Thursday, September 30, 2010

Frozen meals - from passion to suicide (actually vice versa)

While I certainly don’t subscribe to the idea being mocked here, I do find this clip from The Onion about a frozen food company printing suicide prevention tips on its packaging as hilarious as Jim Gaffigan’s “Hot Pockets” bit.  It seems as though it’s a necessary addition to a blog about frozen meals. 

If the embedded video doesn't work in your browser (I've found that it doesn't in some), click the link below the embed to watch from The Onion's site.
However, I am of the opinion that it is not so much loneliness that causes the consumption of frozen meals, but the need for speed.  Many times I find that I don’t even have the time for the 4 ½ minutes in the microwave required by the product.  Many times, while facing an impending 1 p.m. meeting, I’ve postponed my microwave lunch until 3 p.m. or later, sometimes even ultimately eating while standing up.  More on this later…

The favorite brand in the office

In our office, it seems as though Lean Cuisine is the single-serving frozen meal brand of choice.  That being the case, I can’t believe it has taken me until now – my fourth entry – to write about a Lean Cuisine product.  Today’s meal is the Lean Cuisine Ginger Garlic Stir Fry with Chicken. 

I don’t believe I’d ever tried this product before.  Primarily, that’s because of the broccoli.  Broccoli and I generally don’t get along, though we were able to be civil to each other on this particular Tuesday.  The other vegetables and the chicken were also good – moderately flavorful and of a good consistency – and the ginger sauce was a bit more unique than some of the other Asian-inspired sauces found in frozen meals.  The noodles, however, left a little something to be desired.  I am not well-versed in Asian noodles, but these seemed rather thick and spaghetti-like and not very Asian by my taste.  They are whole wheat, though, and that nutrition should be worth extra points. 

When I went online to find the official company information about this product, I was amused to discover that the Lean Cuisine website gives consumers the opportunity to review products.  I clicked on the link to read the customer reviews.  Well!  APPARENTLY, this product used to have brown rice in place of the whole wheat noodles and let me tell you, there are some consumers out there who are quite unhappy about the change!  I can’t help but repost some of my most favorite comments on the topic:

I kept looking for my fav dish and I just realized today that the rice was replaced with noodles!! Whyyyyy? It tastes weird with the noodles.

Sad indeed to have a great product with the rice and flavor then to change it. Guess you lost two customers completely. Seems the powers that be don't listen. 

I'm so happy i'm not the only one here who thinks the rice version was way better. Please Lean Cuisine change it back if you love ur customers! Honestly the rice one was my favorite... I miss it A LOT

I was very disappointed when they switched the recipe from rice to pasta. The meal just isn't as good anymore. Bring back the rice!

Do you guys read the reviews that we take our time to write? It seems everyone is asking for the rice and you guys are still producing this. Was the rice that expensive? Please bring the rice back!!

I fear I don’t presently possess this level of passion for my frozen meals. I think that's fine, and it's probably fine for you too!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Reducing the carbon footprint of your frozen meals

As a result of a little online research, I was pleased to discover that much of the plastic packaging in the frozen meals I eat is indeed recyclable.  In my community of Springfield, Illinois, all numbers of plastic products are recyclable except for #6.  My most recent meal had one of those black plastic trays and it was a #1.  Of course, in order to recycle this tray, I had to clean it.  But even though the meal had some melted cheese involved, the tray still cleaned up rather easily; it was worth it to me to spend a few extra seconds at the sink to get it clean for recycling.

What was disappointing in my findings about recycling was that the cardboard boxes in which most frozen meals are packaged may not be recyclable.  It seems that boxes built for the freezer are sprayed with a plastic coating that protects the contents against freezer burn. (If you haven’t noticed this before, you might want to compare a frozen meal box with a cereal or cracker box and you’ll find this coating to be obvious.)  At any rate, it seems as if the coating makes these boxes unable to break down in the recycled paper pulping process, according to several websites. Prior to this research, however, I’d never been instructed to not include frozen meals boxes in with my other cardboard recycling.  This gives me pause…and hope…about the possibility that perhaps some facilities are able to recycle it.

Click here for information about Springfield, Illinois’ recycling details.  

A high-brow, vegetarian take on an old standard

Today’s meal is the Healthy Choice Roasted Red Pepper Marinara .  I find this to be a healthy, somewhat more flavorful version of the standard pasta-and-red-sauce concoction.  The pasta is a nine-grain cavatelli and it’s consistency is good.  The sauce, while much more pleasing in consistency and flavor than an old-school spaghetti meal, is not particularly challenging to the palette; red peppers do not really permeate the taste.  Yet this meal is part of a line of products that is designed to feel sophisticated.  That said, I would say this is a good meal for a day at the office when you need to give the illusion of sophistication while in reality, you’d rather just open a can of Spaghettios.

At only 270 calories, this meal is not a significant source of particular vitamins and nutrients.  15% of the RDV of Calcium and Vitamin C are the only mentionable nutrients involved (given the parmesan, romano and asiago cheeses, only 15% of Vitamin C is rather surprising).  Some will balk at the absence of meat, but I think it’s great to see vegetarian options available in the frozen meal section since multiple servings of meat daily are not necessary for continued good nutrition.  

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Meal Review Number Two

I have to start out by thanking everyone for all the great suggestions about different elements to highlight in a review of a frozen meal.  Is the packaging recyclable?  Can it be heated in a single programmable segment at full power, or is there a lot of cooking and half power, stirring, cooking at full power, and stirring.  And just how long does it take to cook it?  I will keep all of these suggestions in mind and incorporate them into future meal reviews.

Can a frozen meal really be spicy?

Yesterday for lunch I had the Healthy Choice Spicy Caribbean Chicken.  This was your standard-sized meal for the calorie-conscious, which is to say that the portion size seemed rather small.  Indeed, there were only 310 calories which I believe to be an impressively small amount for an entire meal, so it’s no wonder the portion size is small.  However, this mix of chicken, pineapple, black beans, and corn had brown rice as its base, giving it 30 grams of whole grain fullness (brown rice always seems to fill me up easily). 

The beans and the corn had an unfortunate consistency that made it seem like they had been dehydrated and then rehydrated.  The pineapples, while a great addition to a frozen meal entrĂ©e, had a less-than-flavorful canned quality.  The chicken was fine; not great, but fine.

As to the question of whether or not a frozen meal really can be spicy, I have my doubts.  This meal’s jerk sauce had a spicy level that was about equal with your standard “medium” salsa.  Personally, I don’t find this to be a terrible thing, but does that really qualify it as “spicy”?  Additionally, the entire meal seemed to have the same flavor.  No individual bites of chicken, corn, rice or beans seemed to stand out with their own flavor.  The pineapple, of course, was still noticeable in its sweetness, but not enough to help give this meal high marks in the category of flavor.  It *was*, however, enough to give a person 25% of their daily recommended value of vitamin C.  Not too shabby.

It should be noted that this meal *was* able to be cooked in a single shot of several minutes, without additional stirring and other inconveniences.  That's worth extra bonus points.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Welcome to Frozen Culinary 101

Most of us have heard of Julie & Julia, the book-turned-film about a young woman cooking her way through Julia Child’s cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I. It’s a lovely idea, in theory. But as a working professional and a brand-new mom on her own, I have no time for such a thing.

However, a girl’s gotta eat. So I’ve got another idea. I am going to eat my way through the single-serving frozen meal section of my local grocery store and write about it here.

For some time, I’ve been known around the office to be a significant consumer of frozen meals, but until now I’ve stuck to only a few brands and – when considering the vast choices available – only a few meal choices. But at my most recent visit the grocery store I noticed all kinds of red tags in the frozen meal section; quite a number of brands were on sale. So I bought a much wider variety, and I bought *a lot* (hooray for the basement deep freeze).

On Thursday, while enjoying the first of the new-to-me meals, it dawned on me that I don’t have to look upon my consumption of frozen meals with culinary and nutritional shame. It isn’t 1985. A frozen meal isn’t necessarily a slab of turkey meat with separate compartments for some dried peas and even drier mashed potatoes. There are healthy, lean options and “cooking technology” that enables vegetables to taste exponentially better than rubber. It is my hope to identify the better options available and share my findings with anyone interested.

The meal that started it all

The meal I enjoyed on Thursday was Marie Callender’s Pasta Al Dente Penne Garlic Chicken. In addition to the pasta and chicken, the dish included spinach, Roma tomatoes, and artichoke hearts. I must say I was quite impressed by the presence of artichoke hearts – not exactly a staple ingredient of frozen meals – though it should be noted that there were only *two* in my meal.

The chicken was tender and bite-sized, and unlike the artichoke hearts, there was a decent amount of it in this single-serving meal. The penne pasta was of a good consistency, another memorable aspect of this particular meal. I believe the reason for the al dente consistency of the pasta was the fascinating cooking technology utilized in the package. The vegetables, pasta, and chicken were in a colander-like plastic bowl that was nested inside of the actual bowl, with some space between the bottom of the colander and the bowl. In that space was the meal’s sauce, and space for the sauce to steam up through the holes of the colander to appropriately steam the vegetables, pasta, and chicken. Unlike other microwave meal technology I have experienced, this process worked impressively well to create a tasty meal.

It should be noted that the sauce for this meal, while quite tasty, was indeed quite garlicky. Perhaps this makes it not the best choice meal for the afternoon of an important meeting, performance evaluation, or anything involving face-to-face contact.