Friday, October 29, 2010

A note on the pricing of frozen meals

I am finding that the pricing of these meals is all relative.  Each time I walk into the grocery, some brand of frozen meals is on sale.  Watch those sales.  In order to maximize your spending, don’t have your heart set on a particular brand during a store visit, but know which meals you like from a variety of product lines and then buy whichever brands are cheapest during a particular trip to the store. 

So far, I have not spent more than $2.50 on any meal reviewed in this blog.  A few have been significantly cheaper than this, but $2.50 has been my top price, and most have seemed to land on or just under the $2.50 mark.  Judging from the price tags seen during my last few store visits, I should be able to maintain this top price and still have *plenty* of meals to review in the months to come.

Best chicken meat consumed so far

Today’s meal is the Healthy Choice Café Steamers Sweet Sesame Chicken.  This is a steamer in the same packaging style as my favorite Marie Callendar’s line; it cooks in a single shot, not even requiring the puncturing of the top film, and the bowl and colander are reusable or recyclable.  What was immediately notable about this meal was that instead of small chunks or strips of chicken (frequently the delivery method for chicken in a frozen meal), this meal contained just three fairly sizable pieces of chicken.  I believe it was the steaming cooking technology that gets credit for heating these sizable pieces sufficiently and for keeping the chicken moist and tender.  It really didn’t taste like chicken from a frozen meal!  I will have to eat more of this line to determine if the hefty-sized chunks of chicken are the norm or if it was just a fluke of this particular package.

I was less impressed, though not entirely disappointed, by the vegetables and the flavor of the meal overall.  The snow pea pods seem as though they’ve been intentionally flattened by an iron and they definitely have a “wet noodle” quality to them.  The carrots were fine.  The mushrooms were quite flavorful, though they were tiny, tiny button mushrooms (not sure I’d ever seen mushrooms that small before).  And in terms of flavor, the photo on the box clearly shows the meal swimming in sesame seeds, but I couldn’t identify any sesame seeds in my meal and the flavor of the sauce was not particularly distinctive, though not unpleasant. 

All in all, this was a good meal and I would buy it again just to enjoy the chicken again.  I noticed on the box that it represents 30% of the RDA of vegetables, so that even without too much in terms of vitamin content, it is still a pretty “healthy choice”. 

Calories:  340
Fat:  6 g / 0 g trans fat
Sodium:  330 mg
Notable good nutritional content:  40% Vitamin A / 25% Vitamin E / 20% each Niacin, Folic Acid, and Phosphorus
Notes on cooking:  4-5 minutes, single shot
Notes on packaging:  clear bowl and colander, reusable or recyclable

Monday, October 25, 2010

Frozen meals' nutritional report card

I have to tell you that I am woefully disappointed in the nutritional content of most frozen meals.  I am discovering more and more that “lean” does not necessarily equal “nutritional”.  Most meals can boast only mentionable percentages of one or two key vitamins.  That said, here are some important things to keep in mind:

  1. Take a multivitamin.  I don’t know that I need to say anything additional about this.  You know it’s a good idea.
  2. Consider thoughtfully how you will supplement your frozen meal.  Especially for those of us who consume our frozen meals for lunch at work, it is fairly unrealistic to think that we won’t need to eat anything else the remaining hours we work.  While the frozen meal may be good for giving us some calories, protein, and carbs, but may not suffice when it comes to nutrition, why not consider a piece of fruit?  What about some yogurt (again, preferably with fruit)?  Or my favorite from the past few days – some celery with peanut butter?  Yum, yum!  In addition to well-planned supplements providing you with additional needed nutrition, they might also prevent a 3 p.m. trip to the vending machine.
  3. You really should opt for the frozen meals that boast healthfulness.  I cannot even imagine the contents of those that do not claim at least “lean” or “healthy” and you likely won’t find me blogging about them.  Of course, these are marketing claims only; I will try to cut through the fat and call them like the contents read here on the blog.
  4. Consider your breakfast.  I know it doesn’t really have anything to do with this blog, but please eat breakfast.  You’ve been told by a million sources just how important it is.  In the past year or so I picked up a couple tidbits about breakfast that have stuck with me.  Unfortunately I don’t recollect the source of these tidbits, so take them with a grain of salt and/or look them up if you want to:  one tidbit was that sumo wrestlers do not eat breakfast because this helps them pour on the pounds later in the day.  The other was that if you ate a breakfast that contained *eggs*, you’d likely consume about 300 calories less over the course of the day than if you didn’t.  By consuming early in the day, you avoid some later-day mistakes! 

Have I mentioned fruit?

Yes, I believe I mentioned it in my last entry.  Fruit, I believe, is the nutritional saving grace of frozen meals.  Today's meal, the Healthy Choice Pineapple Chicken, contains 50% of the U.S. RDA of Vitamin A and 25% of Vitamin C.  I attribute it primarily to the pineapple, but it could also be the yummy addition of carrots and red peppers.  Additionally, this is a brown rice meal – kudos to the whole grain power of brown rice!  And there are only 190 mg of sodium, which seems amazingly low compared to what I’ve noted in other meals (560 mg in my most recent entry). 

Where this meal stumbles is in the chicken.  The chicken is defined in the ingredient list as “fried tempura fritter chicken breast chunks.”  Ew.  I’m just not sure that any kind of frozen and reheated tempura could ever be good, at least not when cooked in a microwave when it is already mixed with cooked vegetables, rice, and sauce.  Not a fan.  A few bites of it were tough and difficult to chew.  I believe there are better textured, better tasting meals of a similar recipe available and I intend to uncover them in the coming weeks.

Calories:  380
Fat:  7 g / 0 g trans fat
Sodium:  190 mg
Notable good nutritional content:  50% Vitamin A / 25% Vitamin C
Notes on cooking:  3 – 3 ½ minutes, single shot
Notes on packaging:  black tray, recyclable

Thursday, October 21, 2010

First Compartmentalized Tray

Today’s meal is the Healthy Choice Roasted Monterey Chicken.  This is part of the “Complete Meals” line from Healthy Choice, and it is easy to understand why.  More than any other meal I’ve reviewed thus far, this reminded me of the TV dinners of my youth.  What I mean by that is that the entrée, side dish, and dessert were each compartmentalized in the (recyclable) tray and I got the distinct feeling that I was indeed consuming an *entire meal* and not just an entrée that would likely need supplementing in order to fill me up (note: the package weighs in at 11 oz.).  But also, I believe it reminded me of the TV dinners of twenty-five years ago because even though it was named “Chicken Monterey,” implying a flavorful, distinctive dish, I found the flavor of chicken, mushrooms, and rice pilaf in a cheese sauce to be rather unmemorable, leading me to feel like it could have been named “Baked Chicken,” as it probably would have been named twenty-five years ago. 

The vegetable side was a dry concoction of corn, black beans, poblano pepper, and cilantro, although you could have fooled me on the cilantro because it had absolutely no flavor.  One would have to actually add some salt to bring out some flavor in this side, and I think we’ll save the discussion about sodium and these frozen meals for another day. 

The peach dessert, which contained whole grain rolled oats, caught my attention.  I do love both peaches and rolled oats, so this made it a winner in my book.  It cooked well too.  Additionally, I am starting to suspect that the addition of fruit is what makes the difference between a frozen meal having absolutely no nutritional value and starting to be worthwhile.  This meal has 35% of the RDA of Vitamin C, and 15% of Vitamin B12.  So, that’s something…?

Calories:  320
Fat:  8 g / 0 g trans fat
Sodium:  560 mg
Notable good nutritional content:  35% Vitamin C / 40% Folic Acid / 15% Vitamin B12
Notes on cooking:  4 minutes, stir, 1-2 minutes more
Notes on packaging:  Old School compartmentalized tray, recyclable

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Introducing the addition of labels

As a result of a reader suggestion, I’m adding some labeling tags that will make these blog entries sortable in a way useful to all readers.  By selecting any of the labels listed to the right, you can pull up all reviews that have been labeled in a particular way; I've gone back and labeled previous entries.  As you have suggestions about improvement of this labeling, or additional labels that should be added, please let me know.  

Another Marie Callendar Steamer…yum!  

I think I’m in love with Marie Callendar’s Fresh Flavor Steamers.  So far, I think that if I could only have one line of frozen meals for the rest of my life, this would be the line I’d choose.  Of course, I base this gut reaction solely on flavor and overall experience with the meal.  In the final analysis, issues of nutrition and calories must be incorporated into the assessment of the product, and that’s when I get somewhat bummed about these meals.

I recently enjoyed the Fettuccini Chicken Balsamic for the first time. As with the previously reviewed Pasta al Dente Garlic Chicken, the cooking technology is impressive with satisfying, tasty results.  The balsamic taste is wonderful and offhand, I cannot think of another frozen product that boasts balsamic.  However, this product is somewhat lacking in vegetables, causing me to pay close attention to its nutritional labeling, suspecting that it might be lacking anything substantial in terms of vitamin and nutrient content.  Indeed, that proved to be correct.  The vegetables in this product are spinach and mushroom – a tasty combo, but not of enough volume to generate much nutritional content.  Fifteen percent of the RDA of iron and 10% of Vitamin E are the only nutritious elements it boasts.  

Despite my sadness at the lack of nutritional mentionables, there are other positives to this line of products, including this particular meal.  I love that the cooking takes place in one single 3 ½ - 4 ½ minute shot, not even requiring the puncture of the plastic wrap for venting, and the bowl and steaming colander are reusable and recyclable.  

Calories:  440
Fat:  18 g / 0 g trans fat
Sodium:  990 mg
Notable good nutritional content:  15% Iron, 10% Vitamin E
Notes on cooking:  One 3 ½ - 4 ½ minute shot
Notes on packaging:  the bowl and steaming colander are reusable and recyclable

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A poor meal in poor packaging

Today’s meal is the Michelina’s Lean Gormet Sweet & Sour Chicken with Rice.  Unfortunately, this meal lived up to the Chinese white rice meal stereotype; I was hungry again almost immediately upon completion of the meal.  The chicken is cut in tiny, tiny cubes, which might make it a good option for your grade school-aged child, but the small bites were not particularly appealing to this adult.  The vegetables were not particularly memorable, but as is often the case for me, the bites of pineapple added a welcomed dimension of flavor, though not as memorable in this meal as in others I have eaten. 

I realize it is a choice to be made, but I am somewhat puzzled by the use of white rice in this lean meal.  Health-conscious choices in the 21st century nearly always opt for brown rice, so much so that I’ve grown unaccustomed to eating white rice.  I never particularly cared for white rice even before today’s whole grain craze, and it certainly doesn’t appeal to me now that it’s almost non-existent in my diet.

What I really want to write about, though, is the packaging of this meal.  It frustrates me in more ways than one.  It is one of those cardboard boxes that the meal is right inside; you actually cook the cardboard box in the microwave.  Now, for those of you who are too busy or lazy to do any cleaning and recycling of your frozen meal packaging, this is probably *less* of a waste than most of the other products out there.  But for those of us who generally clean and recycle any plastic trays and accompanying cardboard boxes, this packaging is a real disappointment because this box cannot be cleaned and therefore cannot be recycled! 

Additionally – and here’s my real frustration – the meal instructions are on the bottom of the box.  Which goes into the microwave.  And then comes out of the microwave because I'm having a busy day and forget the instructions as soon as I stick it in.  So I look at the instructions again and try to commit them to memory.  But there are two rounds of cooking involved and I can’t retain the information that long.  So after the first few minutes of cooking, I have to pull the meal out and hold it up high so that I can look at the instructions again to know what needs to happen for the second round of cooking.  I simply don’t have time for this and I look ridiculous with the meal up higher than my eye level reading from an already-open box.  Sigh!  I know these may seem like ridiculous complaints, but there are a lot of meals out there, and I simply don’t have to put up with less-than-ideal circumstances, especially for a meal that is not particularly memorable.      

Calories:  330
Fat:  3 g / 0 g trans fat
Sodium:  640 mg
Notable good nutritional content:  30% Vitamin A, 20% Vitamin C
Notes on cooking:  I can’t even give you these since I had to throw the uncleanable box away, but I know it involved two rounds of cooking.
Notes on packaging:  Boo, boo, boo!!  See above!!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fond Memories of TV Dinners

My mom cut this article out of PARADE magazine for me a couple weeks ago.  While it is about the TV dinners of old (heat in the oven in just 25 minutes – so simple and quick!) and the author’s childhood fondness of the TV dinner culture, one imagines that the sentiment could hold true for today’s frozen dinners, right?

Well, after I read the article and took a few moments to reflect fondly on my own childhood experiences with TV dinners, I considered the connection.  And there is definitely something lost in translation between the oven-cooked foil-packaged frozen TV dinners that became popular in the 1960s and the frozen meals of today.  In trying to put my finger on it, here’s what I’ve come up with:  it is generally not expected that you eat frozen meals *with* anyone.  Why is that?  Well, it seems as though oven-heated TV dinners could be cooked several at a time in the oven.  By contrast, most microwaves will only accommodate one frozen meal at a time and in the urgent, time-pressed world of 2010, most people simply don’t have time to cook two or more meals back-to-back in the microwave and wait for the second meal to finish cooking in order to enjoy the eating experience together.  Indeed, even when individuals at my office decide to eat lunch together, the experience that transpires is a constant rotation of microwave use and a standing and chatting while one person eats, generally finishing entirely before the other person’s meal has finished cooking. 

Is the missing collective enjoyment of frozen meals an indicator of greater ills in our society?  I certainly hope not, but only time will tell…if any of us have time to wait, that is. 

Do you have fond memories of TV dinners?  Please share them in your comments!

An old favorite of mine

I’ve been so busy trying new meals that I haven’t yet gone back to a favorite to write its review.  Today, though, my meal is an old favorite, Lean Cuisine’s Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto Chicken.  Oh, how I love thee!  After pondering it for today’s writing, I believe I like it so much because of the following:

1)   Black olives.  Sure, there may not be many, but you can’t beat the magic of a bite of black olive.

2)   Tomato pesto sauce.  Frozen meals seem to do red sauce the best, but an endless parade of spaghetti-style tomato sauces is a bore.  This one has just enough of the sun-dried tomato flavor to make it interesting.

3)   Cavatappi pasta. There is something about this curly, hollow pasta that makes it a good size and shape for inclusion in a frozen meal – hearty, and never rubbery, in my experience.

4)   Just the right size. This is a lean meal that doesn’t leave me hungry an hour later. 

I have bought this meal again and again, and will continue to do so.  Here are some other details that might help you decide about whether it would be good for you:

Calories: 270
Fat: 9 grams
Notable good nutritional content:  Iron 15%, Vitamin C & A 10%
Notable bad nutritional content:  570 mg sodium
Notes about packaging: black tray, recyclable
Notes on cooking:  4 ½ minutes cooking with one stir after 3 minutes

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Food thermometers and your frozen meal

Let’s talk about frozen meals and food thermometers.  What?  Food thermometers??  Do I even own a food thermometer??  Well, according to many manufacturers’ cooking instructions, it seems as though internal temperature testing is a critical component of frozen food preparation.  Indeed, in the meal I just enjoyed, the final cooking instruction was: “Internal temperature needs to reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit as measured by a food thermometer in several spots.”

Hmmm.  Read that again.  While still technically listed as an instruction, it is a passive statement that doesn’t make a demand of its reader.  It seems as though CYA tactics may be at work here.

But wait, this food has already been fully cooked, hasn’t it?  Well, yes.  But it seems as though a salmonella outbreak is still possible.  Earlier this year, the CDC reported that 30 people in 15 states became infected with an identical strain of Salmonella Chester, and many of the victims reported having eaten an identical Marie Callendar’s frozen meal in the week before they became ill. The CDC recommended testing frozen meals to assure that they reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit as a method to prevent Salmonella contamination. 

Do what you will with this information.  I’m considering a food thermometer for my pencil cup on my desk at work.  Maybe.  We’ll see. 

A frozen meal for the upper crust?

Today’s meal is the Healthy Choice Lobster Cheese Ravioli.  I believe it would only take one hand to count the number of times I’ve eaten lobster in my life.  Perhaps this is not an opinion held widely, but I sort of feel like lobster is a bit too rich for my blood.  So a frozen meal that contains lobster, albeit in a small, ground portion like in this ravioli, just *feels* sort of odd to me.  As I sat in my office, catching up on some emails from earlier in the day and pondering a financial spreadsheet, it just seemed like a weird thing to be eating. 

Lobster strangeness aside, there are several good things about this meal.  The sauce is a thin but tasty “vodka” sauce, according to the package; there’s a lot of it, which is good.  The yellow and green zucchini (is the word “zucchini” interchangeable with “squash”?  I’ve never been too sure…) developed the expected mushy consistency when it was heated, but the flavor was good.  The ravioli was somewhat tough; as a rule, it usually seems to me as though ravioli is often one of the tougher pastas out there, but it could also be that the circa 1977 microwave in the office contributed to the toughness (more on that microwave in a future post…). 

This meal is not particularly notable as a source of key nutrients; 20% of Calcium and Vitamin B12 are the only nutritional contents worth mentioning.  In the end, I don’t think I’d put this meal on a list of personal favorites, but it is good to know that there’s a frozen meal option with lobster meat, given the seemingly endless parade of chicken entrees.