Want convenient nutrition? Embrace frozen veggies.

This site has often lamented that fresh veggies are costly and inconvenient compared to fast food. Matt Yglesias has the right response: snobbery aside, there’s nothing wrong with frozen.

If there’s one thing all the contributors to this site apparently have in common, it’s a conviction that America’s health problem is a matter not just of medical care but of diet.  We need, and in particular lower-income people need, to eat less fast food and more veggies (say Harold, James, Mark more than once, and I’m sure I’ve missed a lot; Mike appears to disagree on the margin, as would I, but I doubt would endorse the supersized American norm).

Since fresh veggies are expensive and hard to obtain in poor neighborhoods, lots of programs have focused on creative ways to solve problems of convenience and cost by bringing the consumers closer to the farmers: community gardens, produce trucks, unconventional farmers’ markets and so on.  Frankly, though, most of those things are small-scale, expertise-intensive, and hard to replicate. And none solves the problem that fresh produce spoils quickly if one doesn’t plan meals carefully (as many working people don’t, in fact can’t), thus multiplying the effective price of veggies actually eaten.

Matt Yglesias has the right solution: go frozen. Though I gag at his preferred meal of microwaved frozen Brussels sprouts with no seasoning (no surprise that he lost sixty pounds eating that!), his commenters suggest all kinds of better options, from sautés to roasts—and rightly point out that those who sneer at frozen veggies often haven’t tried them lately; they’re much better than they used to be.  I would add that even if such easy cooking is beyond people (though it shouldn’t be any harder than frying a piece of meat), Cholula can make even the boiled stuff taste good—and Americans eat more salsa than ketchup these days anyway.

Matt is frustrated that “California-based foodies have produced some kind of mass hallucination around the subject of fresh vegetables.”  I think that’s more right than he realizes (says this California-based foodie).  On this policy issue, like many others, those most affected are the poor, but those in a position to propose creative solutions are social entrepreneurs whose enthusiasms track the problem only tangentially.  Gardens and farmers’ markets make for great photos and warm the hearts of donors to whom green living is more vivid than, say, Type 2 Diabetes. But that doesn’t make them the easiest route to better diets for tens of millions of harassed urban people with no money and less time.  I’m not saying regular people can’t or shouldn’t appreciate fresh produce.  I’m saying that teaching them to do so involves huge up-front costs and a learning curve that we don’t, if we care about health, have time to climb.

The market—I don’t mean Hayek; I mean Ralph’s—knows something on this, and our public health education should adjust its nutritional advice to what it knows.  Frozen vegetables exist for a reason: they keep, they’re cheap, they’re easy to transport and to stack in a freezer, and stores can stock lots of different kinds at very low risk of having to throw them away.   I’m as grateful as anyone to Alice Waters for the quality of my restaurant meals.  But public health should be geared to chez Citizen, not Chez Panisse.   Let’s not make the Whole the enemy of the good.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

13 thoughts on “Want convenient nutrition? Embrace frozen veggies.”

  1. Excellent post. I'd love for us to one day all be interested in fresh vegetables, and for them to be cheap – but that ain't happening soon. In the meantime, flash frozen vegetables is an excellent – and low-cost alternative.

    From wisegeek: "The concept of flash freezing was developed by Clarence Birdseye, who wanted to find a way to eat fresh vegetables in the winter, and to move produce around without the risk of damage. He realized that freezing food at extremely cold temperatures well below the freezing point could be an excellent preservation method, and he turned the concept into a massive frozen foods company, inspiring other pioneers to do likewise."

  2. Two points. I wouldn't even tout frozen veggies as an "alternative in the meantime" or a "convenient second best". For a lot of actual, healthy, family-feeding meals (casseroles, soups) frozen is *exactly* as tasty as fresh. I'd happily serve frozen-pea soup to the yuppiest dinner guest you care to send over. (Recipe: boil frozen peas in chicken broth. Partially drain. Puree. Drizzle with olive oil & black pepper.)

    Second, there's a minor preference change worth pushing for: replace all *canned* veggies with frozen ones, please. Usually an exact substitute in your normal convenience-food cooking life, but without all the sodium.

  3. An often overlooked fact – frozen veggies are picked ripe (yes – vine ripened!) and may actually have MORE nutrients than fresh veggies that are picked green and matured on the way to market. In any case, they are certainly no less healthy or nutritious than fresh.

  4. Agree with everybody. It was great that Matt Yglesias brought this up. Saves time, usually saves money, reduces waste, often better nutrition, tastes good, and an excellent solution to the "food desert" problem. My family eats a lot of vegetables, and they are probably 75% frozen. It would be more except I eat a lot of salad, zucchini isn't a great frozen vegetable, and my supermarket doesn't have frozen bok choy. I also like to snack on (fresh) carrots.

    People also should not neglect frozen fruit. Not suitable for all applications, but if you are cooking it anyway (pies, in hot cereal, toppings) it has the same benefits.

  5. I think you missed the point on the economics of food. Frozen vegetables are not necessarily cheaper than fresh vegetables. After all, there are extra steps in processing, transportation and storage. Their advantage has been the availability of out of season items when fresh vegetables are not available. A frozen vegetable or fruit, for that matter, out of season may be cheaper than one imported from across the country or between hemispheres.

    Fresh vegetables in season are a better buy than frozen veggies most of the time. Where the poorer person has a disadvantage is that organic (hopefully pesticide and other potentially harmful residue free) are considerably more expensive than non organic ones so, except for rare occasions, a person on limited income cannot avail themselves of those items.

    I live in a relatively low income neighborhood. There are ethnic (Mexican in this southwestern location) groceries with truly inexpensive fresh seasonal vegetables almost always available at reasonable prices. There is usually no need or advantage whatsoever to buy and cook frozen foods unless one wants peas and corn midwinter or asparagus in mid-summer.

  6. When they're available (roughly July through about now here in Michigan) I avail myself of fresh local veggies because they taste the way they should. Maybe it was because of the weather we had here this year (hot and almost no rain in late July and August), but we had (still have) some truly amazing large juicy tomatoes and great sweet corn. Having said that, because my parents spent a lot of time in the summer freezing vegetables and canning tomatoes, I've never been afraid of the frozen variety, and I'll eat them during the time of year when they're the better alternative to what's available fresh. And I'm damned if I'll restrict my winter and spring diet to the traditional winter vegetables (potatoes, yams, winter squash, turnips, parsnips, etc.). They're all fine, but I enjoy beans, corn, peas, and broccoli too much to live without for nine months a year, and unless you're able to go to the store multiple times a week to ensure they're fresh, frozen can be the better alternative even in summer for some people.

    I've always viewed the current fetishization of fresh as a bit of snobbery by those lucky enough to live someplace (California) where the climate allows fresh local vegetables to be available year-round. For those of us in the rest of the country, frozen is actually pretty good, and is probably better than the fresh alternative for large parts of the year.

  7. Worth noting that even very fancy restaurants use frozen peas in preference to fresh. They're better, because freezing doesn't degrade peas much, and you can get them from pod to freeze within a few hours, rather than the day or two it takes to shlep them from the farm to the plate.

  8. On the other hand, the "community gardens, produce trucks, unconventional farmers’ markets and so on" actually get people interested in food, and people who are interested in food end up eating better. In all senses of the word "better" — and all senses are important, because eating is central to quality of life. All of which is to say, I agree with Mike O'Hare.

    I'm not totally opposed to frozen or canned vegetables, q.v. Jacques Pepin, The Short Cut Cook. Canned tomatoes are obviously better than anything you get fresh out of season, frozen spinach is perfectly fine for weeknight saag paneer, and yes, my toddler even gets frozen peas. But learning to adapt to the seasons isn't a bad thing! Even in winter there are kale, root veggies, cabbage, and winter squash, most of which have a shelf life approaching forever. (OTOH I do chide my more extremist "local food" friends here in Michigan: To be a rigid locavore in February you really have to like turnips.)

  9. Also: this is not universally true, but you can find frozen veggies in a freezer case in an inner city corner store, or for that matter in a small IGA that serves a low-income rural area. Not the variety you find in a supermarket, but you can find them in some small stores. The low volume of sales doesn't result in spoiled product the way fresh does, for the store owner.

  10. It's also important to remember (albeit obvious to more experienced cooks) that frozen vegetables do better in different dishes than fresh ones. And ones at odds with what you typically see displayed on the package or in the marketing. You're never going to get that crisp squeak from a frozen green bean. (On the other hand, frozen broccoli is almost never woody or bitter.) Luckily, most of the alternatives for frozen veg are just the kinds of things you want to cook in colder months.

    Education program, anyone?

  11. I like brussels sprouts. They have a very rich but subtle taste, although I acknowledge that that is not very informative.

    BLsh blah blah Assuming that we value health enough to value eating more vegetables and less fast-food, then encouraging and enabling people to eat vegetables is good is more important than encouraging and enabling people to eat fresh vegetables. Also important is enabling people to eat in broad ways that they appreciate and enjoy instead of insisting on the equality of the exotic, but that is a different issue which I only mention to be obnoxious.

  12. One point:

    Frozen brussel sprouts (and other winter vegies) aren't particularly cheaper than fresh brussel sprouts. That's why they are called winter vegies: stored correctly, they take a long time to spoil.

    That said, brussel sprouts are just plain nasty unless prepared correctly: shredded and sauteed, preferably in olive oil and wine. Bacon, garlic, shrooms, and appropriate spices (carraway or celery seed) help too.

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