I've loved Lean Cuisine ever since my very first bite of cheese ravioli inhaled during a playdate before I even know what the word diet meant. Ever since my first bite of lower-fat dairy and pasta bliss in the early 90s, I was hooked. Unlike many of the low-fat, lite and fat-free diet-inspired food products of the late 20th century, Lean Cuisine has stuck around, redesigning and reinventing itself to appeal to shoppers in the frozen aisle who have since learned to love organic frozen edamame and meat-free sausage breakfast patties.
On New Year's Day 2017, I, like many a social media user, was inundated with ads for the Lean Cuisine Challenge, a diet created in partnership with the app MyFitnessPal to encourage users to log their healthy meals and exercise plans for the first month of the year, i.e. the most resolutions-fueled month of the year. Though I did not participate in the challenge, when February rolled around, I wondered if I missed my shot at healthy eating via frozen pre-portioned plates of macaroni and cheese and ravioli in watery cream sauce. Was the Lean Cuisine Challenge on to something or just a marketing tactic to sell more relatively health conscious frozen meals?
"Lean Cuisine can help people on the right path toward meeting the dietary guidelines, as our entrees are made with them in mind," Marlene Schmidt, nutrition, health and wellness manager at Nestlé USA explained in an interview. A team of chefs, nutritionists and farmers work together to create the meals, aiming for optimum taste and nutrition when inventing a Lean Cuisine dish, of which there are currently over 100 varieties. "Each ingredient in Lean Cuisine has a purpose – whether it provides delicious flavor or nutrients, so you get a great tasting dish you can feel good about," Schmidt said.
Lean Cuisine launched in 1981, with the goal of meeting women's nutritional needs by "creating innovative, wholesome and flavorful dishes and snacks," Schmidt explained. As nutrition science has evolved, so has the brand, which has reduced sodium content and included more vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins like poultry and seafood in its meals. The brand has also expanded to include high-protein varieties, gluten-free options, dishes made with organic ingredients and meals with one cup of vegetables per serving to help meet the recommended daily intake.
Basic nutritional requirements
All Lean Cuisine main dishes must meet the following criteria: Contain less than 10g of total fat, less than 4.5g of saturated fat and less than 95mg of cholesterol per serving. Lean Cuisine has also reduced the sodium content in all its frozen dishes to 600 mg, which is about 25% of the recommended daily value. One could, in theory, eat Lean Cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and still be under the amount of sodium recommended by the Dietary Guidelines.
Before you start loading up on frozen pasta for three meals a day, know that Schmidt says many Lean Cuisine dishes, intended as main courses, are to be paired with with fruit, a side salad or low-fat dairy to meet the dietary guidelines.
Lean Cuisine's Vermont White Cheddar Mac & Cheese is one of the brand's top sellers, according to Schmidt, and via sharp Vermont cheddar cheese, organic pasta, milk and butter, the dish has 14 grams of protein and 260 calories. Another decadent-seeming dish, Lean Cuisine Alfredo Pasta with Chicken & Broccoli has 17 grams of protein and 280 calories. Nestlé has developed its own Balance Your Plate tool that guides consumers on how to best pair their frozen meal with fresh produce and other nutritious ingredients to optimize their daily nutrient intake.
Lean Cuisine won't make you lean on its own
Nutritionist Sarah Pflugradt, who is not associated with Lean Cuisine, also agreed that the frozen meals offer some nutritional benefits. "Because portion size is a major downfall for most people trying to eat healthy, Lean Cuisine portions your food out for you," Pflugradt said via meal. These portions can help you monitor how much you're eating and help calculate your calorie count. This benefit, however, may not be satisfying, at least at first, to those used to having a heaping plate of pasta for dinner with a small salad. "Many of the portion sizes are very small, which is why they can keep the calories low," Pflugradt said. "Turn this into a benefit by adding fruit, vegetables, or yogurt instead of chips or candy bars if still feeling hungry."
Registered Dietitian Kaleigh McMordie agrees the portions of a single Lean Cuisine are not enough to satisfy her, or other eaters, but adding a side of veggies or salad helps round out the meal and adds more fiber, not to mention a greater volume of food, to a meal.
"Because the meals are low in calories, if someone were to eat just a Lean Cuisine for their meals and keep snacking under control, they would probably lose weight," McMordie said. "The problem is that because of the lack of fiber and protein, it's hard to stay full on such a small portion. You may end up eating even more later because you are so hungry." Again, if you treat Lean Cuisine as an opportunity to eat something seemingly decadent and supplement with additional whole foods, you can potentially build a healthy diet based on Lean Cuisine.
Beyond the perk of encouraging self-control rather than gluttony, Pflugradt said fiber is a major concern for those eating Lean Cuisine, noting that many of the frozen meals provide only 3-5 grams of fiber. "Men and women under the age of 51 should be consuming 38 and 25 grams of fiber, respectively, each day," Pflugradt said. "Adding raw fruits and vegetables or a source of whole grain, such as a whole wheat roll or air popped popcorn can help boost fiber intake."
One unhealthy element of Lean Cuisine: The processed ingredients, additives and preservatives. McMordie pointed out that one meal label has the following ingredients: ... seasoned cooked beef product (beef, water, dextrose, soybean oil, modified cornstarch, potassium chloride, salt, potassium and sodium phosphates, caramel color, natural flavors) ...
"I wouldn't call a 'beef product' with all of those additives healthy," McMordie said. "But my main concern with these types of meals is the high sodium content and low overall nutritional value."
When buying any frozen meal, Pflugradt recommends reading the label to evaluate fiber content, and aiming to keep sodium under 500mg per serving. And, like with any processed food product, beware of added sugars, "The best way to police the sugar content is to look in the ingredients list," Pflugradt said. "The further down in the list you see sugar, the better." Even better: No added sugars, glucose, fructose or sweeteners at all.
Bottom line: To slim down with Lean Cuisine, you'll need to supplement.
"A healthy lifestyle means more than trends, fad diets or the latest workout," Schmidt said. "It's about balance; and Lean Cuisine aims to deliver flavorful, nutritious, chef-inspired dishes to nourish and support an overall health and wellness lifestyle approach."