Embrace Inner Frozen Foodie

Photos by Scott Holstein
Embrace Your Inner Frozen FoodieOur team of experienced microwave-lovin’ chefs (otherwise known as “lazy-in-the-kitchen” nukers) takes 15 frozen dinners for a spin By Lilly Rockwell

It’s time for a shocking food-writer confession: I’m not a cook. Not even close. When I was assigned my first food-writing article earlier this year, my husband laughed. Out loud. Then he proceeded to help me pick out recipes and do half of the cooking for me.

In rare moments when, in a fit of boredom, I catch a few moments of Rachael Ray explaining how to sauté vegetables, or flip through the glossy, mouth-watering recipes in magazines such as Bon Appétit, I think something along the lines of: “Are you kidding me? It takes how long? I am way too lazy for that.”

I’m ashamed to admit, in this era of buy-local and renewed interest in healthy, home-cooked meals, that about half of my meals consist of microwaveable frozen dinners. To be fair, I’m the baker in the family, and I believe the 30 minutes that would be spent on a ho-hum dinner is better served concocting a delicious, decadent chocolate dessert.

Instead of bowing to the pressures of the food snobs who make Bon Appétit and the always-perky Rachael Ray, I say it’s time for an article for the frozen foodies out there.

Come out of hiding — I know it’s not just me! The frozen-foods section now takes up a good one-third of my local grocery store. The variety is mind-boggling, and new dishes are concocted almost weekly. You can purchase myriad choices of Italian staples, such as pizzas, pastas and lasagna. American classics, such as steak, are well represented. And in recent years, the frozen-foods industry has expanded to include vegetarian and organic fare, spearheaded by the Amy’s brand, which offers enchiladas, pastas and Indian food.

There are other ethnic options as well, from Hunan Stir Fry with Beef to the Indian-inspired Chicken Tikka Marsala. Not to mention the enormous popularity of low-calorie frozen meals, with brands such as Weight Watchers Smart Ones and Lean Cuisine, which regularly offer perfectly portioned meals under 300 calories for those watching their waistlines.

Americans have responded to this cornucopia of choices by embracing frozen foods. The American Fast Food Institute says annual sales for the frozen-food industry were $41.3 billion in 2004 and reached $51.8 billion in 2008. That number is projected to rise to $64.8 billion by 2013. And there are more than 100 frozen food manufacturers.

It’s safe to say that frozen foods are here to stay. While Bon Appétit editors may scoff, it’s tough to beat the ease and convenience of popping a meal into a microwave oven and having a full meal ready just four minutes later.

But as the variety grows, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of brands and meal options available. There’s butternut squash ravioli, apple cranberry chicken, country fried chicken, shrimp scampi, and toasted Philly cheese steak. Many brands offer variations on the same dish, leaving frozen foodies scratching our heads trying to figure out which one is the best.

I’ve had frozen-food meals that were as tasty as restaurant meals and ones so inedible that they immediately ended up in the trash can. Not to worry, frozen foodies, I have a solution.

I devised an unscientific frozen-foods taste test to help determine which meals to spring for. I took several common dishes made by three different brands and had three “judges” — Daniel Vitter, Tisha Keller and Christie Orros ­— taste-test them and grade them on a scale of 1 to 10.

The results weren’t entirely surprising. Stouffer’s routinely scored well, although its offerings typically have higher calories than many of its rivals. Lean Cuisine never won a category, and the Weight Watchers Smart Ones brand seesawed between high and low scores.

Here are the full results of this taste test. May this help my fellow frozen foodies stand proud in the freezer aisle and select with confidence.


The Contenders

Our judges tested three different brands in each meal category.

Weight Watchers Smart Ones Lasagna Florentine
Stouffer’s Five Cheese Lasagna
Lean Cuisine Five Cheese Lasagna

Macaroni and Cheese
Amy’s Macaroni and Cheese
Weight Watchers Smart Ones Macaroni and Cheese
Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese

Chicken Fettucine
Stouffer’s Chicken Fettucine with Broccoli
Weight Watchers Smart Ones Chicken Fettucine
Lean Cuisine Chicken Fettucine

Chicken Teriyaki
Marie Callender’s Chicken Teriyaki
Weight Watchers Smart Ones Chicken Teriyaki
Lean Cuisine Chicken Teriyaki Stir Fry

Chocolate Cake
Sara Lee Chocolate Crème Cake
Weight Watchers Smart Ones Double Fudge Cake
Amy’s Chocolate Cake



Macaroni and Cheese

Best … Amy’s Macaroni and Cheese
It’s hard to beat Amy’s on sheer variety. It is the only brand to offer soy macaroni and cheese, and all of its meals are organic. (The macaroni and cheese that won our judges’ hearts was made from traditional cheese, however.) The judges said the cheese Amy’s used was authentic. Keller said it was “just like Mama makes” and praised its thick and creamy sauce. Average score: 8.3

Worst … Weight Watchers Smart Ones Macaroni and Cheese
Macaroni and cheese is one of the most competitive areas for frozen-food makers, and unfortunately, our judges thought the Smart Ones brand fell short. Orros thought it tasted “fake” but said the sauce was “creamy and velvety.” Other judges felt that Smart Ones at least rose to the level of Kraft and would do in a pinch. Average score: 5



Chicken Fettuccine

Best … Stouffer’s Chicken Fettuccine with Broccoli
Our judges were blown away by Stouffer’s Chicken Fettuccine with Broccoli. Keller said both the sauce and broccoli tasted fresh and the meal was restaurant-quality. “I was scraping the plate,” she wrote. Orros praised the big chunks of chicken and the homemade flavor. Vitter also loved it, saying the sauce was rich and creamy. Average score: 9.6

Worst … Weight Watchers Smart Ones Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo
Again, the Smart Ones brand (pictured) was ranked lowest. Our judges felt the portion size was unfulfilling, the chicken soft and the sauce thin and watery. Our difficult-to-disappoint judge Vitter thought the meal was excellent, however, although he ranked it lowest out of three. Average score: 5



Lasagna Florentine

Best … Lasagna Florentine by Weight Watchers Smart Ones
The judges praised Smart Ones’ Lasagna Florentine for its great flavor. Vitter said the zucchini and carrots had a nice, snappy crunch; Keller loved the chunky vegetables, although they could have done with less garlic. There was some criticism that the meal didn’t cook evenly (possibly the fault of the microwave operator — me). Average score: 7.6

Worst … Lean Cuisine Classic Five Cheese Lasagna
Sadly, there may be such a thing as too much ricotta. Lean Cuisine’s Classic Five Cheese Lasagna (pictured) did not sit well with the judges. It was critiqued as too salty, too cheesy, and one judge found the sauce too thin and brown. Vitter, our outlier, called it “excellent.” Average score: 5


Chicken Teriyaki

Best … Weight Watchers Smart Ones Teriyaki Chicken and Vegetables
Another win for Smart Ones (pictured). Vitter called the teriyaki flavor “sweet” and praised its texture. Orros said the dish was “surprisingly pleasant.” Keller loved the colorful and crisp vegetables but thought the dish was a bit too salty. Overall, the judges were delighted with this option and happy to try a non-Italian meal for a change. Average score: 7.3

Worst … Lean Cuisine’s Chicken Teriyaki
Lean Cuisine’s Chicken Teriyaki was the worst of the bunch, our judges said. They found it to be bland and tasteless, with too much emphasis on salt. Orros did give a nod to the crispy snap peas, but that was as high as the praise got. Average score: 3 



Chocolate Cake

Best … Sara Lee’s Chocolate Crème Pie
It’s tough to measure up to respected dessert champion Sara Lee. Our judges said the other two desserts weren’t even in the same league. To be fair, Sara Lee’s dessert (pictured) had higher calories than its rivals in this category. Orros called it “wonderful,” saying the crust was a perfect texture and the different types of chocolate blended well. Our judges said it had the right consistency and balance between crunchy and creamy. Average score: 9.3

Worst … Weight Watchers Smart Ones Double Fudge Cake
It was a close call against another contender, Amy’s chocolate cake, but our judges felt the Smart Ones’ Double Fudge Cake was the worst. Keller said the fudge looks like “gelatin,” and the cake is “moist but not exceptional.” Orros said the chocolate sauce was mediocre at best and the texture spongelike. “Awful,” Orros wrote. Average score: 5.3


Frozen-Food Safety

There is increasing concern about the safety of the plastic containers that many frozen foods are placed in. A chemical substance known as bisphenol-a, or BPA, can be found in the plastic food trays used in microwaveable frozen meals. This chemical is typically used in hard, unbreakable plastics known as polycarbonates. Some studies have shown that when exposed to heat, these plastics can release BPA onto food or liquids.

In one study done by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2008, small amounts of BPA were found in foods and liquids that were heated in microwave ovens, even in products advertised as “microwave safe.” It turns out, the Journal-Sentinel explained, that “microwave safe” is not an official designation regulated by the government.

This is a concern, because studies indicate that when BPA was administered to animals it caused damage. BPA behaves like a hormone and mimics estrogen in the body. In particular, this can cause cellular damage in babies and children. One particular area of concern is changes observed in animals’ mammary glands after they were administered BPA. The changes indicated an increased vulnerability to breast cancer later in life.

The National Toxicology Program and an expert panel expressed “some concern” for the exposure of BPA in particular to a fetus, infants or children. But the program says there is insufficient data from studies on humans to reach a conclusion on hazards of BPA.

Industry groups say there have been no studies that prove BPA is dangerous to humans and maintain that the levels found leaching from plastic on to food or liquids is extremely low. If you are concerned about potential risks from BPA, however, take these steps:

Pay attention to the recycling numbers stamped on the bottom of the plastic trays your food comes in. The Journal-Sentinel reports finding BPA in products stamped with numbers 1, 2 and 5. Other news media articles urge avoiding plastics stamped with 7.

Instead of microwaving your food in the plastic tray, remove it and place on a dinner plate. If you have a plastic device to cover the dish, make sure it doesn’t touch the food.

Be cautious about microwaving instructions when removing food from a plastic tray. Times may vary. Be sure to cook your food thoroughly. Many meat products have not been pre-cooked and must be heated. Take care to stir and rotate halfway through cooking time.