Battle the Bulge
As the summer weather lures us to daydreams of barbecues, bikinis and relaxing poolside, plans to lose a few layers of clothing can be stopped short by the desire to shed a few pounds first.

For many, this will mean turning to prepared-food diet plans -- not surprising, since we're bombarded daily by commercials from companies such as NutriSystem ( NTRI) and Zone Chefs touting their both healthy and tasty meals as an ideal way to lose weight.

It can be difficult to choose one that's worth the investment, though, so here's how they stack up.

Package Deal

Whether your aim is to look good this summer or to make a permanent move toward healthier eating, starting a diet plan means giving up or significantly cutting back on certain meats, sweets and snacks, or opting for healthier versions of old favorites.

NutriSystem, Jenny Craig and Kraft's ( KFT) South Beach Diet line offer low-fat versions of popular items such as beef stew, enchiladas and chicken fettuccine alfredo, and allow dieters to choose from a variety of packaged entrees and snacks.

NutriSystem sells its prepared meals through its Web site, Jenny Craig food can be ordered by phone or at local membership centers, and South Beach Diet foods are available in grocery stores. A daily menu consisting of three prepared meals and a snack or two costs $10 to $20 per day.

Some of the prepared entrees can be satisfying, but the replacement ingredients -- such as the low-fat and soy cheeses in Jenny Craig's cheese enchilada -- might give you the smell and taste of the real thing and leave your stomach feeling empty.

Thankfully, each plan recommends adding supplements of fruit, vegetables, milk and yogurt every day. Customers have some leeway in planning what they eat but are required to do additional grocery shopping.

Another downside to these diets is that some of these entrees, snacks and desserts contain processed ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup and chemical additives to make up for the taste and texture of cream, fat and sugar that are missing from the diet versions of old favorites.

And qualitywise, compared with authentic or fresh food, an offering such as NutriSystem's small serving of cheese tortellini is unfortunately most reminiscent of Chef Boyardee ravioli.

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