If the '80s were the "light" decade, then the '90s are the "healthy" decade. Supermarkets exploded in the 1980s with light foods promising fewer calories. But now low-calorie isn't enough. Today, food has to be healthful as well.
Frozen dinners and entrees bearing names like Healthy Choice, Eating Right, Le Menu Healthy, Healthy Slices and for kids, Snoopy's Choice, are crowding freezer sections in supermarkets they vie for shoppers' attention.
Many of this new breed are about as low as they can go in calories, fat, sodium and cholesterol and still be palatable to most people.
But do the healthy labels really signal an improvement in convenience foods or are they just a marketing ploy?
Weight Watchers and Stouffer's Lean Cuisine frozen entrees, introduced in the early 1970s and the 1980s, were the innovators that brought calorie-controlled frozen entrees to supermarkets.
Back then, as long as calories were kept in check, little attention was paid to the percentage of calories that were from fat or to the sodium and cholesterol counts.
But, calorie-controlled foods have evolved through the years, offering more variety, catering to more sophisticated tastes and of late, bowing to consumer demands for more healthful foods.
In the last three years, Conagra's Healthy Choice and Snoopy's Choice dinners and entrees have been introduced, and both Weight Watchers and Stouffer's Lean Cuisine have been reformulated to reduce fat, cholesterol and sodium.
Most of the healthful group of entrees and dinners have nutrition profiles that look like this: 300 calories or fewer per serving; 30 percent or less calories from fat; no more than 600 milligrams of sodium and less than 70 milligrams of cholesterol.
To put the numbers into perspective, the American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium intake to 3,000 milligrams a day and cholesterol to 300 milligrams.
Susan Hanley, manager of product publicity for the Conagra Consumer Frozen Food Co., said the company's Healthy Choice line has been so successful it is expanding from frozen dinners, dairy desserts and an egg substitute to include soups, frozen pizza and pasta dishes.
Roz O'Hearn, director of public affairs for the Stouffer Foods Corporation, said a line of Lean Cuisine frozen desserts is being test-marketed and is doing "very, very well."
Despite the apparent success of these foods, most nutritionists voice reservations.
"I think anytime these convenience foods go toward a healthier content, we're going in the right direction," said Carol Hamersky, a dietitian and spokeswoman for the New Jersey Dietetic Association. But, she added, they are far from being nutritionally complete.
She said most are low in fiber and complex carbohydrates, and as a result, are not very filling.
"If you're going to have one, I would suggest adding a whole wheat roll or Italian bread, a tossed green salad and have fresh fruit for dessert," Ms. Hamersky said. If you use diet dressing, the whole meal would provide about 500 calories.
Though this new generation of convenience foods offers less fat, cholesterol and sodium, the cost, convenience and taste are not always ideal.
Layne Lieberman-Anapol, director of nutrition for King Kullen supermarkets in New York City and Long Island, expressed the same qualms as Ms. Hamersky about the nutritional value of these foods.
She also said that the frozen convenience foods, healthy or not, lack taste. "You can make something taste much better if you prepare it yourself than if you get it out of a box," she said. And the more satisfying the taste, she said, the less likely you are to crave something else later.
Because virtually all healthy frozen entrees and dinners cost $2 to $4 each, price is not much of a factor in choosing among them.
It is a factor, however, in choosing whether to use them at all. Ms. Hamersky said it is easy to buy enough fresh food to make two meals for the price of one frozen dinner.
Bean burritos, using flour tortillas, vegetarian refried beans and low-fat cheese, are one example of a quick, inexpensive, healthful meal.
Ms. Hamersky also suggested using frozen vegetables for a stir-fry, serving them over fresh pasta or rice.
The convenience of healthy frozen entrees and dinners, Ms. Hamersky said, can be a blessing and a curse. A blessing when you are truly pressed for time and would otherwise resort to fatty fast food, but a curse if the convenience sends you back to the kitchen, looking for more.
Because the meals are quick to prepare and eat, the whole process of mealtime is cut short, she said, and can make you feel as if something were missing.
Before long, she says, you're back in the kitchen looking for something extra to make the meal feel complete.