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.


  1. Well now I'm glad I stayed up way later than I should have or I might have missed your Facebook post! This should be an interesting project. I'm going to have to let a friend of mine know about it, too; Melody Fury, aka GourmetFury (, host of Vancouver Food Tour and food blogger. She will probably find this project fascinating.

  2. I'm also glad I didn't miss this! I would be interested to hear about the packaging of your various choices. I have passed up certain ones in the past because I felt like they weren't very earth-friendly. Was the colander thingy recyclable?

  3. You know, I threw the colander in the recycle bin, but I didn't *actually* pay close enough attention to whether it was truly recyclable. The next time I have one of the Marie Callender steamers, I will make note.

    It is great to hear from readers about what other items might be important points in a review of a frozen meal. This is a good one. Another pointed out to me by another reader is the time it takes to microwave and whether or not there is a cook - stir - cook hassle involved. Both good notes for future reviews!

  4. Hi Carly! Having just eaten one of these MC meals and being in the land of all things recyclable, I can tell you that the colander portion is also a "5" and is able to be recycled (at least here in the Portland, OR metro area).

    (I should clarify and say that we aren't supposed to recycle lids, since they get stuck in the machinery, but I didn't think the steamer qualified as a lid.)

    I'll be following your feed with interest. Thanks for starting the project! Being on shift work and stranded at the job site at odd hours, I'm a slave to frozen meals much of the time.

  5. Thanks for the clarification, ma'am! I'm doing a little research on recycling at this very moment and will report more in my next post.