Frozen dinners set a seemingly impossible standard for themselves. We expect fresh, nutritious meals that taste as good as their freshly prepared counterparts, and we don’t want to wait too long for the microwave to ring. Gratefully, there are a few frozen dinners that not only meet this standard, but are usually more reasonably priced than their competitors.
At the top of the list is Budget Gourmet and its diet counterpart, Lean Gourmet. If you have avoided these frozen entrées because they weren’t name-brand enough for you, then it’s time to chuck image in favor of taste. The flavor is excellent, and these telltale blue boxes eschew the excessive packaging that other frozen dinners seem to insist on. Also missing are the common annoyances, such as little plastic packages of stuff to sprinkle or pour. Simply follow the directions and a few minutes later, you have a good dinner that isn’t off the charts on sodium or fat content.
For many folks, it isn’t just that a frozen dinner is fast, but portable, too. If you’re trying to eat and work at the same time, try Hot Pockets or their dietary counterpart, Lean Pockets. The lean pockets particularly have less salt and fat than many other frozen entrées, and the flavors are perfect for anyone who has tired of the traditional chicken-and-vegetables diet fare. Both lines now have special “Subs” flavors, too, with specially baked bread that manages to provide a good imitation of sandwich shop bread.
Since most frozen dinners are made just for one (or for a party of 30), couples wishing for that same kind of simplicity often end up buying two dinners. Safeway, however, has come out with frozen dinners for two that are perfectly proportioned and low in salt and fat, through its Eating Right brand of frozen dinners a deux. Again, if you are under the impression that every frozen entrée must begin with the word “Stouffer’s” or “Banquet,” you’ll be in for a sweet surprise. Entrées like (a very good) meat loaf or cashew chicken provide a great dinner at a reasonable price on the nights neither one of you wants to cook.
Of course, no frozen dinner lexicon is complete without mentioning the heavy hitters. Stouffer’s has a great line of really large lasagnas and other main dishes, which, if you are having a lot of people over and aren’t cooking-inclined, are a great way to cheat. (I once told guests that a Stouffer’s frozen lasagna was “my mother’s cherished recipe,” and actually got away with it until someone spotted the box!) Stouffer’s smaller line, however, has come under intense competition, and it doesn’t quite seem up to the task. Their Lean Cuisine is still a great classic meal, however, they tend not to pay too much attention to salt intake. As for their newer Corner Bistro line – well, you’d better have the Corner Gym nearby. A recent entrée of Monterey Chicken had loads of saturated fat and salt, along with a whopping 500 calories. When combined with a nearly 11-minute cooking time and a tray curved upward to look bigger (while keeping the portion holding food the same size), it doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Add the hefty price tag of Corner Bistro entrées, and it seems like a frozen entrée that’s best frozen out of your dietary lineup.
Healthy Choice, with their ubiquitous green boxes, also dominate many frozen food sections. While they are very careful about dietary considerations, their pricing can fluctuate, ranging from reasonable to unruly. As the competition has heated up, however, more and more manufacturers are also being health-conscious, and you may find less expensive dinners with comparable nutritional value and/or minimal fat and salt.
Of course, there are now almost as many bags as boxes among the frozen foods, with “skillet” dinners of varying types now offered, too. After trying several of the brands, two words seem most pertinent: avoid them. Overall, these types of dinners seemed to involve more work for less food at a higher price than their boxed-to-microwave counterparts. Too fattening, too expensive, too little food, and too much work makes this writer wonder how long this offshoot of the frozen food family will really stay on the market.