peanut oil

{ pound mushrooms, thinly sliced

1 red bell pepper, cut into strips

1 cup shredded cabbage

\ pound snow peas

{ cup bean sprouts

{ pound thinly sliced turkey breast, cut into strips

{ cup chicken broth

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 teaspoons cornstarch

{ teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder

2 cups cooked Chinese noodles or spaghetti

In a non-stick wok or large skillet, heat oil. Add mushrooms and bell pepper. Cook, stirring often, three to four minutes, until pepper is crisp-tender. Add cabbage, snow peas and bean sprouts; cook two minutes longer. Remove vegetables from skillet.

In a medium bowl, toss turkey strips with 3 tablespoons of broth, soy sauce, cornstarch and five-spice powder. Add to wok and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, three to four minutes, until turkey is no longer pink.

Return vegetables to skillet. Add remaining broth and noodles. Cook, tossing, one to two minutes, until sauce thickens slightly. Serve at once.

Serves 4. Nutritional information per serving: 232 calories, 4 gm. fat, 35 mg. cholesterol.

Source: Low Fat in Nothing Flat by Linda Rosensweig.

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