Cold Case

Are the new frozen dinners any good?

Many moons before dissecting the demands of modern motherhood became a journalistic juggernaut, the late, great Erma Bombeck best encapsulated what having a child does to a person’s desire to prepare dinner: “When it comes to cooking, five years ago I felt guilty ‘just adding water.’ Now I want to bang the tube against the countertop and have a five-course meal pop out. If it comes with plastic silverware and a plate that self-destructs, all the better,” she wrote.

Hallelujah. As a vocational food writer and an avocational home cook, I spent some of my best times—ever!—preparing dinner for friends and family. Then I had a baby. Before you could say “Stouffer’s,” out of my freezer went the homemade organic chicken stock and in came the frozen pizzas. At last, I had discovered what millions of time-strapped Americans already knew: There is a quantitatively impressive world of frozen foods out there, and it’s getting bigger every day. According to the American Frozen Food Institute, it’s a $22 billion industry; the average American consumes 72 frozen meals a year.

Much literature about the history of frozen food focuses on an arbitrary breaking point sometime in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when moms started going to work in full force. But frozen foods were around long before that, thanks chiefly to field naturalist-cum-entrepreneur Clarence Birdseye. In the early 1920s, Birdseye patented a way of cooling fish to the freezing point, which he later adapted for meat, poultry, fruit, and vegetables. By 1929, he cashed in on his invention, selling his company to what’s now General Foods. The 1950s brought boil-in-bag meals, Swanson’s TV dinners, and Stouffer’s frozen meals. Today comes the marvelous confluence of science, sociology, and what frozen food producers are hawking as flavor, with the likes of five-minute tandoori chicken and butternut squash ravioli. The question is: Are any of these new-fangled frozen foods good?

The Test
The newer frozen meal options break down into three basic categories: organic food, meals endorsed by chefs or restaurants, and ethnic food. I tailored the test around a random sampling within these categories, omitting frozen pizza and old-fashioned entrees that have been on the market since the beginning of time.

I assembled a tasting panel of individuals with both personal and professional interest in frozen food. Dr. Penny Gordon Larsen, assistant professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Public Health and Medicine, graciously agreed to participate, along with three of her graduate students. In addition, I invited my fellow new parent friend—a picky eater, who more practically considers food “fuel.” And then there was me: a gal looking for transcendence in a box.

We sampled 14 single-serving meals in a blind taste-test. Tasters were instructed to rate the meals on a scale of 1 to 5 in taste and presentation, as well as nutrition. Panelists were also asked two value-oriented questions: Would you buy this? (“Yes” received one point; “maybe,” 0.5 points; and “no,” zero points.) And what should it cost? (Values listed are the actual cost of the meal, plus or minus the amount that tasters thought it ought to cost.)

The Results (from worst to best):

Confetti Rice Pilaf & Chicken with Honey BBQ Sauce (Organic Classics)

When asked what this entry was, every single taster listed “pork” as the protein. We could have forgiven pork that tasted like chicken—”tastes like chicken” being a universally understood phenomenon. But when real chicken tastes like pork, you’ve got a problem. The nutritionists were unimpressed: “Were there even any vegetables?” Other issues here: “Barbecue is too sweet”; “sauce is ugly and smells bad”; “meat has no flavor whatsoever.”

Taste and presentation: 1.7 out of 5
Nutrition: 1.4 out of 5
Would you buy this: 0 out of 6
Value: -4.89
Total: -1.79

Moroccan Stew (Moosewood)

Moosewood Restaurant, the famed “natural foods” temple, is responsible for publishing cookbooks that many call bibles. But this frozen dinner was dreadful—a brown-orange mush that received comments ranging from demure (“way too sweet and redolent of pumpkin pie spice”) to out-and-out peeved (“this is swamp water”). The nutritionists were not happy, noting it contained “not much that’s good for you” beyond “a few small vegetables.”

Taste and presentation: 1.3
Nutrition: 1.6
Would you buy this: 0
Value: -3.04
Total: -0.14

Chicken Vindaloo Bowl (Ethnic Gourmet)

The pseudo-authentic looking food photos on the package would have you believe that these meals could match those served in your favorite take-out joints. Our findings for this watery dish—said to taste like “curry, curry, curry” and “weak chicken goop”—suggest you stick with take-out. The nutritionists lambasted the meal for its overcooked vegetables stripped of nutritional value.

Taste and presentation: 2.25
Nutrition: 1
Would you buy this: 0
Value: -2.03
Total: 1.22

Farfalle Spinach Pesto Sauce (Moosewood)

Given this organization’s reputation we “expected strong pesto flavor” but “got weak, stupid pesto instead.” The major problem was the “watery” consistency, “like bland spinach soup.” As for health, “no fresh veggies and lots of carbs,” the experts said.

Taste and presentation: 2.3
Nutrition: 1.4
Would you buy this: 1
Value: -2.29
Total: 2.41

Amy’s Black Bean Enchiladas With Spanish Rice & Beans (Amy’s Kitchen)

Amy’s Kitchen is a very popular line of vegetarian frozen meals, yet no one here could figure out why. This entree “doesn’t have tons of flavor” and is “mild and bland.” And “everything is covered in enchilada sauce,” one nutritionist pointed out, so “not much good stuff.”

Taste and presentation: 2.5
Nutrition: 1.8
Would you buy this: 0.5 (“maybe, if it’s really cheap”)
Value: -2.16
Total: 2.64

Amy’s Teriyaki Bowl With Tofu (Amy’s Kitchen)

Similarly underwhelming was Amy’s foray into Asia, which panelists called “cloyingly sweet, too brown, saucy, and oatmeal-like”; one said that “the tofu looks and tastes like rubber.” It did score some points for nutrition thanks to “good brown rice” and “lots of vegetables.”

Taste and presentation: 2
Nutrition: 2.5
Would you buy this: 1
Value: -2.70
Total: 2.8

Chicken Santa Fe (Weight Watchers “Smart Ones“)

Weight Watchers assigns “points” to its meals for the millions participating in its weight-loss program, but this entree offers little for the masses. One taster called it a “failed gazpacho experiment”; another asked, “Is this called Ketchup Chicken?” As for nutrition, the veggies offered “some value,” but most found them overcooked. How many points add up to dud?

Taste and presentation: 1.4
Nutrition: 2.5
Would you buy this: 0.5
Value: -0.40
Total: 4.0

Café Classics Teriyaki Steak Bowl (Lean Cuisine)
Price: $

“Colorful” presentation of confetti-cut red pepper and carrot made for a strong first impression, but tasters’ responses quickly shifted. Some blamed the noodles (“OK texture, noodles not soggy but beef is bland”), some blamed the beef ("slimy”), and some blamed the flavor ("poison-like aftertaste”). The nutritionists were happy to see a few friends: “Some vegetables are here, at least.”

Taste and presentation: 2.4
Nutrition: 2.5
Would you buy this: 1.5 (“No, but my wife would”)
Value: -0.50
Total: 5.9

Chicken Tandoori With Spinach (Ethnic Gourmet)

Another Ethnic Gourmet; another bust. The nutritionists gave it a few points for being fairly healthy, with “lots of spinach; fiber is in the rice,” and tasters gave kudos for some “spicy” and “garlicky” flavor. But the texture was off—”chicken is slimy, wet, and slick.”

Taste and presentation: 2.5
Nutrition: 3.2
Would you buy this: 2 (“I actually do buy this”)
Value: -0.79
Total: 6.91

Chicken Fiesta Quesadillas (Archer Farms)
Price: $2.49

A bright spot on the horizon: Archer Farms is the in-house food brand of Target. Most found these “exactly what quesadillas should look and taste like,” thanks to “nice southwestern flavor” and “grown-up spice.” It fell down a bit on nutrition, given the cheese and lack of vegetables, and it lacked sophistication: As one taster put it, “I could easily make this myself.”

Taste and presentation: 3.6
Nutrition: 3
Would you buy this: 2.5
Value: +0.58
Total: 9.68

Linda McCartney Butternut Squash Ravioli
Price: $3.69

Linda McCartney’s legacy lives on in her line of frozen vegetarian food, which she launched in 1994. The nutritionists were mostly pleased: “Good yellow vitamins; lots of carbs, though.” And everyone agreed that the “flavors are not typical of a frozen dinner; like the sage sauce.” One taster went so far as to say you “could serve this on a plate and no one would know it is a frozen dinner.”

Taste and presentation: 4
Nutrition: 2.5
Would you buy this: 5
Value: +0.23
Total: 11.73

Organic Seven-Grain Pilaf (Seeds of Change)
Price: $3.69

Surprise, surprise. This may “look like weirdo vegetarian food,” but tasters found it “ends up tasting pretty good,” with its “good parmesan and almond flavors” and “hearty, risotto-like presence.” The nutritionists were in heaven, applauding “lots of vegetables and whole grains” and “lots of broccoli!”

Taste and presentation: 3.7
Nutrition: 4.1
Would you buy this: 4 (both “no” votes were “because of the raisins”)
Value: +0.06
Total: 11.86

Blue Ginger Tangerine Beef and Leeks Noodle Bowl (Ming Tsai)

Food Network celebrity chef Ming Tsai is responsible for this “very contained and pretty” bowl of fun, judged to have “good orange flavor” and beef that is “lean, good, and not tough.” The nutritionists were happy that it “has pea pods” but noted “it could use more vegetables” and is also “a little greasy.”

Taste and presentation: 3.7
Nutrition: 3
Would you buy this: 5
Value: +1.09
Total: 12.79

Whole Kitchen Thai Red Curry With Shrimp (Whole Foods Market)

We warmed to this meal in no small part because it was attractive. But it wowed us with its abundant green beans and a note of authenticity—one taster commended it for its “strong lemongrass, garlic, and galangal.” An added bonus: The rice accompanying many frozen dinners is soggy; this meal produced a fragrant, even fluffy product. Another factor: shrimp. Most shrimp we consume, especially by those living in landlocked regions, is frozen. As a result, the shrimp was deemed far tastier than the watered-down, flavorless chicken and beef in many other frozen meals.

Taste and presentation: 4.4
Nutrition: 2.9
Would you buy this: 6
Value: +0.30
Total: 13.6

The Verdict

Going into this experiment, I wondered if these frozen meals would save me more time and money than good old-fashioned ingenuity in the kitchen. It takes me just over four minutes to make that Frasier-worthy dinner of tossed salad and scrambled eggs, along with a slice of buttered toast. The cost of that meal is equivalent to a frozen dinner, but all the food is fresh. I have to say that I would prefer a thrown-together homemade meal over all but two or three of these frozen dinners. But between you and me, if your Whole Foods runs out of the Thai red curry with shrimp, you know who to blame.